Through the Wardrobe

Through the Wardrobe

3167803103By Melissa Knox

“I am a tomboy,” I announce.  I’m eleven, I’m wearing black high tops, like my younger brother, and Oshkosh overalls.

Mom is holding the drawings of big-boobed girls that I did with my friend Danielle. Danielle’s mom says the drawings are disgusting.

Mom’s face shrieks the same message, even though she is an artist and she has told me that what Danielle and I are doing is called “life drawing.”  I never showed Mom my drawings. She must have gone in my room.

“These proportions are all wrong.  The arms are too long for the body, the head too large . . .”

I squirm.

The drawings are girlie-girlie but I liked them until Mom saw them.

I grab them and rip them up.

“I’d rather be a boy.”

“Do you have a boy’s name?  Mom wears baggy shirts and jeans and a newspaper boy’s cap.

“It might be Bucky. Maybe Honey, but maybe Bucky.”

Lately, when I get hit in the chest with a baseball, it hurts.  I’ve tried hitting myself in the chest and that hurts, too.  Before, it didn’t.  Maybe if I slam my fists against my nipples I won’t get breasts. Mom’s face—Is she going to cry?

While I decide on Honey or Bucky, my mother calls her psychoanalyst.

***

Mom and I are sitting in the kitchen of a rented house on India Street in Nantucket.  I am enjoying the sunset sliding across the widow’s walks across the street, drifting off into daydreams of the beach, looking forward to biking to Cisco or Madaket, wondering whether I’ll see bayberry bushes along the way, anticipating going to Arno’s on Main Street for blueberry pancakes, and hoping that the lady who sells my favorite chocolate fudge still has her shop.

As I am finishing dinner, she explains that her therapist asked her to ask me something. “Do you want to have your vagina cut out and a penis sewn in?” The question shoots from my mother’s mouth. Her eyes widen in shock, as if someone had just cursed or farted or both.

“No, Mom,” I say, in a please-pass-the-butter voice. I don’t want to imagine someone hacking off a penis and cutting me where it really hurts in order to attach the thing, but I can’t get the image out of my head.

My fascination with Dracula and vampires has been growing before she pops her question and I am a longtime fan of Barnabas Collins, the sensitive vampire in Dark Shadows, but Mom’s question mobilizes my interest.

Early that summer, she mentions how much she enjoyed a girl’s camp in Vermont.

“When I was your age, I went swimming, I went canoeing, we sang songs—”

“How long does camp last?” I ask. But she is lost in happy reminiscence.

“We made campfires, we climbed mountains, we—”

“HOW MANY WEEKS?”

“—roasted marshmallows, we learned archery, we even put on, let me see, which Gilbert and Sullivan? I know I sang—

“Mom!  HOW LONG CAN I GO FOR?”

“—The piney air was . . . What?”

“I want to go!  How long does the camp last?”

“Oh, well, it’s a whole eight weeks, but if you don’t want to go that long—”

“I want to go!”

When my summer camp uniform arrives, I tell myself to relax (“Don’t get a nosebleed!”), open my closet, push my way behind the racks of dresses, the school uniforms, and the coats, to the very back, where I tap the cedar wall and pretend, one last time, that it is melting away, such that I find myself crunching across a winter-white landscape on my way to the faun’s house in frosted-over Narnia. I’ve practically memorized the chapters in which the White Witch tempts Edmund with magically enhanced Turkish delight, whips out her wand to turn Santa into stone, and finally gets her hash settled by the now-rehabilitated Edmund. I’d tie her to the stone table myself and send an army of ten-foot tall ogres and rheumy-eyed hags with knives and pitchforks after her. Some of the meaner giants would sharpen the stone knife for me.

My mother sews in my nametags and then drifts into painting little green trees up the legs of the kitchen sink.  She concocts inedible dishes she calls “Chinese food” out of several breakfasts worth of leftover scrambled eggs and a few anemic scallions from the back of the crisper.  She needs to talk to my father—right now—as the ice clinks in his fourth gin-and-tonic.

I start packing, even though camp won’t start for another four weeks. At night, I try on the uniform and am delighted to find I’ll need a belt to hold up the shorts, that the green knee socks can be pulled over my knees, that the hiking boots (L.L. Bean “Ruff-Outs”) require Kleenex in the toe for me to be able to walk in them without my feet slipping around until I trip, and that I’ll have to roll the sleeves of my black watch plaid camp shirt up so they don’t flop over my wrists.

These clothes have to fit me for a long time. I’m planning to wear them for maybe a year, if I can’t afford to buy clothes on my own once I make my getaway.  I could maybe escape during summer camp or right before my mother picks me up.  I’ll need a winter coat, but somewhere down the line I’ll find one in some Salvation Army thrift shop. Maybe I can get into an orphanage. I’m sure they take fifth-graders.  Or I’ll stow away on the Nantucket steamship, pretend to be an orphan and get adopted by a family there.

Or maybe I’ll decide to stay.  Anything could happen during those eight weeks. By the end of summer camp, some mysterious transformation, fueled entirely by my wishes, might occur.  When my parents and brother come to pick me up they’ll look like extras from the set of Leave it to Beaver. If that’s too much to hope for, then at least they’ll resemble The Addams Family. I won’t recognize them. My mother will call my father “honey,” a word she has never uttered, and even though her voice will be pleasantly low, unlike anything I’ve ever heard at home, I’ll know her immediately. My father will smile and bow like Lurch, and also like Lurch, won’t talk. My brother, inconspicuous as Wednesday Addams perching demurely in a corner, will sit inertly in the car the whole time my trunk is being loaded and speak a single sotto voce “hello” when I climb in for the ride home.

Even if none of these things happen, maybe I’ll befriend some other camper whose parents have always wanted another daughter, or maybe a sister for their little Clara, yes, a companion for their lonely, sickly child who has a cleft palate. I’ll play Heidi and get her up to speed by helping her learn to speak—and to climb every mountain, too.  Then they’ll have a good excuse to lavish upon me their considerable wealth and lasting affections, and I’ll fit right in to their family. It’ll be easy. They’ll be so grateful to me for saving the child they had almost given up for lost. A whole eight weeks! Yes, anything can happen.

Near the end of our drive to camp, Mom and I stop at a roadside restaurant for dinner, and I dive into my chicken with gravy and wild rice, eating so quickly I hardly taste it. Suddenly I–who am so allergic to nuts that in my thirties a boyfriend’s kiss will turn my lips into a red welt after he eats a hazelnut—feel my throat begin to swell.  I can hardly breathe.  I wave at Mom, sitting opposite me, because I can barely talk. The skin on my hands, my arms, is bright red and itchy. Quarter-sized hives are popping out all over me. I am scratching like an ape.

“Oh my goodness, you look tired.   We should get you to bed.”

“My wild rice gravy has nuts in it.”

“Really?  Oh dearie, dearie me.  Your throat does sound a bit scratchy.  Would you like a little dessert?  Or maybe some juice?”

“Mom, I need a doctor.”

“A doctor?” she sounds fuzzy, like someone who is just waking up but would rather put her head back down on the pillow.

“I really need one now.”

“Oh,” she fumes. “Let me see.  Okay.  Wonder if I have enough gas.” We get in the car and she begins driving. The car edges forward reluctantly.

“Oh, Melissa, look at the deer!” Mom yelps, “It’s so pretty!” She slows to a crawl and points. “Oh, I’d love to paint that!  We could stop for a minute.”

“Mom, I need a hospital. Please.  Right away.  Take me to a hospital.”

“A hospital? Oh, okay. If you really think so.” She shakes her head.  If I would only calm down and notice the countryside I wouldn’t have these problems. She points out another deer frolicking through the birch trees.

I see a state trooper on the side of the road and tell her to stop and ask him.

“We don’t want to bother him, do we?  After all—“

“Pull the car over!”

My mother rolls down her window and tells the state trooper it’s so good of him to chat with us. She hopes it’s no bother. Is there a doctor around here or a hospital?

I rap on my window, say, “Help!”

He looks at my face and tells Mom to follow his car.

By the time we get to the small local hospital, I can no longer see or walk. I lose consciousness. I wake on a gurney, in my hand an envelope of red capsules with stripes that remind me of candy canes and Christmas.  My mother informs me that I have been given a large shot of adrenaline. I have been unconscious for some time, hours, apparently, and she has on her face the look of a child whose parents arrived two hours late to pick her up. Mom takes me to the B&B near the camp, where I spend three days in bed. She reads to me and provides stale sandwiches.

Meanwhile I imagine the plates of home-made blancmange decorated with fresh mint leaves I’d serve up (the way Jo waits on Laurie in Little Women) if Clara of the ruined soft palate were lying where I am, and if I were a rosy-cheeked Heidi, feeling considerably perkier than I do right now. I relish the ability to breathe, but am shaky whenever I get out of bed. I look at Mom humming a little tune under her breath and murmuring about what a lovely lake we’re on and wouldn’t I like to go swimming?

I realize that I’ll need to check all restaurant food myself very carefully from now on. Not to mention learning to cook, something I will do by watching my father, whose love of Southern fried anything dominates our cuisine at home.

A few pounds thinner, I join my tent-mates three days after camp starts.  I enjoy the piney aromas and the quiet.

The counselor, blond, plump and sweet, introduces the girls, suggesting we all tell what our Daddies do.

“My Daddy’s a bobbin manufacturer,” says a pretty redhead with wide-spaced eyes.
“My Daddy says we’ll have a fine old time,” says the other girl, shy and genteel.  “He’s a lawyer.”

My father conceals his mini-bottle of Gordon’s London Dry Gin in his shirt pocket when our family eats at the Moon Palace restaurant, where we always have chicken with snow peas.  Dad pours the gin into his water glass.  When the waiter’s back is turned, Dad pockets a few pieces of cutlery.

