I just had one of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had. This is saying a lot given what I do for a living. As an OB/GYN, I have tough conversations all the time. They start in various ways. For example, “Mrs. So and so, I’m sorry but the discharge you’ve been having is from chlamydia.” Or, “Ms. This and that, I know you’ve been in labor for 30 hours but your cervix isn’t dilating and we have to do a C-section.” One of the hardest conversations I have not uncommonly starts like, “I’m sorry, but I don’t see a heartbeat.” You can imagine the responses I get after delivering this kind of news in the scenarios mentioned above. Sometimes I’m met with anger, sometimes shock, sometimes sadness, and often disappointment. Although these conversations are tough, they are exactly what I was trained to have. I’ve been taught to tackle hard topics head-on, deliver bad news in a sensitive fashion, and be there when a patient reacts, however it may be. This recent difficult conversation was not with a patient, however. It was with my 9-year-old, Nayla, in the middle of Publix. And I was NOT prepared.
“Mom,” she said.
“Yes?” I answered.
“Do you remember when you told me about…” Her voice trailed off.
“About, what, Nayla?” I asked.
“Sex,” she said.
“Yeah, what about it?” I tried to act calm.
“You said that it was something between people who love each other. And you said that I was too young to know more about it. But I want to know exactly how it happens.”
I was blindsided. What made her ask this now? What did she see? Who has she been talking to? Doesn’t she know we’re in Publix? As she set her bright brown eyes on me, I knew I wasn’t getting out of this one.
So here’s the background on the previous “sex “talk we had. It was about a year ago when I got wind of the fact that she was asking questions of her godparents on the topic. They avoided specifics, which was 100% appropriate. I approached Nayla and asked what she was curious about. This conversation yielded a detailed and, I think, age-appropriate discussion on female anatomy. (Newsflash everybody, there are 3 separate holes.) We talked about puberty and what to expect during the menstrual cycle. It was interesting to have this “big girl” talk in a little girl’s room, where the walls were lined with Pocahontas, Lion King and Toy Story Disney posters, all of which I saved from my childhood. At the end of this conversation, she asked me about sex. I told her a version of what she remembered in Publix.
At that time, when she pressed me on the issue, I said, “You know how in math you add, subtract, and multiply?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Well, do you know how to do trigonometry or calculus?” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “I don’t even know what that is.”
“Trigonometry and calculus are advanced math,” I explained. “The details of sex are like advance math. You aren’t ready to know the specifics yet, but I’ll teach you when you are.”
I thought this explanation was pretty good and secretly patted myself on the back. Turns out this explanation bought me way less time than I was expecting.
So, there we were, in Publix. And here I was, being asked point blank about how sex happens.
I tried to deflect. Mothers are experts at this skill. A child asks a question that she doesn’t want to answer. She first ignores it. When he asks again, she asks him a different question. For example, Johnny asks If he can play with a loud toy. Johnny’s mom answers, “Do you want a sandwich?” The third step of deflection is repeating steps one and two. Unfortunately, as children grow older, they become more and more resistant to this technique. I was on the hook.
“Okay Nayla,” I said, exasperated. “Do you know a boy’s anatomy?”
“Not really,” she replied.
“Yes you do,” I said. “You’ve helped bathe your baby cousins.”
“Well, I don’t know what that’s called,” She said.
“It’s a penis,” I replied. “And sex is when a man’s penis goes into a woman’s vagina.”
There. I said it. And I can’t take it back. Now, I know that some of you are aghast at my choice of words. To be frank, so was I. But, in that moment, I chose candor over euphemism and trust me, it was a hard choice. Nayla looked at me and her eyes widened. She looked at her dad, who was further up the aisle in Publix. She looked back at me and then back at her dad.
“Soooo…” She said slowly. “You and dad had to do that to get me and Mimi?” (Naomi aka Mimi is her 11-month old baby sister.)
“Yes,” I replied.
“EEEEEEWWWWWW. That’s disgusting.” The corners of her mouth turned down. “I wish I had never asked you anything.”
In my heart, I hope that her disgust lasts for at least 15 more years. But I’m not naïve. Remember, I am an OB/GYN. Some people may think that because of my training and everyday practice in tough conversations about reproduction, I would be particularly well-suited to have “the talk” with my own child. Those people would be dead wrong. My conversation with Nayla was just as painful for me as I’d imagine it is for any other parent. I did some soul searching and queried other parents to figure out why. I think it’s because we all just want to be good parents. We don’t want to give too much information to our kids too early, to spark interest in something that they aren’t ready for. We don’t want to be too late either, and leave room for someone else to give them false information. It turns out that there is no perfect way to have this tough conversation. There is no perfect time. There is no perfect place either (although I’m pretty sure the middle of Publix isn’t it). What’s important is that you have it. And you do the best you can.