I had the privilege last week of serving on a panel with Nancy Brinker. She is the founder of the Susan B. Komen Race for the Cure. While on that panel, Ms. Brinker spoke about the early days of the foundation (It was founded in 1982, the year I graduated college by the way) when the word breast…couldn’t be said publicly.
And if it was said, it was whispered.
I remember having the body-parts conversation back when I was little. My older sisters, Emily and Helen were the primary go-to-gals on that subject. Emily was 13 years older than me. Honest, tender and to the point, Emily never did mince words….on anything might I add. That’s one of the reasons I love her.
No nicknames for body parts…a vagina was a vagina and a penis was a penis. The conversation was funny and made me squirm a little, but it was real.
So when I had my own two kids, talking about body parts, wasn’t a difficult task.
When Hank was around three or four, I once heard him separating his stuffed animals based on gender. It went a little something like this:
“Okay so you go over here with the boy animals cuz you have a penis and you go over here with the girl animals cuz you have a giavanni.”
I shouted nonchalantly from the other room, “I think you mean ‘vagina.’”
Where things got interesting, of course, is when the world started attaching all kinds of should and shouldn’ts to those body parts and how they should or shouldn’t be shared with other people. That wondrous landscape is very confusing. It seems to me that just about everybody has a different take on that…and when I mean everybody…I mean everybody.
And the way I see it, our sexual body parts have been up for debate since…well…since they’ve existed. This is nothing new. Religions, governments, nations have all had a say in how we manage our body parts…heck some have even gone to war over the subject.
I decided early on, that the way to prevent that war from entering my house, was to create a space where we could speak freely on the subject….exchange ideas…be open, honest and deliberate in how we talked about it. Rather than giving that conversation to someone else, we would have it ourselves, in our open, shame-less, loving way.
Back when the kids were little, I used to volunteer at a runaway shelter for teens. Hardened shells on the outside with fluffy fears on the inside, these teenagers were used to the streets…most having lived on them for weeks at a time. I had previously worked in the substance abuse prevention field and had a Masters in Social Work so when the agency invited me to give the “sex talk” with these homeless people…I was like, “Uhhh…what part of YES can I cartwheel across your porch?” These teens were at risk of so many things, let’s not let potential disease and death be one of them.
So once a month (as I recall) I would go marching into the agency, with a bag of condoms, a list of questions and joy abounding…and once a month these kids and I would sit cross legged on the floor in the agency’s comfy living room and talk about their fears, their lives…their wanting to be loved, nurtured, held.
One afternoon, I was driving along in my car when Hank, age 9 or so, calls out from the back seat.
“Hey mom, what’s in that bag?”
I knew immediately what he was talking about.
“What bag?” I answered nonchalantly.
“That brown one, up there by your seat. See in the car door? What’s in THAT bag?”
Well…here it is…THAT moment with my own. Do I go there? Is he ready? Do we launch?
I decide to give the opportunity one more opt-out, but if he persists I’ve got to just go there I guess. No time like the present.
“This bag?” I nonchalantly pointed to the brown paper bag not quite hidden in the car door.
“Yes. THAT bag. What’s in it?”
Oh gawd…is this it? Is this THAT moment? Am I ready?
“Condoms,” I replied as nonchalantly as I could.
“What’s a condom?”
Well, I’ve always been a firm believer that what life offers up…is there for the takin’ so I decided this moment was for the takin’. I mean…it’s here. I’m here. He’s here and so is this bag of condoms.
And so…I launched. The explanation was, I will admit, somewhat sterile in its telling, but thorough.
When I was done, Hank seemed unflustered…maybe even a little bored.
“Can I see one?”
“One what,” I asked.
Really? Now? Are you kidding me?
“Sure,” I said.
I handed him the bag. He pulled out one of the small square shiny packets.
“Can I open it?”
I surrender! I surrender to this moment!
“Sure, go ahead.”
Silence from the backseat. I can see him in the rearview mirror. He is opening the package and stretching the gosh darn thing to see how far it will go.
“Anything you wanna share?” I asked him. “What do ya think?”
A couple of minutes pass. He puts all of it and the wrappings back in the bag and sets it aside.
Oh dear, I’m thinking. Now is certainly NOT the time to laugh.
“Anything else buddy? Any other questions? Thoughts? Ideas?”
“I don’t think so. If I think of anything else, I’ll let you know.”
And he did, many times over the years, my daughter too…and we talked about it…and it was real and rich and honest and open.