I don’t think either of these girls has a Dad like mine.

I like the Chinese restaurant meals, because Dad gets such a kick out of snitching the fork and knife, plus not paying for his drink, that he doesn’t yell or slap anyone.  He grabs my hand on the way home and yells, “You walk with Daddy.”

“I hate my father,” I say to the group of camp girls.

The counselor’s eyebrows go up.  The shy girl invites me to play cards, the redhead says she loves cheese fondue.

A week after I arrive, the summer camp director sends my mother a letter about your very articulate young lady.  What she means is that although I’m surrounded by peaceful Vermont lakes and pine trees, I’m obsessed with Count Dracula.  My tent mates are sick of hearing about how much blood drips from his teeth. The camp director’s letter adds that I burst with ideas and that I have so much to offer other children in the way of lively companionship.  She means that I like to pull the legs off Daddy Long Legs. I like to pour salt on a slug.  She’s noticed that I prefer hiding under my bed with a flashlight, reading, never learning anyone’s name or talking, except while gobbling meals, when I open my mouth and stories pour out. I talk non-stop at the camp dinner table, where no one ever slaps me and no one has ever been slapped.

When camp is over in late August, my mother comes by herself to pick me up. I’m glad she did not bring Dad.  There won’t be fighting in the car.  After we’re back in New York, my counselor sends my parents a long letter.  She wonders if my fetish for the bizarre may be a substitute for carrying on a relationship in which she feels uneasy, in other words that it is a shell to avoid letting other people know that she does not have as much self-confidence as she often shows on the surface.  I laugh as my mother, casting me a doleful look, reads this out loud.   If I could fool my counselor, then I could fool other people too, and I almost feel self-confident. 

“What is going on with you?” asks Mom, bursting into tears.

“Melissa talked a great deal about sex, especially at the beginning of the summer,” writes the camp director in her own report at the end of the summer.  She seems astonished. Sex is indeed one of my favorite topics and I could not seem to stop looking for it everywhere. At camp, I told the other girls about the movie version of To Sir With Love, which none of them had seen.  The film version, I told them, didn’t use the scene in the book in which a girl throws a used sanitary napkin into the fireplace in a school classroom. Sanitary napkin! Blood! Menstruation! Which has something to do with sex! And I kept harping on this moment with my bemused campmates.

At camp I felt like an anthropologist visiting an unknown tribe I might like to join, and nothing reassured me more than the sight of other campers laughing at my antics. Stories of Catherine the Great getting crushed by a horse being lowered, for erotic purposes, by crane, fascinate me. I tell them. Repeatedly. I pretend to be a vampire. “My name is Count Dracula and I come to suck your blohhh-huuh–huuhd,” I say. I think this is very funny.  I say it again and again.

Neither vampires nor sex stories blot out my most unforgettable moment, the one I keep trying to exfoliate with the energy of a dragon shedding his skin, but which follows me everywhere.  I think of it often, and when I do, I try to shift my attention to my favorite joke, which goes like this:  a young lady is just about to marry.  She asks her mother to find her a black lace negligee and fold it carefully into her suitcase.  Mom forgets and just packs a pink flannel nightgown.  On the wedding night the groom gets shy, saying he will undress in the bathroom and that the bride should not look.  She opens her suitcase, finds the pink flannel nightgown, and cries, “Oh, it’s all pink and wrinkly!“  The groom yells, “I told you not to look!”  I love this joke, finding it so amusing that I have to stop and calm myself in order to be understood when I tell it. All pink and wrinkly! Hilarious. I’m laughing so hard I can barely tell the joke.  Except that the other kids don’t get it or look shocked.

But always, I remember the most the thing I want to forget.

My brother is three, I am five, and Daddy is weaving around the room giggling and reeking of Gordon’s London Dry Gin. He dances with us. He points a finger toward my brother.  He sits in front of us and his face is all red, his eyes glassy.  He sticks that finger into my brother’s face (“No, me, Daddy, ME!” I say, jealous.)  He laughs and says, “Pull my finger!” My brother pulls his finger and Daddy emits a long, loud, belch.

“Me! Me!”

“Pull my finger, and I’ll burp,” he promises, and I pull it. He burps long and loud, and we laugh. But he has to top himself; the finger’s just peanut gallery.

“Come on, kiddies!” he cries jovially, “Watch Daddy pee!” We follow him into the bathroom.   He shuts and locks the door, because Mom is on the other side of it. We laugh. This is a game, like keep-away. The bathroom has white and black diamond-shaped tiles and the lights are very bright. He pulls out his penis the way a fireman unrolls a hose—he just hand-over-hands it and it keeps on rolling out, more and more, until I almost wonder if that thing will hit the wall. I can’t see anything else: it’s all pink and wrinkly. Then it rears its head like an angry red giant. It’s beautiful; it’s ugly; it’s the tree of the knowledge of pain and pleasure. It’s a walk with a faun in the pale moonlight. It’s the entire world, and the world is ending. The room disappears. The thing seems as thick as my head. A stream of urine loud as a cataract shoots into the toilet, enough to drown all New York. You could go over the falls in a barrel in that stuff.

My brother and I are the best audience imaginable.

“Wow, Daddy!” I say.

We clap.

“Wow!”  My brother agrees.  “Can you do that again, Daddy?  Can you do it now?

Wham! Wham! Wham! We are so agog with these previously hidden talents that only after a moment do I realize that the entire time we are in the bathroom, Mom is pounding on the door and yelling. But we don’t like her. It’s Daddy who claims all our love. When Daddy opens the door she is still yelling so loud and pounding so hard that she doesn’t realize it is open, and falls flat on the tiles. I think we step over her and run to our rooms.

Right then, I feel like I’m falling off a cliff and my stomach clutches. Within a few years, I start dreaming every night that I’m rolling down the hill at 111th street and my head will smash into the black lamppost at the bottom of the hill. I awake with a lurch, panting and sweating, every night.

When I started summer camp, I believed that because I was in a new place, surrounded by happy people, people not in my family, I would be allowed to forget everything that went before. I’d get a do-over.

The cedar wall at the back of my closet would dissolve, I’d walk out into a winter wonderland, get invited to tea with a friendly faun who would lead me back to the lamppost so that I could get home—only unlike Lucy in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I wouldn’t go back home.  I’d stay in Narnia.

When Lucy visits the faun in Narnia, he wears a red scarf over his handsome, hairy chest, in the Pauline Baynes illustrations. His furred hindquarters conceal his tumescence—for what else is Mr. Tumnus, the faun who takes Lucy  back to his cozy den, where he plies her with tea and lulls her into a trance with the honeyed tunes of his flute? The music makes Lucy feel like crying and laughing and dancing and going to sleep.  He bursts into tears.

He has been bad, and he’s afraid they’ll cut off his tail and his horns.

What else would you do with men who seduce little girls?

But Lucy forgives him.

When my father came to my room at night, and he sobbed and stroked me, I pretended to be asleep.  I felt like laughing and crying and dancing and sleeping all at once, and I did not want the tune to stop. When he wept, he loved me.

Melissa Knox is a former New Yorker living in Germany, where she teaches American literature and culture at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Her recent work has appeared in Gravel, NonBinary Review, and Readings.

Author’s note:  I found, and find, great comfort in the escape offered by the Narnia books–which offer a way of understanding my experience.

Melissa Knox is a former New Yorker living in Germany, where she teaches American literature and culture at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Her recent work has appeared in Gravel, NonBinary Review, and Readings.

Illustration: Lucy and Mr Tumnus in Narnia, by Pauline Baynes

Sexuality on Campus

Sexuality on Campus

A eight years old school girl close to the schoolyards

By Mary E. Plouffe

Recent surveys indicate that between nineteen and twenty-three percent of women will experience sexual assault in college. That’s one in five of our daughters. Those assaults are rarely by criminals, or even strangers. They are by their classmates: the boyfriend they broke up with, the guy they just met at the frat party. They are our sons.

How did we get here?  So much has changed in the way we approach sex in our culture in the past few decades. We are more open and honest, more accepting and less judgmental. Yet despite our best intentions, I believe we have inadvertently made things more confusing for the young people we care about.

We have taken the shame out of sex. The average age of first marriage has risen by more than 7 years since 1950. Along with this shift, Americans now accept that most people will not postpone sex until marriage. Sex before marriage is less a “sin” and more a fact of adulthood, even to the majority of those sitting in pews every Sunday.

We have taken the ignorance out of sex as well, establishing early, accurate education about sexual function, emphasizing safe sex for disease and pregnancy prevention. Most fifth graders can tell you the biology of how sex works.

But I wonder if we have taken the emotion out of sex as well. I wonder if we’ve neglected intimacy and relationship and human emotion in the safe sex discussion. When and what are we teaching our kids about psychologically safe sex?

Too many times in the past ten years young women in high school or college have described their first sexual experience to me as “getting it over with,””losing my virginity so I could stop worrying about it” or even ” so I wouldn’t be embarrassed about being a virgin.” This implies that having sex is something you do for yourself, because your body is ready to have sex, because, like getting a driver’s license, it is a rite of passage.   Relationship is not an essential part of the experience, just the tool for accomplishing it. If you are lucky, they tell me, you have a boyfriend you want to have sex with, but if not, the pressure to be sexual overrides waiting for the right person, the one with whom sex is a logical step of intimacy that grows out of relationship.

Sex in college also has its own rules. The young women who educate me about this are often trying to digest the rules themselves, and struggling with their own reactions. So they try to explain to us both.

