My daughter was about four years old when I had to explain how babies are made.
It wasn’t the first time that I suspected she was smarter than me, but it was the first time that I realized I may as well surrender, and not even try to outsmart her.
This, after spending my entire pregnancy bargaining with the universe on all that I hold holy—my red Converse and Led Zeppelin albums—that I please, in the name of every great guitar lick ever played, please, God, do not give me a “gifted” child.
I just want one of those average ones who says “oh,” and nothing more, when you give them a bull shit answer intending to placate them. But no. The moment she asked me how a penis got hard, I knew I was done for.
It was a spring day. We had driven out to some nursery outside the city to look at flowers and look for inspiration for our yard. It was one of those nurseries that had hot cider, little crafts and a flock of family chickens that roamed freely, tempting children to chase them in a universally recognized game that looks like the lovechild of Dodge Ball and Whack-A-Mole.
But Celia stopped in her tracks and was just watching. I didn’t think much of it, because this was the exact same method she employed when she played soccer with other little kids. Stop, watch stuff happen around her, then wander off and do her own thing. She mastered the ability to exclaim “why on earth would I do that?” loudly without making a sound, long before the teenage years when it is more commonly deployed.
I finally realized what she was looking at.
We both stopped then, and watched one chicken jump on top of another chicken. She asked me what they were doing and I simply said, “making babies.” My general strategy for answering “hard” questions with her was always going to be to answer them directly, accurately and not offer any more information that what she asked for. I was thrilled. It worked. She said, “okay” and then announced she needed a potty.
My parenting was rocking like socks on a rooster.
An hour or so later, we climbed into the giant old Mercedes that we had bought for her babysitter to drive her around in. I made fun of the car, because it was a gold Mercedes the size of a living room, with sheepskin seat covers—the works. We had bought it because if some 18 year-old was going to drive our baby around, we wanted her doing it in something that could be driven into a brick wall and our daughter would survive.
As I was getting ready to back out, Celia asked if we could call her dad. So we did. I dialed, and unbuckled my seat belt to stretch back there and hand her the phone. He answered, and I melted as her little voice said, “hi daddy.” There were “what’s ups” and pleasantries exchanged, and then she said, “Hey, daddy, did you know that chickens jump on each other to make the babies come out?”
And, we’re off.
“Mommy, why was the chicken jumping on the other chicken?”
It did occur to me that I didn’t know, in fact, if they were making babies. Come to think of it, I had no idea how chickens made babies, besides the whole laying eggs thing. But I figured it couldn’t possibly be that different, so I just went with my strong working knowledge of human reproduction, and went in.
This was my first mistake.
“Well, the man chicken is putting a seed in the woman chicken.”
“How does he get the seed in there?”
“With his penis.” Yes, my daughter knew all the anatomical names for all the body parts.
“His penis is a seed?”
“No, his penis is a long tube that the seed comes out of so it can go very far inside the woman, where the egg is, and the seed gets planted in the egg.” Yes, I was already drowning.
“But he doesn’t leave his penis in there?”
“No, the penis comes out.” Silence. We were good. I felt a little better. It was a short-lived feeling.
“Is that what you and daddy did to make me?”
“So he jumps on you?”
“And his penis puts the seed inside you.”
“But mommy, his penis is mushy, not pokey, how does it get in, it’s mushy.”
No, I am not fucking kidding. Logically, she was probably imagining putting mashed potatoes in a sippy cup, or something. For what it’s worth, she’s in engineering school now, so retrospectively, this is no surprise. At the time, it was a searing shock.
Deep breath. Another deep breath. ”It gets hard, so it gets pokey.”
Silence. That worked. Pokey worked.
“How does it get hard?”
Someone kill me!
Really, how does it get hard? Who asks that? Little kids who will grow up to be engineers, that’s who. You know who doesn’t ask that? Average kids, the complacent ones, the one that I asked for when I was pregnant, that’s who. How the fuck did the stork story live for so long? Seriously, had no one ever had this conversation before me, and don’t kids talk to each other? Isn’t it their job to teach each other about sex so that we, bumbling parents, can avoid this?
Fine. I’ll answer it.
“Penises get hard when they are excited. Like when you’re excited and you jump up and down and tense all your muscles. Same thing. And when they’re hard, they can get inside to plant the seed.”
“How does it get excited?”
Seriously? I’m looking around the car for the candid camera. More importantly, I’m looking for the person who can successfully train a four-year-old to ask all these questions, because I am going to hire them, full time.
“It gets excited because it feels good for a penis to go inside a vagina, so it gets excited that it gets to go inside, like you get excited when you get to do something fun, like play in the park.”
“So penises like to go in vaginas and plant baby seeds?”
“Yes, honey, they do.”
At this point, I no longer enjoy silence. It means there’s something scary coming. Just like in the movies. I looked in the rear-view mirror, and she looked like my regular adorable kid, but I could see the knife-wielding maniac baby inside her brain winding up to the tune of satanic banjos. She smiled. I shuddered.
“But mommy, if it feels good, how come you only do it once?”
What? What was she talking about, how did she make that leap, how—oh, she’s an only child. Right. So that’s totally logical. I knew the easy answer, the easy answer was “because we only wanted you.” I wanted to say that. I really did. I almost said it.
But here’s the thing. Even at that little age—and God knows, with that huge brain—I didn’t want her to think that sex was something you only did for procreation, when, in fact, the recreation part of sex is pretty much the best part. I mean, of the 86 bajillion times I’ve had sex, only three or four of them were to have a baby. The rest of them were because, sex!
“People do it lots of times, just because it’s exciting and feels good. Kind of like going to the park, just because you want to.”
“So the penis doesn’t always have a seed?”
“No, the penis doesn’t always have a seed.” This is factually accurate, just not really what she was asking. And I knew it. But she’s four, for chrissake, it’s okay.
“Does it feel good for the woman, or just the penis.”
“It feels good for the woman too.”
“Mommy? Does Papa Bob know that Mama Penny had Papa Don’s seed and how come Papa Don doesn’t make a baby with Frank?”
I tried to explain love, divorce and the fact that my dad is gay, but was married to my mom before he dealt with all that. I admit, it was not graceful. I mean, penises are one thing, but guilt, shame, confusion and social pressure, how do you explain that to a four year-old?
“Mommy? I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.”
Really. At four. I had a four year-old teenager. Awesome.
“What makes you say that?”
“I think we need a book.”
Frankly, at this point, I’m good with a book. I want out of the hot seat. So we drove straight to a bookstore and got a copy of Where Did I Come From. We did buy it, but we sat in the store and read it first.
And there it was, right there in the beginning, an egg and a sperm. My incredible, incredulous child looked up at me and said, “Mommy, why did you call it a seed when it’s a sperm?”
I am sunk.
I was reminded of that, years later, when she informed me that chickens don’t have penises.
And I may be the only sex-educator on the planet who is really grateful that my daughter doesn’t want to talk to me about sex, ever again.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman