Thursday, March 28, 2002

My six-year-old daughter leaned over to me at dinner and whispered that she needed to talk to me later, in private, without daddy... you know, about private girl things.

She wanted a bra.

I said something like, "Aren’t I supposed to get a few more years before you ask me that?" I offered the "undershirt" option. No deal, she wanted a bra. I played the reality card. "You have no boobies," I told her bluntly. She scrunched up her face into an indignant frown and lifted up her t-shirt to prove me wrong. Little ones, she pointed out. I shook my head sadly.

I don't think I handled it exactly the way the parenting books advise. When the heat is on in these situations, I choke. Me, who always promised myself I would be every bit the liberal, frank, open, you-can-talk-to-me-about-condoms mom. There it was, bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, the pitch, and… steeeerike.

Clearly we're entering a new parenting dimension. One where all of the tricks, skills, and pat answers that worked just fine yesterday are suddenly thrown out the window. I should have seen this coming one afternoon when we were trying on clothes at the mall. I slipped on a pair of pants, and Kaitlyn said matter-of-factly, "You look sexy." I sputtered something about that's a grown-up word! Where did you hear that? as I tried to smoothly change the subject.

(I bought the pants.)

It all goes hand-in-hand with her favorite playground game: boy chasing. I asked her once if she's ever caught one, which she hasn't. Not yet. "What would you do with it if you did?" I asked.

She answered, "Give it to Claire."

Apparently this Claire knows something we don't.

I wonder what kind of weird boy-girl dynamics are starting to piece together in her first-grade world, and I wonder when boys will be more than playground bait and "boyfriend" will start to mean something more than an insult. I’d better start rehearsing those discussions now.

I know I could be brilliant with this stuff if only she'd stop catching me off guard. I was in the grocery store bathroom one day with Kaitlyn and the baby, changing a messy diaper, when suddenly Kaitlyn said, "What are tampons?" Uh…? I was immediately aware of the fact that there was another woman in the bathroom with us, inside one of the stalls. I didn’t have time to react. As if Kaitlyn sensed a connection, she asked the follow-up: "How does a baby get out of its mom’s belly?"

I’ve answered that question before MANY times, especially in the months before Cally was born, but I think Kaitlyn likes to keep asking it because it makes me squirm. And I’ve never gotten the answer right. I should try to have answers to these questions handy, like all the good parenting books tell me I should, but it doesn't come out the way Liberal Mom intends. I get caught in the loop that begins with a flashback to my grinning baby daughter in diapers, leading into a terrifying flash-forward of my sixteen-year-old daughter in the back seat of a car with a boy. I’m perched on the edge of a cliff, and if I don’t say exactly the right thing, I will cause irreparable damage to this little girl’s budding self-awareness and sexual identity. The pressure makes me second-guess my modern, liberal answers, there’s no time to formulate a whole new, sensitive, respectful, insightful, down-to-earth approach with two little innocent eyes looking up at me expectantly. PRECIOUS SECONDS ARE TICKING! TICKING! SAY SOMETHING, YOU FOOL! And so all I can offer her is what every girl who has ever had a mother knows intimately well: shame. Here you go, kid, it’s all yours. Shame, secrecy, and embarrassment on a silver platter. For whatever reason, I revert to the same vague answers my mother spat at me, handed down from repressed generation to generation. Things like "Don’t worry about it" and "You’re too young to understand" and "I’ll fill you in when you’re older."

With the woman on the other side of the bathroom stall silently judging me, what came out was a strange mix of Liberal Mom and Mrs. Cleaver. "Tampons, they, well, when girls get older… to keep your underwear neat, and well, I’ll explain it later."

IDIOT! What the hell did I just say? Why can't I do this? Maybe I should practice in front of a mirror: Vaaaah…giiiii…naaaaaaaahh.

My blood pressure was escalating. Kaitlyn simply looked at me, waiting for clarification, and I could sense the poor lady in the stall freeze like a deer in the headlights and frantically try to figure out how to get from the stall to the exit without hearing another word of this unfortunate discussion.

I tried to pick up the pieces, intending to reassure Kaitlyn that there’s nothing shameful about biology, to perhaps throw in a little mother-daughter warmth and bonding in the "you can talk to me about anything" vein.

Kaitlyn knew she had me. She moved in for the kill. "What’s sex mean?"


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