“Partying” I am told, is separate from dating. It’s more like a play group where sex is part of the party. Alcohol, and sometimes drugs, are part of the party, so that the sex is easier, and the experience heightened. Sexual contact with a boy at the party is not “cheating,” even for those with a boyfriend. To meet that boy for coffee and conversation the next day would be cheating.

But at some schools the party culture is also the entryway, the signal that you want to date.   “What if you choose not to party? I asked one.

“Then people think you don’t want a boyfriend, that you’re a nerd or not interested at all,” she answered. “I really don’t want that.”

“So, you’re hoping to meet someone special?” I asked.

” Yeah, it’s like, we get the sex part over with first, then maybe see if we like each other.” Girls who choose this entryway hoping to find relationship are often devastated if no one calls once the party is over.

“Hooking up” is slightly different. It can mean just needing sex and agreeing to satisfy that need contractually. Sort of like needing a dance partner, and taking whoever is available. Some boyfriend/ girlfriend bonds tolerate this, some do not. “It’s just sex, right?’ one asked hesitantly. “So, it shouldn’t matter.”

These young women are confused, and so am I. In the most formative period of their emotional lives, they are being asked to take the emotion out of sex. This is hard for mature adults to do. Even hard core proponents of open marriage can end up in therapists’ office wrestling with psyches that are not as “evolved” as they want them to be. Despite our logic, most of us care about the very personal act of sharing out bodies with someone else. Few of us can do it cavalierly, most of us cannot keep emotion out of the equation even when we want to.

College age women are particularly vulnerable. They are seeking relationship as much as sexuality, trying to define who they are, and who they want to bond with in friendships, in peer groups, and in loving relationships.   And the complicated rules of college sexuality do not help.

A few students are afraid to dip into the college sexual scene, but many more try to participate, and find themselves numb, or upset, or, as one student said ” not exactly guilty about it but just so uncomfortable with myself.” Most are relieved when I suggest that there is nothing wrong with them, nothing inherently superior about being able to separate sex from intimacy, sexuality from emotion.

There is probably a normal curve about this, like so many human variables. In thirty-five years of clinical practice, I have met people on the far ends. A few who saw sex as having no moral or emotional component. They felt free to be sexual with any interested partner, and were irritated and confused when others judged or felt hurt by their behavior. “Sex is like sneezing for me,” one man offered “Sometimes you want to, sometimes you need to and sometimes you just can’t stop yourself.”

At the other end of the spectrum are those whose sense of intimacy holds sex in a unique place. “I don’t think it’s a sin,” one young woman who remained a virgin into her late twenties explained her choice, “I just think of sex as God’s wedding gift to me and my husband, and I don’t want to open it early.”

Most of us fall somewhere in between. A place where sexual need and emotional connection meet, where sex is not only about physical desire, but about psyche: the experience, sometimes unexpectedly powerful, that a relationship is special, and that adding sexuality to that connection feels safe and right.

Morality is a component of this, but that word needs to be used carefully with today’s young people. “Oh I’m not religious” is often the quick response I get when I use it. And my follow up, “But you are not amoral, right?” usually takes them by surprise.   Most are relieved to engaged in a discussion that assumes that that developing an ethical self, a personal right and wrong, is part of becoming an adult, whether guided by a church or not. So I help them discover their own intuitive reactions to questions that push their boundaries. “If it’s ok for you to have sex with your boyfriend, is it ok if two of his roommates want to join in?

Fear of being judgmental of others is sometimes paralyzing, and keeps them from embracing their own good judgment for themselves. It short circuits finding the place where temperament, personality and morality meet. They do not want to be accused of “slut-shaming” their classmates who seem to participate in the recreational sex culture without difficulty. But there is no need to judge others in order to find what works for you, to find the freedom that comes from setting boundaries because you know yourself well, and you accept what feels right and what does not.

We can teach fifth graders the biology of safe sex. They can understand how condoms work, and how conception happens. But you cannot teach fifth graders the psychology of safe sex. How do you talk about trust, and vulnerability and self-respect and shame? How do you explain intimacy and emotional connection and commitment? You cannot address these constructs with minds that do not yet have the capacity for self- reflexive thought, do not understand a world where motivation comes from multiple sources, and do not have the experience of powerful emotional urges that complicate and defy logic.

Somewhere between the” birds and bees” lesson, and the freedom of college, we need to have much deeper discussions about the truth that sexual safety is not just about avoiding pregnancy and disease. It is about ensuring that we are ready for the powerful emotional feelings that come with sexuality. It is about putting intimacy back into the equation, and validating that it belongs there.

What message do we give when we pretend that casual sex is for everyone? Young men and women both feel the expectation to comply when this is the atmosphere the rest of the culture accepts, even idealizes, as normal college experience. When we offer no guidance about sexual decision making, and turn a blind eye to a culture of promiscuity, it is easy for “permission” to become “expectation” to become “entitlement”.   From there it is a very short distance to rape.

Sex can be for recreation or for intimacy. Most of us, ultimately, choose the latter. We crave the deeper emotional closeness that real relationship offers, and we imbed sexuality into that. That is not only because we want family, or children, or security. It is because our psyches find it so much more satisfying.

That is the truth that we need to talk to our children about. That casual sex is not always casual. It is not a stage of development that everyone must go through, or feels the same about trying. And that even when it does not cause pain, it can lead to confusion and misperceptions and feelings no one expected. Delaying sex, and choosing partners carefully is not only about avoiding disease and pregnancy. It is also about valuing the intimate emotional component that comes with the experience, and understanding what that means for you.

Prep schools and colleges must take responsibility for the interpersonal learning environment as much as they do the academic one. Social clubs and fraternities that become alcohol saturated brothels on the weekends are not unlike locker rooms, where bravado and testosterone- fueled “group think” overpower sensitivity and good communication. Real solutions must go beyond teaching students to ask more “affirmative consent” questions in the heat of alcohol fueled arousal. Schools need to set standards, provide healthier social alternatives, and crack down on those that consistently cause harm.

Public policy seems focused on prosecutorial responsibility once rape has happened. Yet, at a congressional hearing in August 2015, a victim’s advocate reported that nine out of ten women who have been assaulted on campus do not want law enforcement involved. This seemed to surprise our legislators but it does not surprise me. Because, for every case in which violence or surreptitious drugging provide a clear cut division between victim and perpetrator, there are many more where the story reflects a more complicated truth. Men and women participated willingly in the college social scene. They wanted something they knew might or would become sexual. The results were terrifying, or tragic, or not at all what they expected. They are not merely looking for someone to blame. They are looking to understand how this all went so terribly, terribly wrong.

We owe our children more. Much more than a wink and a nod, an implied permission to be sexual so long as they do not get pregnant or get a disease. We owe them the truth about real human sexuality. That it is a complicated and emotionally powerful part of human experience. And that one’s values and personality must guide our choices if we are to be comfortable with them.

Exploring sexuality means more than finding out how your body works. It means accepting that humans are uniquely created: we are both animal and spiritual. Sexuality bridges those two selves, and in the best moments, unites them. When we find the person who knows and loves us emotionally, physically, and spiritually, we call them Soulmate.

If we want our young people to aspire to that, we need to show them how.

Mary E. Plouffe Ph.D. is a clinical  psychologist and author of I Know it in My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child to be published in May 2017. She is currently writing a book of essays on the art of listening.

 

 

 

What I Vow To Teach My Daughter About Sex

What I Vow To Teach My Daughter About Sex

By Lela Casey

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I will do everything I can to keep my daughter from feeling like being attractive to men is her most valuable trait and that having (or not having) sex defines her as a woman.

 

I was raised to believe that sex was a juicy cherry that girls carried around to entice boys. They could look, drool even, but never touch.

My mom led by example. Her plunging necklines reached almost all the way down to her knee-high boots. She had a steady stream of admirers, young men, old men, even a few women. (At almost 70 years old, she still does).

Men buzzed around her, hoping to earn one of her big booming laughs or electric smiles. Her purring foreign accent only added to her allure.

Her sexuality embarrassed me as a teenager. It was too garish, too intense. I was sure that she was having affairs, probably more than one. I’d hover nearby every time she was talking to a man, trying to catch little snippets of the conversation.

The thing is, at the same time that she was dressing seductively and being flirtatious (and encouraging me to do the same), she was constantly, CONSTANTLY warning me about boys. Boys might look nice and say interesting things, she’d say, but when it came right down to it, they were the enemy and sexuality was a woman’s only weapon against them.

“Guys are only after one thing,” she’d also say. “Don’t be the girl they experiment on.” “Let them look, but NEVER touch,” she’d repeat over and over until it became something of a mantra.

I didn’t let them touch. In fact, I didn’t give them much to look at either. I dressed conservatively and spent most of my adolescence with my nose in a book.

Looking back, I suppose it was a rebellion of sorts. If my mom was attractive, if she wanted me to be attractive, well then, dammit I wouldn’t be.

Until I moved to college and away from her (very voluptuous) shadow. I started small at first. A little lipstick, a tiny bit of cleavage. It wasn’t long before I began to understand what my mom had been talking about. Sexuality was power and I was drunk with it.

I started going out to dance clubs dressed in tiny shirts and tight skirts. I grew out my bangs and wore my waist length hair loose around my shoulders. Boys who’d walked right passed me for years were stopping and staring with open mouths and eager eyes. And I’d let them look. In fact, I’d bask in their looks.

But, I wouldn’t let them touch. Because, no matter how sweet they talked and how nice they smiled, I knew that they were only after one thing… and once I gave it to them, I’d be just another conquest.

The attention was the important part—the hungry glances, the dedicated suitors. Sex, I thought, was nothing more than the carousel ring that I held just out of reach, the sparkly prize that kept them spinning around and around me with eager smiles and straining hands.

