How I Learned About Sex: A lesson in what not to doRachel Sherman
When it came to my parents’ decision to tell me about sex, there must have been some prompting. I must have asked over and over again, not satisfied with my father’s pat answer of “It’s a special kind of kiss.” Surely, I strong-armed him with my four-year-old hands, gripped his collar, demanded: “Tell me, Dad! I know you are lying! Tell me the truth!” After years of being fooled, I must have had enough. Otherwise, why would my father, in the maroon Formica kitchen of my youth, with it’s round wooden table that I sat at, draw me a picture of two people having sex when I was still in preschool?
Picture this: a stick figure of a man, his penis the side of a right angle pointing up at the white sky of the page; a woman stick figure, lies on him, parallel; two bubbles for heads on top of each other.
Now picture this from waist-high eyes. This is what my father drew.
My father is a doctor, he’s used to diagrams and charts. When he got remarried and got a new apartment, he drew me a blueprint of his home on a napkin at a hummus restaurant where we met so I would understand where he now lived. I was 31 then, not yet a mother, and had few thoughts on how I had learned about sex and how I planned to teach my future offspring. I watched as he sketched, a horrible drawer, somehow convinced that his words were never enough.
When I had my baby girl, sex was the last thing I thought about. But now that she is two and a half, petting my pubic hair and asking my husband to sing songs about his penis, I have begun to wonder: What will I say to her when she asks? When will she ask? Will I draw a diagram?
I would like to think that the answer is NO. I am hoping she will wait for a long time to even wonder. But if we are to have another child – the reason I had been asking when I was four, according to my father – how will I explain my growing belly?
It seems there are two ways to go in parenthood: deciding to become more like your own parents, or running from everything they stood for. My father’s parents never told him about sex, so he wanted to make sure I didn’t enter kindergarten confused. He did things differently. Hence the diagram. (Hence my preoccupation? How much damage can one diagram do?)
The decision about telling my daughter how she was made is, like most things, much bigger than the words I will use. I know this because of the years I spent misunderstanding, trying to connect those stick figures to the people I saw in front of me. Trying to imagine them, line drawings made flesh, into parents; the woman – my mother – on top.
For a long time, I thought that the stick of the penis was strong enough to hold the woman up, say, like your parents hands do when playing airplane. I thought the woman could balance, parallel, the penis wedged in her bellybutton, her arms flying out.
From the drawing I surmised that, the man’s penis, once inside the woman, stayed still there, and that two people moved together, like one whole entity, only their heads separating to kiss. I thought two people were glued together to make babies, locked and loaded, moving like a wave.
This, from my father’s diagram. So that when I got older, when I finally did have sex, I was sure I was doing it wrong.
This, from the haunting of the figures, drawn out of love, I assume.
There are so many ways in which I had thought I would be a different parent from my parents, but as my daughter grows older I find myself in traps I know no other way out of. Along with the surprise that so many of the parenting clich’s are actually true, has come the realization that perhaps my parents, as parents, had no other choice than to act as they had; their choices are now understandable, and often not far from my own.
As I see myself breastfeeding for too long, losing my temper, and using phrases like “make nice” as my parents did, I worry that one thing will lead to another. It seems it has come to this: the more I understand my parents, the more money I will have to save for my own daughter’s impending therapy.
When I go down this road, I take solace in my one bit of hope. Although my mother so often reminds me how much my daughter reminds her of my childhood self, my daughter is not me. Mixed in my daughter is my husband, his knack for numbers, his practicality, his big lashed eyes. My husband is also here to throw in his own parental rebellion or mimicry, which we combine to make the soup of our knowledge and rules and love.
Just because I became a cheerleader in high school simply because my mother never had been one doesn’t mean I have to take every oppositional route. I do not have to take my daughter’s sexual education into my own hands, because my mother did not.
Conversely, because my father drew a diagram which I quickly scribbled over after he was done, attempting to make it into anything else, deciding on a black house in which nothing inside could be seen, doesn’t mean I will draw a diagram for my daughter too, attempting the same narrative and telling of it.
As of now I do not have any set plan, and this freedom in the open-ended hope of the future is all my daughter needs to know.