I knew a thirty-three-year-old psychiatrist who really believed that their parents endured sexual intercourse on a total of three occasions: once, to conceive her older brother, once to conceive her younger brother, and once to conceive her. They put themselves through the ordeal for very important reasons, namely to have a family. Everybody else was different of course--but she felt sure she knew her parents.
I wasn't surprised to encounter the same attitude in my son, who just turned eleven. I was just about to enter the room when, through the door, I heard him telling my husband that he'd just read on the net about a couple who wanted to have children but couldn't, so they got themselves a sperm donor. What was that? Did that hurt? Did they, like, have to cut the donor open and operate on him? Or, like, did he have to pull it out, like peeing or something?
I know that feeling of being sideswiped by a child's awkward question--rather, by the question or by the moment that makes you, the mom, feel awkward. Like the time the critical mom's husband forgot to lock the bathroom door when he was taking a shower. The daughter, then three, raced in, made observations, and ran out to announce the important news to a roomful of guests: "Guess what? Daddy has a peanuts!!"
We let her know we were glad to hear this, and changed the subject. Standing on the other side of the closed door in which my eleven-year-old had just asked his dad how the sperm got out, I could hear my husband clearing his throat in that desperate way one clears it when trying to buy time. I stayed outside the door, thinking the kid probably preferred to talk to his father about this stuff. Naw, to tell the truth, I was a coward, ready to let my husband handle the tough stuff. Finally my husband said, "Well, I'd rather tell you about that when you're older." Silence descended, and then an "okay, daddy." Maybe both of them are relieved, I thought and entered the room. My husband developed a sudden need to brush his teeth, as he said, and left.
"Say, mommy," said the eleven-year-old conversationally, "When a man and a woman can't have a baby and they hire a sperm donor to get the baby, then how does the semen get out? Do they have to cut the guy open or something? Or does he have to pull on his penis like peeing? They must have to operate on him, right?"
"Uh," I said, "Just a sec," and I left the room on the pretext of finding something I'd left in the bathroom. In the hall I met my husband, asked him if I should just give an honest answer I thought he could understand, since the kid thought he could be injured by being a sperm donor. Yes, thought my husband. So then I went back in and said, "Well, it doesn't hurt at all, it's a natural process. You know what an orgasm is?" Yes, he had heard that word in school, in the sex education class that he had hated, reading the book the teacher made all the eight-old-boys read and which gave him stomach aches and made him say "Yuck," because "it's all about tickling breasts and hairy penises, mommy." I didn't go on to define the term again; I just let it register as that unpleasant topic he'd had to study in the third grade.
"Well, that's what it is. It's like Aladdin's magic lamp," I added, "You know, he rubs it and he gets three wishes?"
At this point the fourteen year old in the corner started to chortle and I shot him an evil look. So what if I'd mixed up my folk tales: I'd answered the kid's question, sort of, in an age-appropriate way, right? A good thing I read Freud when young. He does occasionally help with awkward questions. The eleven-year-old was relieved to hear that sperm donation remained a painless and harmless process, and the fourteen-year-old relished his broader knowledge and appeared to be enjoying a few minutes of smug reflection on the topic. The eight-year-old daughter was otherwise engaged visiting some cows and cats of whom she is particularly fond in her uncle's barn, and I was glad of that.
Later that day, the kids were discussing names of characters in the Harry Potter books. "Narcissa," mother of the nasty Malfoy, whose name means "bad faith," obviously came from Narcissus, the guy who dies because he starves to death when he cannot tear himself away from the beauty of his own reflected image in a pool. Andromeda, I told the kids, was a beauty chained to a rock but rescued by Perseus, and then a galaxy got named after her. And what about Bellatrix, they wondered. Well, the Latin word for war is "Bellum," and she's warlike. "Bella" is also beautiful, and her looks make her dangerous. And trix? Well, she's tricky, or maybe that part of the name is inspired by "vixen," a woman who is dangerous or foxy or very attractive. Sharp gasp from my German-speaking eleven year old.
"Mommy!" What did you say!"
The fourteen-year-old explained that there was a German word that, although spelled differently, sounded just like the English word "vixen," but was not a noun but rather a verb meaning "to masturbate."
"Oh," said the monolingual critical mom. "I didn't know. Let's get back to reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. And so we did.
Distraction, a great book, for instance, is another wonderful way of avoiding those awkward conversations you will someday have to face.