I can’t say that I was never curious about sex. Certainly there were boys that lit my insides on fire. But, there would always come a point where I knew that if I let him kiss me one more time or take off one more layer of clothes, I’d lose control and become one of “those” girls that my mother warned me about.

I made it all the way to the ripe old age of 22 as a virgin. The first time I had sex (with the guy I would eventually marry) I sobbed myself to sleep.

I’d given up my cherry, succumbed to the enemy, let him touch… Oh did I let him touch!

My mother was (is) a brilliant woman. Raising us in an area that was fraught with teenage pregnancies and high school dropouts wasn’t easy. Despite our surroundings, she was able to raise my sister and me to be responsible women with high self-esteem and promising futures. We both graduated with honors from prestigious universities, found satisfying careers, and married smart, kind men.

For years I was positive that I wanted to raise my daughter like she raised us.

But now I’m not so sure.

As I’ve grown older I’ve realized that, while I avoided a lot of trouble, I also missed out on a great deal of experiences. It took me years to discover that sex isn’t a gift I give to my husband, but something that I enjoy… that I crave.

I want my daughter to respect her body and herself. I want her to make careful, thoughtful choices about sex. But, I don’t want her to grow up thinking she needs to hold men captive with her sexuality.

Because, even though my mom’s warnings kept me away from promiscuity, her emphasis on sexuality gave me the impression that my appearance was the most essential part of me. Despite feeling that I was in charge, I was STILL giving the power to men, still allowing their opinion of my looks to control my world. And, perhaps even worse, I was missing out on all the joys that come with exploring my own sexuality.

I am almost 40 now and I still dress sexy to get male attention, I still post a ridiculous amount of selfies, I still think about plastic surgery to put things back in order. I still worry that I carry all of my magic in my slender figure and long dark hair.

I am fortunate to have married a wonderful man. He, like me, is adventurous, free-spirited, and open-minded. Still, I wonder about the relationships I have missed out on. Not only about the sexual experiences, but the deep intimacy that comes with being close to someone, an emotional connection I’m not sure comes without sex. I wonder how having multiple relationships might have changed me, made me stronger, exposed me to different perspectives.

My daughter is six now. She is smart and funny and big hearted. And, yes, she is beautiful. So beautiful that people often stop us when we’re out to compliment her waist-length auburn hair or her big brown eyes.

She smiles and thanks them, and then quickly goes back to chasing after her brothers or making elaborate mud pies.

While most of the girls in her class are captivated by princesses and dress-up, beauty seems to hold little meaning for her now. Her brother’s cast-off T-shirts suit her just as well as the flowery dress from her Grandma.

How much of that is innate and how much is due to my constant emphasis on her internal strength vs. her appearance, I’ll probably never know.

What I do know is that I will do everything I can to keep her from feeling like being attractive to men is her most valuable trait and that having (or not having) sex defines her as a woman.

Lela Casey was raised by a fiery Israeli mother and an all American father on a farm which often doubled as a resting place for foreign travelers and families in need. Her unconventional childhood has had a great impact on her parenting and her writing. She is a regular contributing writer at kveller.com. She has also written for themid.com, femininecollective,com, and jkidphilly.com.

Photo: Leigh Kendell

Teaching My Daughter About Consent

Teaching My Daughter About Consent

By Steph Auteri

photo-1432838765905-6881a8585474

The first time I had sex, I didn’t say “no.” I didn’t say “stop.” But I didn’t say “yes” either, and the silence pressed down on my chest, leaving me terrified as I lay there in the dark, my then-boyfriend tugging down my shorts, his boxers whispering down his legs. He straddled me. I held my breath, squeezing my thighs together. He pushed his way inside me anyway.

I cried when it was over. And for years afterward, the effects of our protracted sexual relationship were like aftershocks in my psyche, leaving me afraid of sex, even with those I trusted.

Still, I never thought to call it “rape.” I never thought to call it “sexual assault.” I just classified it as a terrible experience, and left it at that.

But as I look at my 8-month-old now, scared of all the ways she might possibly grow up to be hurt, scared of all the ways I can’t protect her, I wonder how I will teach her about consent. Or even what I will teach her about it.

Cases of sexual assault and issues of consent have been especially visible as of late. The University of Virginia was thrust into the spotlight when Rolling Stone ran an article about an alleged gang rape on campus that occurred as part of a fraternity initiation rite. The victim subsequently found herself in the hot seat when details of the story were later called into question, and thus began a public brouhaha over the perceived proliferation of false rape accusations—not to mention the definition of rape—giving us all a vivid picture of why victims of sexual assault are often hesitant to come forward.

Since then, California State University in Los Angeles has publicized its attempts to educate students about consent, and bills have been passed that redefine both what consent is and how sexual assault cases should be approached. Still, things remain confusing for everyone involved.

For one thing, the definition of sexual assault still differs from state to state and, in some cases, is used interchangeably with that of rape. So it’s no wonder there are so many of us out there who don’t know how to define our own experiences.

Not only that but, in cases where women don’t explicitly say no to the person initiating sex, their bodies may still lead the initiator to think the woman “wants it.” Research on genital nonconcordance has been available for years now, showing that physical signs of arousal do not necessarily equal desire. But the culture at large has, for the most part, ignored this so that even the victims of sexual assault feel guilt and confusion because of the ways in which their bodies reacted.

But what really terrifies me is the knowledge—come by firsthand—that not everyone who doesn’t want sex says so out loud. In Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.’s forthcoming Come As You Are, the author writes about the fight or flight response, explaining that it’s more like fight, flight, or freeze. “Sexual violence often doesn’t look like what we think of as ‘violence,'” she writes. “There is coercion and the removal of the targeted person’s choice about what will happen next. Survivors don’t ‘fight’ because the threat is too immediate and inescapable; their bodies choose ‘freeze’ because it’s the stress response that maximizes the chances of staying alive… or of dying without pain.”

Reading these words, I’m brought back to that dark basement. The whisper of his shorts sliding down his legs. The way I squeezed my thighs together, even while remaining silent.

How can I teach my daughter about consent when I myself was afraid to overtly withhold it? Andrea Bonier, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today of teaching your children to ask permission for hugs and kisses. Teaching them that words like “no” and “stop” are “important words to be honored.” But will this be enough? Will modeling consent in other areas of her life—the clothing she chooses, the snuggles she accepts—be enough? Will teaching her that only she owns her body do the trick? Will using the appropriate terminology for various body parts make a darn bit of difference?

Or can I only hope that, someday, our culture won’t see it as the woman’s sole responsibility to say “no”? That those initiating sex know to wait for more than just the absence of a “no”?

I would like to be able to trust that those she allows into her orbit will wait for her to shout her “yes” out loud, with her voice, with her body, with her whole heart.

But I’m scared. I’m scared because I know that no matter what I teach her, there will be those who may see fit to take her choice away from her.

Steph Auteri’s work has appeared in Playgirl, Time Out New York, New York Press, Mamalode, and other publications. These days, she spends most of her time collaborating with sexuality professionals, blogging about motherhood for mom.me, and teaching yoga. You can learn more at stephauteri.com, read her sporadic personal posts at Mamaste, or follow her on Twitter.

Photo: Nicole Mason

Should You Let Your Teen Have Sex In Your Home?

NO!

By Patricia Stacey

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 9.29.06 AMShe was balm wounds, soul of sweet comfort foods, backrubber, and confessor. Yet, one day in fourth grade, as my class marched into the auditorium to see our first sex-ed film, everything in my being shrieked: “No No No! It can’t be!” What was my mother doing there?

I wonder why as a kid I was so excruciatingly embarrassed to expose my own sexuality to my parents. The answer, I think, lies in the mysteries of nature and instinct itself: Sex and parents simply don’t mix well. They aren’t meant to.

When we talk about teens having sex in the family house, we’re talking about two distinct messages. The first is that sex, adult sex, full blown going-all-the-way-with-a-cigarette-and-a-shower kind of sex is a healthy choice for a teen. I disagree. The second message is pushing it even further—that it’s okay to have it around your parents. Double disagree. For one thing, we are not supposed to be hotelier to our kid’s sexual fantasies. To do so is to overstep the boundaries of the parent/child relationship.

Yes, it is our job to educate our kids about sex, to both arm and grace them with truths about sexuality, to discuss the joy of loving, committed communion and the importance of birth control, but beyond that I believe it’s important to provide our children with a boundary around their sexuality that we don’t often cross. The sexual boundary between children and their parents is a sacred one; crossing it, we intrude in a place we have no business being.

One day when I was about six years old, during a visit to my cousin’s house, I overheard my aunt and mother talking in my aunt’s bedroom. “I’m bored by sex,” said my aunt. “It was so much more fun when we did it secretly in our folks’ basement.” And she swept her hand around her room in a dismissive way to indicate that her queen-sized bed was a total downer.

My aunt’s confession reveals an important fact about sex, identity, and individuality. Sex is about privacy. If you offer your kids a place to do it you are co-opting their sexuality, taming it, and implicating yourself into it. That is a huge disservice to your teen. Let’s face it: Sex is our first exploration of who we are as a budding individual separate from our family. Sexuality, if it’s really going to be good, isn’t something your mother offers you as a mid-day snack: It’s strange and beautiful, mysterious and deeply personal. Whatever else it is, it is something that you steal for yourself, you take for yourself, and you do by yourself. We need to give our kids direction, a strong sense of self, a thorough knowledge of the emotional and physical dangers of sex, but then we need to stay away. By staying away from our kid’s sex life (and not unwittingly pushing them into anything), we protect their privacy.

