May 17 2011

The Naked Truth

“Why are you all laughing?” The guide looked around as the group of 9 and 10-year olds congregated before the naked statue. The children giggled again, like Munchkins. She persisted, in a high-pitched voice, with her mouth shaped like she’d just bitten into a lemon. “Mais pourquoi vous riez?”

She explained that Rodin, like many sculptors, had carved nudes in order to portray the power of the human body. “If this statue were clothed,” she said, “you wouldn’t have the same sense of its power, would you?” The childrens’ heads turned side-to-side in a definitive non; they were obliged to agree with her.

I do appreciate the guide’s attempt to confront the children’s nervous laughter as they stood in front of a nude statue, but her manner was a bit patronizing and served only to fuel it. Couldn’t she remember what it was like to be ten? When body parts were all a big mystery? Or was she born a docent, immediately sensitive to all sophisticated artistic notions and nuances?

When I saw the note in Short-pantscahier de correspondance soliciting parents to accompany the field trip, I wondered whether the Musée Rodin was one I’d choose for a group of students that age. Rodin is a favorite of mine; his work so sensual, approaching the erotic in a tasteful, artistic way. At an earlier time of my life, this museum was the kind of cultural excursion I’d suggest to someone whom I hoped to know as a lover. I think maybe the last time I was at the museum was just before I seduced De-facto.

But hey, I’d rather my children learn about love and lust from art than from some mysterious link on Facebook. Plus I was curious how it would be handled, so I signed up to accompany the class.

~ ~ ~

Last weekend, we were heading down the stairs, on our way to a Wizard of Oz rehearsal, when Buddy-roo gave me her most impish look, a knowing, coy smile out of the corner of her eyes as she gazes up at me, slightly embarrassed but with a sense of superiority woven in. I know this look. Something interesting usually follows it.

“Do you and Papa do the sex?”

I love the use of the definite article. I’m not sure if this is a translation from French, where some words have definitive articles that wouldn’t in English, or if it’s just a quirky thing she picked up from talking about it in the courtyard with her school mates, which is where she says she first heard about the sex. I think De-Facto and I should start using it, too:

HIM: Would you like to have the sex now?
ME: The sex? Sure!

It’s not the first time she’s asked this question, so she wasn’t asking because she didn’t know. She just wanted to talk about sex. Rather than risk dismissing her question by referring to our previous discussions – I want her to feel like she can bring up the sex with me anytime she wants – I answered her as though it were the first time she’d asked.

“Tell me, what does it mean to you, to do the sex?”

Her answer, through a sheepish grin, “it’s when you get naked and you kiss.”

“Oh, well yes, Papa and I have done that.”

“There are two kinds,” she said, switching on her authoritative voice. “There’s the sex, and then there’s the sex at the beach.”

A pastel-colored drink with a miniature umbrella came to mind, something with a sugar-induced headache the next day. But I asked for clarification.

“Well, it’s when you get naked and go swimming,” she said. And then, after waiting a moment, “Have you and Papa…?”

I nodded – not too vigorously – but affirmatively.

She covered her mouth with a curved palm and giggled.

~ ~ ~

When it comes to handling questions of a sensitive nature, I try to use plain language, keep answers simple and address only the question that’s been asked. “Did I really come out of your belly?” is answered with, “Yes.” There’s no need to explain how a baby got in or out of my belly – unless someone asks. Once Short-pants did ask, and I told her a woman’s body changes in amazing ways when it’s time for a baby to be born, everything stretches to make a big opening, and then goes back to normal (more or less) after the baby comes out. She was satisfied with this response.

I read this advice in a parenting book and so far it seems to work. It’s not foolproof, as evidenced by this video, a link for which, coincidentally, was sent to me by two different people on the same day, the very day I went to the Rodin museum with Short-pants’ class. This got me thinking. Am I copping out on the sex talk? Me, Ms. In-touch-with-her-sexuality? Ms. I-once-did-lots-of-research-for-a-TV-documentary-about-sex-in-Paris? Now that I’m a mom, have I developed a prurient streak?

At the museum, one of the other mothers who’d come along to chaperone leaned in and asked me, “Have you had the sex talk yet?” I immediately answered yes, thinking about a book I’d given Short-pants called The Care & Keeping of You, a lite version of Our Bodies, Our Selves written for little girls. It contains dozens of helpful explanations about all the changes that happen as you enter puberty, with a few anatomically-descript cartoonish-drawings in the section about menstruation. Then I had to correct myself; this book has nothing in it about the boy’s plumbing, and nothing about the deed itself. We do have a book that’s about the birds and the bees, First Comes Love, (Short-pants likes books, and apparently so do I) but it’s still stashed in my closet, waiting for its moment to be presented.

“I’m waiting for her to ask,” I said.

~ ~ ~

When I was seven years-old – younger than both Short-pants and Buddy-roo – I remember playing a little you-show-me-yours-I’ll-show-you-mine with the neighbor boys. It was all very innocent and we tired of the game rather quickly, returning to the dirt track and quarry we’d carved out of the sandbox for our Tonka trucks. But I understood that being naked – even partially – had something to do with making babies. That night, lying in bed, I convinced myself that I was pregnant. The next morning, I told my mother.

“Oh honey, don’t worry,” she said, “you’re not pregnant.”

Did my mother wonder why I thought I was pregnant? Wasn’t she at least a little curious what prompted my question? I don’t fault her. She was from a different time and generation. But I was left to fester with my concern, because I hadn’t asked the right question.

I ended up going to my sister, who was in the bathtub shaving her legs, and when I told her I was probably pregnant, she explained to me why I wasn’t, very matter-of-factly. I was repulsed.

I think this is the reason why we avoid the sex question, no matter what generation you’re from. I don’t think we do it to protect their innocence, we do it to protect ours. Up until now, there’s this last pocket of privacy between the adults in the household, something those damn kids don’t have their runny noses poking into, something that’s ours alone. The minute the children understand how they came to exist, and how it involved this rather (until you’ve tried it) unseemly act, it’s all over. They’ll look at us differently. They’ll sneer at us and whisper about our body parts intersecting. The respect that they’ve granted us as parents will be degraded into the disgust one has for a dog that’s humping a fire hydrant. (Just for De-facto, of course.)

If Buddy-roo knows it’s about getting naked and kissing because it’s a subject of conversation in the school courtyard, and Short-pants has a book with drawings of a developing girl’s body, chances are they know a good part of the story, like I did. Do I wait for them to ask the question directly, leaving them in the dark, or the partial-dark? Or is it time to volunteer the whole naked truth?