Sex in the home blurs boundaries. Psychologists say that it’s important to let our teens argue with us; they want and need to dispute. Teens are unwittingly longing for something to push against. It’s the parents’ job to stay firm—not rigid, not inflexible, not unwilling to negotiate—but standing strong as, say, an old tree. As teens push to get away from us, they hone their personalities, their egos, their sense of independence. But teens also live in emotional flood zones; they need a solid, standing structure to swim to when things get too turbulent. In offering a boundary we paradoxically offer a safe haven. The home should be a place where teens can retreat from the world, including the world of boyfriends or girlfriends. By normalizing sex, we are not providing the boundary that teens need. Instead, we could be pushing them into high water by effectively telling them that they are ready to handle more than they may be able to.

If adults let teens have sex in their homes, they are ignoring perhaps the most dangerous aspect of sex: its potential to do emotional damage. Sex can be fire. Given the proper amount of oxygen, it can and will consume everything in its path. Most young couples—even if they think they want that—are not ready for it. I would argue that most teens are way too immature to handle a full sexual relationship and all the emotional hazards implied.

When I was in high school, my good friend Anne’s mom was a rebel. She had a messy apartment with a poster hanging near the kitchen that said “Fuck Housework.” She took Anne to the OB/GYN, procured her the pill, and encouraged Anne’s boyfriend Jake to come over any time he wanted, whether she was at work or home. For weeks, every day after school, Jake and Anne walked the block from school to Anne’s apartment, and had intercourse. So why weren’t they ecstatically happy? They had everything that we all wanted. Still, they walked around the quad together at lunchtime and seemed to me to be diminished, haunted, miserable. I had the sense that their sex had reached a bored complacency even only after a few weeks. It was almost as if suddenly sex wasn’t theirs anymore, as if Anne’s mother had somehow taken sexuality away from them rather than offering a safe place for it.

But worse, I also saw how tortured Jake was when Anne went to India for a year with her father on his sabbatical. Endocrinologists explain that orgasm creates vast amounts of oxytocin, a hormone that, like a mythical love potion, can fiercely bond us to the individuals we are with when we experience them. In fact Jake was so devastated by Anne’s leaving—and her distancing herself in other ways—that he still talks about his hurt every time I see him. And he and Anne broke up thirty-five years ago.

Do we want our teens to bond so completely? Should this part of our lives be about lightness, experimentation, getting our feet wet? Or about jumping into the deep end?

I can well imagine parents deciding that letting a teen have sex at home will keep their teen’s sex safe. Doing so might be necessary for a small handful of wild kids, but not for the garden-variety teen. We need to arm them with important information about pregnancy and STDs, meaningful dialogues about the ways that they can be hurt emotionally, and then stand back and give a decently wide berth.

I would go so far as to argue that the American spirit requires a frontier—that for teens that frontier may be sex. But I mean small sex, slowly building—kissing and petting in a car—not hot and heaving sex on a luxury Posturepedic. That’s adult sexuality, with all its delicious gifts and thorny penalties. There’s plenty of time for that in coming years.

Patricia Stacey is the author of The Boy Who Loved Windows.

 

YES!

By C.J. Snow

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 9.29.06 AMMy daughter Kate is sixteen, a high school junior. She’s active on the school newspaper, a member of the band, an avid skier and mountain biker. She makes good grades, she’s nice to her parents and her little brother, and she wants to become a professional photographer one day.

She also has a boyfriend, Nate, who she’s been going out with for more than two years. Nate is seventeen, a senior at a prep school in a neighboring state, about three and a half hours from our home. Though he grew up in our town, his parents moved away two years ago, so this fall, my husband and I have started to invite him to stay with us when he comes to visit. When he’s here, he sleeps in Kate’s room. With Kate.

And we’re okay with that.

It helps that we thoroughly like Nate, who is smart and funny and sweet, the kind of kid who talks earnestly about politics at the dinner table, and then gets up to wash the dishes as a matter of habit. It helps that my husband and I don’t have any religious or moral objection to premarital sex. It helps that we’ve seen Kate and Nate interact for so long now that we’re confident they respect each other and that they are thoroughly in love. We know it’s way too early to consider it, but we’d be delighted if they got married one day.

I have friends who think it’s wrong to let Nate and Kate sleep together under our roof. (Not that we advertise it, of course, but our closest friends know the score.) They talk a lot about how it seems wrong for parents to “condone” their teen’s sex life. Many of my friends talk this way, even the one who has very carefully provided her daughter with birth control, as if providing the Pill weren’t also a pretty explicit sanction of the sex that’s going on.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that there’s a fairly hefty “ick factor” here. About the only thing more uncomfortable than imagining your own parents’ sex lives has to be imagining your children’s. I get that. And believe me, my husband and I are not trying to co-opt Kate’s blossoming sexuality or insert ourselves in her relationship in some creepy, voyeuristic way. We don’t ask for details about what transpires between them (though it’s true that Kate offers a lot more to me than I ever would have to my own mother). For the most part, the two of them are very discreet. There’s not a whole lot of PDA when they’re around us. Maybe it’s because we’ve made it possible for them to have a time and place for the more intimate parts of their relationship, so they don’t have to let it spill over when they’re not alone.

I sometimes want to ask those of my friends who know their kids are having sex but who don’t want it to happen in their house what kind of message they believe they’re sending their teen. That sex is okay—but only in parked cars? Or in someone else’s den, at whoever’s house has no adult at the moment? That it’s okay, but only if you do it on the sly, in stolen moments padded by lies? Do they really think it’s wise or helpful to add the burden of furtiveness and guilt to something that might be emotionally complex enough as it is?

If you know your kids are having sex but you’re ignoring the reality that they must be having it somewhere, in my mind that’s akin to knowing they’re having sex but not making sure they have the means to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Both involve a level of negligence, a stick-your-head-in-the-sand attitude, that strikes me as pretty irresponsible.

In our town, there are a number of parents who host parties for their high school-aged kids where alcohol is served. “They’re going to drink anyway, so I’d rather they did it safely at our house where we can keep an eye on them,” is their thinking. Is letting kids have sex in your home an analogous situation? I think it isn’t. In our state, for one thing, it’s illegal to serve alcohol to anyone under twenty-one. The age of sexual consent, on the other hand, is sixteen. Letting your own child drink alcohol in your house is one thing, but letting someone else’s kid break a law on your watch and on your premises is another.

Of course, there is one way in which the drinking and sex scenarios are similar: Both involve other people’s kids taking part in activities that are pretty controversial for adolescents. My husband and I know Nate’s parents only a little. We’ve spoken to them once or twice about Nate’s weekend trips to our home, but we’ve never talked directly about the sleeping arrangements. We’ve left Nate to broach that subject with them.

When your children embark on mature activities, I think you have to treat them in a mature way. Part of growing to a healthy adulthood is learning how to negotiate other people’s boundaries and comfort zones. Sometimes those other people are your parents. We want Kate to know that we support and respect the good choices she makes—and to learn how to offer us the same respect. So if, say, she were to bring home a guy she just met at a party to spend the night with her, we wouldn’t hesitate to tell her that that wasn’t okay, and why: because it wouldn’t be respectful to us (not to mention to herself).

What we want, ultimately, is to raise a child who knows that love and respect go hand in hand—and that sneaking and lying aren’t part of any good relation- ship. Where better to learn that than at home?

C.J. Snow is the pseudonym for a writer living in Michigan.

Brain, Child (Winter 2010)

Slouching Toward the Sex Talk

Slouching Toward the Sex Talk

By Vincent O’KeefeWO Slouching Toward teh Sex Talk ARt

Like most parents, panic set in when my children started to ask about the mysteries of human sexuality. My slouch toward the sex talk began in an unlikely place: the grocery store check-out line. As a stay-at-home father of two daughters for over a decade, I have made many blushing journeys past those magazine headlines: “Orgasm Guaranteed,” “5 Sex Tricks Every Guy Craves,” or “Sex Right Now! Right Here!” (this last one’s exaggerated, but only slightly).

When Lauren and Lindsay were younger I didn’t notice the titles much, but once they started reading, the dark side of literacy reared its head. (“Daddy, what is an orgasm?”) Lindsay nearly narrated a sex trick scenario during a trip through the check-out line when she was six years old. While a mother in front of us unloaded groceries, her baby followed Lindsay’s movements with delighted eyes. Thrilled to command his attention, Lindsay said, “Dad, look at that baby. He likes me! He’s saying to himself, ‘Hot Girl’!”

While I was happy Lindsay liked her physical appearance, I was unsettled by her too-media-savvy language. I wondered if maybe she was reading those magazine covers more astutely than I thought. Then it got even weirder. Lindsay started waving a little toy around in her hand for the baby to enjoy and narrated his thoughts this way: “Now he’s thinking ‘Hot Girl with Toy’!” Behind my poker face I was cringing at the semi-pornographic comments coming out of Lindsay’s mouth, all the while hoping that the nice mother in front of me could not hear Lindsay’s comments.

Soon after the grocery store incident, Lindsay and I were at a playground. After racing down a series of enclosed slides, she came over to the bench where I was sitting and asked with utter innocence: “Dad, what does ‘s-e-x’ mean?”

I froze. Then I asked, “Why?”

“Because it’s written on the slide over there.”

My first reaction was “That damn graffiti!” My second was to explain the general wrongness of writing on public property, as well as the impropriety of such an “adult word” in a children’s playground. It was not my best parenting performance, but I managed to distract Lindsay enough to put the matter behind us and assured her we would talk about it later. Before running off for more play, she said matter-of-factly: “Oh, well it says if you want more sex, call Candy.”

My older daughter, Lauren, had started asking my wife, Michele, and me pointed questions about body changes and sex when she was only seven. Until then, we had not talked about sex much as a family, though as a gynecologist my wife had always insisted the girls use the correct terminology for their body parts. She believes (and I agree) that the earlier a parent models a healthy attitude toward sexuality, the easier and more natural learning about it becomes. Such age-appropriate disclosure, however, often resulted in Lauren correcting adult euphemisms for female private parts that almost always ended in “oochie.” “The right word is VAGINA,” she would announce in a loud, clear voice.

Because Lindsay did not talk nearly as early as Lauren did, we sometimes forgot to model as much language for her. Michele was appalled one day when Lindsay publicly referred to her private area as her “front butt.” The gynecologist in Michele nearly fainted; the writer in me roared.

Michele believes a key reason she became a gynecologist was to make up for her lack of sex education as a child. She still gets agitated when describing her introduction to the need for personal hygiene. After a high-energy roller skating party when she was nine, her traditional Italian-American father hollered to his wife, “This kid needs deodorant!” Around the same time, her Grandma Marie would reach for her chest and say, “Let me feel your nannies,” followed by the baffling statement: “Your friend’s going to visit you soon.” When Michele got her period, her mother hugged her and declared: “Now you have to stay away from boys.” Then she ran to tell her neighbor friends about this mysterious “period,” which Michele vowed to look up in the dictionary later. I guess you could say she has been looking stuff up ever since. Such initiative for self-education makes even more sense when you consider that once Michele became a teenager, her mom told her that if she wore a bathing suit next to a boy she could get pregnant.

For me, figuring out the best way to talk about sexuality with my children began with self-analysis. I tried to think back to the ways in which I learned about my body and sex, in the hopes of repeating the healthy and avoiding the unhealthy. Because it was a different, less open time (at least in my repressed, Irish-American home), no scenes emerged in my mind. Like Michele, I don’t remember ever talking with my parents about the ways of the nether regions (sorry for the euphemism). That seems unfathomable today, which is a good thing.

My first memories of wanting to know more about sex feature “tween me” begging one of my older brothers and his friend to give me some details. They probably did not know much either, but they wielded their apparent wealth of knowledge over me like warlords, taunting me with words whose meanings I did not know. One particularly memorable word rhymed with the name of our neighbor’s dog, who was named after the main character from The Hobbit. I got so angry that I chased them down the street with a monkey wrench, all the while screaming for them to define the mysterious word that rhymed with Bilbo.

Hoping to answer our daughters’ questions in a more enlightened way, Michele and I decided on a two-step strategy. First, we would search for age-appropriate books so they could feel comfortable learning from a neutral source (as a former professor, I’m a big fan of solutions via research). Then, we would follow up and answer any questions they might have

As we began looking for appropriate books, it was not hard to find several candidates. But there was one book in particular that grabbed our attention:“Where Did I Come From?” by Peter Mayle. It is a humorous book that uses cartoon people to convey the information about sex in an accurate but comfortable way. It even has an endorsement from Dr. Spock on the back cover. As Michele and I started reading it together, we liked how potentially embarrassing information was handled in a funny way.

Gradually, however, a disturbing realization crept over us. As we looked closer at the nude cartoon man and woman, we could not deny that they looked rather like us! The man’s starkly receding hairline and the woman’s short curly hairdo certainly bore a resemblance. Granted, the characters are much more rounded and exaggerated than my wife and me, but that did not stop us from doubling over in laughter right there in the store. Many parents might have shut the book and put it back on the shelf; we bought it right away for our own amusement, though we did not end up using it for Lauren’s education. I suppose the taboo against picturing one’s own parents having sex applies to their having sex in a book as well. Perhaps the funniest irony of all is that there is actually a line early in the book that reads: “Don’t worry if the pictures don’t look too much like your mother and father.” In our case, no worries. On the other hand, it was not exactly comforting to read that over two million copies have been sold.

Ultimately, the range of books we discovered taught us that we could address the topic of body changes first, and discuss actual sex at a later date. We settled on the popular American Girl book titled The Care and Keeping of You, since it covers body issues but stops short of addressing sex. There are many other books that do the job nicely as well, and parents should certainly do research to see which ones fit their values best. Later, we found additional titles that discussed sex more directly in age-appropriate ways. (Examples include Growing Up by Susan Meredith and Its Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris.)

After Lauren started reading these books, Michele decided to take the advice of a male colleague and “Go for a drive.” In the car, neither person has to make eye contact, which may lessen discomfort or embarrassment. We had decided that Michele would be the better parent to address these topics (much to my relief), and she reported that because of the books’ helpful groundwork, most of her conversations with Lauren went quite smoothly. One of the only snags was when Michele had to correct the pronunciation of the word “condom,” which Lauren kept mispronouncing as “cone dome.”

I suspect sex will always be challenging to talk about. Michele and I often laugh about a night long before we had kids when we were driving around town with Grandma Marie in the back seat. As we passed a house in the area known for the rowdy teens inside, she surprised us by saying, “There’s the house where they have those screwing parties.”

Together we turned around and said, “What?!”

With a smile on her face, Marie said simply, “You heard it.”

Many parents probably wish they could talk about sex just one important time, and then simply repeat “you heard it” for the rest of their years. But we know that the healthiest process is an ongoing dialogue that changes over time. Now that my daughters are fourteen and eleven, they pronounce things more accurately, and we have all become more comfortable addressing new questions. Overall, if parents are honest, resourceful and open to constant communication with kids, sex education can be a very positive experience—no slouching necessary.

Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a Ph.D. in American literature. He is writing a humorous memoir about gender and parenting. He has been featured on CNN Parents and his writing has appeared at Time Ideas and The New York Times “Motherlode,” among others. Visit him at www.vincentokeefe.com.

A Yelper Spreads the Love

A Yelper Spreads the Love

By Bonnie J. Rough

BonnieRough1One midnight in late spring, when Dan and I had been married ten years and had grown a bit conscious of our sex life—was it spontaneous enough? Cooling off? Going completely dark?—a harsh yelping woke us up.

Owp, owp, owp.

I shook Dan’s shoulder. “What is that?”

Owp-owp-owp!

The yelps sounded a little hoarse. I remembered when we had been newlyweds in Iowa and our neighbor had accidentally driven over her own silky white cat. The cat had died under the hostas in our yard, yelping hoarsely.

“Do you think our cat’s okay?” I whispered.

Owp. Owp. Owwwp.

“It’s just a dog,” Dan said, rolling back to sleep.

“That is not a dog,” I said with one ear trained on the sound. “Wait a sec,” I said, listening a little more. “Maybe it is a dog.”

Then a human tone crept in. Dan heard it too.

“Where is that coming from?” he asked, lifting his head from the pillow to echolocate. We live in a friendly and family-packed Seattle neighborhood, full of balance-bikes and front-yard vegetable gardens. Nobody has air conditioning, so we latch open our windows in decent weather and share sounds: dinner dishes clinking in the sink, babies fussing through bath time, the occasional gathering of families with organic juice boxes, growlers of local brew, and cedar-planked salmon. Everyday sounds, all of them.

Owp! Owp! Owwwp!

“It’s definitely not anyone nearby,” Dan finally said, perhaps unwilling to picture any of our docile neighbors in heat.

We listened again for a few minutes as the yelping went on. Finally, Dan shook his head. “Nope. That’s a dog,” he said, and went back to sleep.

But I knew he was wrong—it was sex. And I could not fall asleep so easily while unknown neighbors made noisy bacon, so I lay there listening. Gross! Loud! Impressive. Will it wake up the kids? I could not wipe the adolescent smile off my face.

A few weeks later, the day before my birthday, Dan and I busied ourselves in the backyard, spreading bark mulch, weeding and preparing for my own little party with growlers et cetera. Josie, our six-year-old, and Louisa, our two-year-old, both in brown pigtails, scampered around us in the grass with Ivy and Nora, their preschool-aged playmates from next door.

Owp. Owp. Owp.

Dan and I locked eyes in a stare that said: Definitely human.

OWP! OWP! OWP!

For a moment, the children played on. The yelping took on a familiar hoarse quality, and now we could tell it was coming from the upper floor of the duplex behind our house. A newlywed couple lived there, with the perfect high angle to spot us through our bathroom window. (I opted to slink around like a hunchback rather than deal with window treatments.) Before getting married, the woman had lived in the apartment alone with her cat and a sewing machine in the window. One day, the sewing machine had disappeared and a soccer pennant became visible. I’d never met the woman, but I had spoken to her husband once, briefly, the day we had our backyard cedar cut down. I wanted permission from their landlord to also chop down a sick little birch leaning against our fence. The tenant heartily agreed that the birch was crappy, and passed along his landlord’s number, wishing me a nice afternoon.

OWP owp OWP! Now Dan doubled over and then stood up with his mouth wide open in a silent laugh. That set me off and both of us turned our backs on the playing children, convulsing with laughter. Dan actually slapped his knee.

Owp owp owp owp owp—Josie froze. Louisa looked at her.  Ivy and Nora stopped playing. I looked at Josie, who tilted her head and knitted her brow.

“What is that?” she asked.

Since Josie’s toddlerhood, Dan and I had been working together— talking, researching, reading—to shape ourselves into parents who would openly discuss sex and the body with our children at any age. After writing the story of my abortion in my first book and subsequently discovering that audiences always ask me the same question—”What if your daughters find out?”—I had come to see that the real trick was not going to be how to keep secrets from my children, but how to tell them everything in time. I was now at work on a new book, which I knew my girls might someday read, detailing plenty more pivotal moments from my life in a female body: puberty, sex, childbirth, transgressions, and the everyday exchanges which defined my culturally-female American upbringing. Day to day with the girls, Dan and I made sure to welcome body talk in our house. Without judgment, confusion or shame, we looked at books, diagrams, animals, and one another. So, as the yelper bugled across our backyard, we certainly could have told Josie the plain truth. She already had a vocabulary for this.

But we weren’t about to edify the neighbor children.

Josie gazed expectantly at me, waiting for an explanation. I couldn’t look at Dan. “Oh, Josie,” I said, unable to erase my too-big grin, “I guess somebody is just really excited.”

Owp! Owp! Owp!

“No,” Josie said, listening closely. “I know what that is.”

Now my eyes widened. Dan turned to look at our first-grader.

“That,” Josie said, “is definitely a dog.”

We exhaled as the kids went back to their play, serenaded by wolves. Grocery list in hand, I walked around to the front of the house. The yelping followed me, and I heard a male voice join in as I slid behind the wheel of our family wagon. Driving off with music throbbing a little too loud from my mom-mobile, I laughed again and shook my head. I had to admit that in the midst of our backyard hysterics, I had felt a pulse of excitement in my core.

It happened again the next afternoon, before guests arrived for my birthday party. As Dan and I bustled around arranging patio furniture and flowers and local charcuterie, neither of us could ignore the yelping. We kept accidentally making eye contact. And late that night, as I walked into the kitchen from the backyard with the last pile of dishes, Dan intercepted me by wrapping both hands around my leg—as high as they could go.

“You know what we need to do?” he asked.

“Window treatments?”

He shook his head. “We need to have a war.”

“What?”

“A sex war,” he clarified. “With the neighbors. Like a battle of the bands.”

I agreed in principle at least, and followed my partner to the bedroom—where, although we enjoyed ourselves, it turned out that people with sleeping children do not yelp.

The next afternoon—as neighbors did yard work, couples walked retrievers, kids rode scooters—the newlyweds went at it once again. Their volume was impossible to miss.

“So,” I asked Gina with mock-casualness as we stood in our shared driveway. “Any thoughts on the new neighborhood soundtrack?” A pause. A blush? “Yeah, Tim told me about that,” she said as her husband slipped out of earshot and fired up the lawn mower. We exchanged grins, then quickly broke eye contact and changed the subject to our children.

Later that evening, after Dan’s basketball game, he stepped from the shower and sidled behind me as I brushed my teeth.

“It’s awful,” he said. “The neighbors are kind of turning me on.”

“Me too!” I said through toothpaste foam.

As much as Dan and I had been willing to talk with our children about sex, it seemed we had unwittingly, over time, begun to neglect our own sensuality. In more ways than I first realized, the yelper had woken us up.

In fact, it seemed possible that the busy couple had been lighting up the whole neighborhood. I wondered about the newlyweds’ downstairs neighbors, another young couple. Had they been triggered too? And it didn’t seem a stretch to suppose their next-door neighbors turned down the TV once or twice to let more interesting sounds stream in. Since my grocery run revealed that the noise carried across the avenue, I had to guess that the web developer who fed the crows after work and took his daughter to see harbor seals and photographed gardens on rainy days might have called his girlfriend in Illinois who wanted to move West but couldn’t quite, not yet. And maybe in the house with the blue door, the Canadian couple expecting their second baby while separated by thousands of miles from family support found themselves relaxing more easily. As for the brown pickup that pulled late into the dog-walker’s driveway two houses down—was it my imagination, or a good old-fashioned booty call? John, our lean and silver-haired next-door neighbor to the south, had peered from his side window during one especially high-pitched twilight session, presumably to investigate whether the sounds were coming from my house. He got his answer when he spotted me crouching at my back fence, eavesdropping with my blue-glowing iPhone allowing my sister and her husband to listen in from across town. I waved weakly, freed from one kind of culpability, pinned with another. John lowered the blinds, but left his window open. Suggestion was everywhere, and through my embarrassment, I surmised that after years of marriage and unkind illness, he and his wife were coming together, too.

I tapped my toothbrush on the sink and turned to look at my beautiful dripping husband, his body sleek and muscled, his beard silver and black, his ochre-flecked eyes asking for me. I loved that our bodies responded to that little primal scream in the air, and that we found each other so agreeably. After years spent ruminating on gender, sex and desire, it made me happiest, just then, to see myself as one simple beast in the big rutting herd: earnest, predictable, and beyond reproach. Climbing under the sheets, I realized that the yelper had generously spread not only her legs, but also a gift. I pictured it then, rippling around the neighborhood like The Wave in a stadium, or like electricity after an outage.

Bonnie J. Rough is the author of the Minnesota Book Award-winning memoir Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA. She lives in Seattle, where she is at work on her next nonfiction book. Her website is www.bonniejrough.com

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Prayers for a Young Mother, Proposed

Prayers for a Young Mother, Proposed

 

motherwitsummer07Prayer for the Care of Children

Almighty God, heavenly Father, you have blessed us with the joy and care of children: Give us calm strength and patient wisdom as we bring them up, that we may teach them to love whatever is just and true and good, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ.   —The Book of Common Prayer, 1976                                                                                                                                                                             

Prayer before the Market

O God, please let this be a good and productive shop. Please help me to keep my wits about me, even though I appear to have left my list at home. Please give me the clarity of mind to remember that, like the animals on the ark, good things come in pairs: the peanut butter and the jelly, the bagels and the cream cheese, the yogurt and the one hundred percent organic no fructose no sat-fat cereal bars, the Fresh Step and the Meow Mix. Please let this not be senior citizen day, or, if it is your will that it be so, please give me patience and good cheer as I maneuver around their carts which clog every aisle. Please help me to remember that the time will come soon enough when I too will need help reaching the extra large box of All-Bran on the top shelf. Please open my heart so I never forget that this $105 worth of groceries is a blessing directly from you, O Lord, and that I should therefore swing by the food bank and deposit some of it on their doorstep. Please give me the time to do this and not be late for pickup. Amen.

Prayer at Pickup

Please let me be on time. Please help this stupid, stupid woman in her gigantic planet-trashing SUV to turn off her phone and make the left turn already. And then please keep the light green for just one more second. Please don’t let me be late. If it’s somehow your will that I am late, please fill the small, tight heart of the program director with mercy and pity so that she doesn’t charge me the completely outrageous one dollar per minute late fee. Please let there not have been any more biting. Please don’t let those moms with the perky blond ponytails and the girly pink baseball caps judge my child. Please don’t let them give each other that look, or at least please don’t let me see them do it. Please let my baby be happy today. Please no tears, please not that thing with the screaming and the knees. Please let us have peace at pickup. Thank you.

Prayer before Sex

O God, please let this be fast. But not, you know, too fast. Please let it be just enough for both of us, if you get my meaning. Please let our blessed babies stay where they belong, especially Mr. I-just-turned-two-watch-me-climb-out-of-my-crib. Please let me forget about the groceries and that nightmare at pickup this afternoon. Please help me relax. Please send us a little lightning bolt of that old giddy feeling, that wave of engulfing joy that first brought us together, that helped us make this family. Please let us be carried away for just a few minutes. And after, please send us sweet release so we sleep in each other’s arms like the sheeted dead. It’s been, as you know Lord, a long day. Amen.

Brain, Child (Summer 2007)

Artwork by Beth Hannon Fuller 

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Let’s Talk About Sex This October

Let’s Talk About Sex This October

Nutshell logoIt’s October and you know what that means? It means it’s time to sit down and chat with your children about vulvas and penises and how they work! Yes, October is Let’s Talk Month, a national public health education campaign coordinated by Advocates for Youth. Advocates for Youth is an organization that focuses solely on adolescent reproductive and sexual health in the United States and in developing countries around the world.

According to a 2012 study by Planned Parenthood, most parents of teens are talking to their kids about sex. Nearly 90% of us have had at least one sex talk with our kids. That’s pretty darn good. Unfortunately, while we’re comfortable talking to our teens, the same research says that less than 18% of them are comfortable talking to us.

So who are they talking to? Research doesn’t say but likely they’re talking to each other, which means the information they’re getting might not be all that good.

You can help your teen get solid information and support by finding trusted mentors you can count on to share your family values and letting your child know that this person will respect their confidentiality and that you’ll respect it, too. This could be a relative or a family friend, a teacher or a coach. I’ve designated my kids’ best friends’ parents, who are people I can trust to give good advice and who have already earned my children’s trust.

There are some other challenges for us, too. While parents are discussing relationships and telling their teens to put the brakes on before heavy petting gets to third base, only about a third of us are also talking to our kids about actual sex, like how to do it safely or how to talk about sexuality with a partner. The Guttmacher Institute, a think tank devoted to advancing sexual and reproductive health, found that nearly two-thirds of our teens have had sex by the time they’re 18. Most kids lose their virginity at around 17 (that goes for both boys and girls), which is longer than our generation waited and they’re better about using birth control than we were, too.

But our kids are exposed to way more media sex than we ever were. According to a study published in 2008 in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior, 93% of boys and 62% of girls under the age of 18 have seen online porn, which means we need to be talking about it. It’s not enough to tell our kids to shield their eyes; they’re going to see it and they’re going to need to know that it’s not a realistic depiction of sex.

Parents can point kids to Scarleteen.com, a terrific web site with heavy (and explicit) questions from teens and smart, safe answers. Scarleteen addresses the straight community and the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning community

(Note: Scarleteen is a sex-positive site, which means that families who are more inclined to encourage celibacy might not find it appropriate for their values.) With articles like “Porn: How Much (Or How Little) Does it Influence Your Sexuality?” and “Looking, Lusting and Learning: A Straightforward Look at Pornography” teens can start thinking critically and making their own informed decisions about the media that surrounds them.

If you don’t quite feel ready to hand your teen the link to Scarleteen or you’re parenting younger children, you might want to check the site out just to get an idea of what is worrying adolescents today. It might help you start thinking about how you’ll broach the heavier topics and heck, you might even learn something new.

You can also look to the Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ for help with sex education. Their “Our Whole Lives Lifespan Sexuality Education Curricula” starts with classes for kindergarteners and continues on into adulthood. A secular program, the Whole Lives curricula was developed in accordance with the Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, produced by a task force made up of experts in adolescent development, health care and education from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

The curricula values are: Self Worth, Sexual Health, Responsibility and Justice & Inclusivity. Participants learn about human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health and society & culture and are encouraged to examine their own values so that they can make their own good decisions.

For a related piece, read Brain Child’s Conversation Starters by Catherine Buni

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The Snip

The Snip

By Kate Haas

TheSnipThe grandmotherly woman with the Minnie Mouse lapel pin doesn’t blink an eye when we ask for the video. She coochie-coos the baby strapped to my chest, then leads my husband and me past shelves of health books and racks of earnest pamphlets, over to a small, curtained cubicle in the corner of our HMO’s Wellness Resource Center.

“Here you go,” she says with a professional smile, plucking our request from a nearby shelf. We step inside, draw the curtain, and insert the videocassette. We’re ready.

Well. One of us is ready, anyway. He presses play.

The screen brightens and a scene of suburban domesticity appears. Imagine Brad and Janet, the naïve protagonists of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, ten years later. Brad, still geeky, wears tan, too-short swim trunks that expose his skinny white legs as he splashes in the backyard pool with his two wholesome, blond daughters. Janet, her hair now showing a touch of bleach, turns from her seat under the patio umbrella to gaze adoringly at her husband. We hear Brad’s nasal, whiny voice-over: “For Janet and me, vasectomy was the right choice.”

Inside the darkened cubicle at the Resource Center, my husband and I giggle. We are here because, before granting a man an appointment to see the urologist—much less allowing him to take the irrevocable step of curtailing his fertility—our HMO requires him to watch a video about it.

So, with our seven-month-old second—and last—child squirming in our laps, we watch Brad and Janet walk into the doctor’s office to discuss the big V. The physician (henceforth referred to as Dr. Toupee) smiles reassuringly at the couple from behind an imposing desk as he explains “the procedure.”

“Doctor,” Brad inquires diffidently, glancing at Janet, “will this have any effect on our, ah, sexual intercourse?”

Dr. Toupee clasps his pudgy fingers together and assumes a grave expression in acknowledgement of the seriousness of Brad’s concern.

“Not at all,” he reassures. “There may be a slight reduction in the amount of fluid contained in each ejaculation, and the ejaculate will no longer contain sperm, of course, but your experience of intercourse will be unchanged.”

Janet nods, trying to look worldly, as if she hears the word “ejaculate” used as a noun on a daily basis. Brad gives her a tight smile. Bruce and I giggle some more.

The camera follows Brad to the doctor’s office, where he arranges himself impassively on the medical equivalent of a La-Z-Boy recliner. The nurse covers him with a blue drape. Dr. Toupee approaches with a syringe.

“Now you’ll feel just a little prick…” he says blandly.

Bruce and I are beside ourselves. “Oh my God, did he actually say, ‘little prick?’ ” I gasp. We feel like a couple of ninth graders watching a sex education presentation.

On screen, Brad makes it through the surgery, walks gingerly out to his car, and goes home to sit stoically on the couch with an ice pack. In the final scene, the family is relaxing in the tastefully appointed living room. The kids play while Brad and Janet nestle on the couch, beaming at each other in a manner that makes it clear they’ve got no problems in that department. We get the message: vasectomy is No Big Deal.

Except that it is.

Our two children frequently overwhelm us. We can imagine all too well another round of diapers, nursing marathons, sleepless nights, and the constant vigilance of life with a toddler. It’s a vision that makes us tremble. So why do I feel ambivalent at the prospect of permanently closing the door on our fertility?

It doesn’t trouble Bruce in the slightest. “I would have done this years ago if I hadn’t met you,” he reminds me. And it’s true; when we met, my husband had no intention of having children. Ever. That we are the parents of two is a tribute to marital negotiation and compromise.

I refrain from asking if he’s glad now that he didn’t get the snip back then. We are in the thick of things with two under five and there are days when I know exactly what his answer would be.

I have those days myself. The days when my patience is stretched so thin I start to wish I were a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child fundamentalist instead of a supposedly pacifist Quaker. The days when the frustration of not being able to do what I want, when I want, tempts me to get in the car and leave. Adding another child—another baby—to our family is unthinkable.

But I do think about it. The few times we’ve been careless, and each time my period is late, a flicker of anticipation stirs in me. I imagine the thrill of being pregnant again, the pervading excitement and expectation of those nine months, the drama of birth. (Conveniently, I don’t dwell on the next eighteen years.) Is all of that really over for us?

“Maybe you’d get your curly haired girl this time,” Bruce teased on one of those occasions. “Little baby Rose,” he sighed, evoking the vision of a daughter named after two great-grandmothers—a vision that vanished with the birth of our second son.

“What are you getting all mushy about?” I demanded incredulously. “You know you don’t want another. Do you?”

“Well. It would be exciting, having you pregnant again,” he admitted. “That big belly growing … another birth, seeing the baby come out, watching you be so strong.” We smiled at each other, remembering, and then he shook his head. “But the minute that baby was in your arms and nursing, you’d realize it was all a terrible mistake.”

He was right. Still, I was surprised that my husband had articulated my ambivalence so astutely. Although pregnancy made me feel more like a grumpy, avenging angel than a powerful fertility goddess, I savor the thought of giving birth again. Because really, is there anything else that comes close?

My first son’s birth took place in a haze of exhaustion. There were raised voices shouting, Push, push, push! There was pain. There was an unbearable burning sensation. And then, though I have no memory of his emerging, a gangly baby was being held up in front of me.

When my second son was born, three years later, I was more with it. This time all present had strict instructions not to yell “Push!” at me. This time I actually felt the baby—hard and soft and slippery all at once—slithering out through me. Two years later, I can still mentally summon up the exhilaration of that moment—the triumphant realization that I had just pushed a human being out of my body and into the world. I had never been more proud of myself.

I want to do that again.

Sometimes I fantasize about how it would be. After two hospital births, this time I might have the baby at home. No bumpy car ride with the contractions four minutes apart. No nurses coming around to hook me up to that damn monitor. This time I would remember to prepare the right, soothing music mix. Gregorian chants, ethereal guitars… I stop myself before this scenario gets too groovy. Some aspects of the way I labor would undoubtedly remain the same. To be strictly honest, I would probably be yelling at everyone to just shut up for the love of God, the way I did the last two times. But that would be fine.

It’s not going to happen.

Bruce will get the snip, my toddler will wean, and this exhausting phase of our lives will give way to the next one. I won’t imagine a next birth because I’ll be certain there won’t be one. If my period is late, there will be no half-terrified, half-thrilled consultation of the calendar. I’ll finally sort though those boxes of little hats and sweaters on the basement shelves. I can’t quite picture it, but we’ll move on to being parents of school-aged children. Homework and soccer practice are as foreign to me now as diaper-changing used to be, but I’ll figure it out.

Recently, Bruce and I brought a meal to new parents in the neighborhood. We cooed over the baby. I couldn’t wait to be asked to hold her. How light in our arms she was, how delicate and perfect those little fingernails! But in the car, on the way home, there was a palpable sense of relief, of escape, of better them than us. We laughed giddily, like trekkers who are finally descending the mountain.

I don’t want another child. But I look at myself in the mirror sometimes, at my belly that has sheltered two babies, at my breasts that have nourished them, and it’s strangely sad to think that never again will I feel the invisible dance of a baby kicking inside me. That from here on out, my body won’t be called upon to sustain anyone but me. That this phase of my life is ending.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for physical independence. I won’t miss being woken nightly by a toddler’s sleepy demands to nurse. I can’t imagine feeling nostalgia for the nausea of pregnancy, or the fatigue of new motherhood. My maternity clothes? Long since passed on to friends.

And then, of course, there’s the sex. Bruce and I may have mocked that cheesy video at the HMO, but we want the same thing Brad and Janet wanted. These days, sexual encounters are either triumphs of strategy or brazen acts of defiance against Morpheus. Fighting our way through the chaos and fatigue to reconnect can be exhilarating, but often enough it’s easier not to make the effort. A marriage that has weathered the pressures of two active children needs all the spontaneous passion it can get.

Graduate school, full-time work, and family life take a lot of a man’s time, and for the year and a half since we watched that video, getting on with life has pretty much precluded “the procedure.” But with the degree finally in hand, my husband has made the appointment. The seven-month-old baby we brought with us to the HMO that day is now over two years old and has become a playmate to his brother instead of an unwelcome interloper. Watching our boys race down the street hand in hand or put their heads together over some scheme, we see how far we have traveled. And with each milestone reached, it’s easier not to think about starting the journey over.

I’m ready.

Author’s Note: Shortly after completing this essay I was at the park, sharing intimate details of my life with a near stranger, as we mothers often do. Nodding toward a cluster of women with young babies, I confided—perhaps a bit smugly—that since my husband’s surgery, all of that was now over.

My new acquaintance pointed to her kindergartner. “Meet ‘Over,’ ” she said. “You mean…?” I stammered. She nodded. Her second child had been conceived eight years after her husband’s vasectomy. “I love this kid, don’t get me wrong,” she told me. “But have your husband tested yearly. No one told us that. Now it’s my personal little crusade.”

Note has been taken.

Brain, Child (Winter 2006)

About the Author: Kate Haas publishes Miranda, a long-running print zine about motherhood and other adventures. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Brain, Child, Babble, and the Toronto Star. A former Peace Corps volunteer and high school English teacher, she is currently an editor of Creative Nonfiction at Literary Mama. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon. Her website is www.katehaas.com.

Art by Clover Archer

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.