My three-year-old son, E, and his new baby sister, N, are bathing together and my son asks: Where is N’s penis?
My husband, Scott, who was in charge of bath that night (YAY!) yells: AAALLLLEEEEXXX.
I have been designated handler-of-all-questions-uncomfortable. (Scott is still getting over E not being an infant anymore. He’s SOOO big is a daily comment.)
I come in and Scott and E repeat the question.
I respond: You have a penis and N has a vagina. She does not have a penis. I go on to explain that Daddy is like E and Mama is like N. I don’t elaborate further and E repeats my explanation a few times without any new questions. He points out his newfound knowledge to N and that’s it.
I leave the room with an air of smugness last seen when my son greeted my mom’s friend at our door with Hello. It’s nice to meet you.
I had been thinking about this issue since E discovered his penis. Armed with my philosophy, biology and feminist theory classes, I already knew how I was going to handle the gender, sex, and my body talks:
- I wasn’t going to shy away or ignore any question. I wanted him to love and respect his body and I would mirror that by respecting his question.
- I wanted to use scientific terms. “Hoo-ha” and “weenie” aren’t human body parts nor are they anything I want associated with my body or my children’s. (Although I just learned that my sister uses “vah-jay-jay,” which had I known that before the talk, I may have been willing to incorporate. It sounds like the cool neighbor in an old-school 70’s sitcom. Who’s at the door? It’s VAH-JAY-JAY!)
- I also wanted to emphasize what my daughter HAS, not what she doesn’t have. I’ve read way to much Freud to describe women as a “lack” of anything.
- Most importantly, I wanted to move at E’s pace. E doesn’t seem to care who are boys and who are girls so I have yet to comment on “appropriate” pronouns and gender definitions. Anyway, as any VERY liberal arts student will tell you, gender definitions are best left fluid.
And the talk in the bathroom went just like I wanted it.
Until E blindsides me a few days later.
I’m at the kitchen table leaning over while wearing appropriate breast-feeding attire. E points and asks: What’s that?
Now I look down and say hopefully: Those are my breasts.
He says: NO! What’s that?
And points his finger clearly between my breasts. I start panicking. Is there a scientific word for cleavage? Is there a feminist word for cleavage? Why is my three-year-old asking me about cleavage?
Well… (I pause trying to buy time. But I can’t ignore his question — That’s Rule #1!) It’s where my breasts meet… And I think to myself: What? Am I really describing my breasts like they’re friends getting together for coffee. Wait, maybe I can call it STARBUCKS.
But Mama, what IS it?, he insists.
I look left. I look right. I use Jedi mind-tricks to force my cat to appear and actually let him pet her. And E continues to looks from me to my chest to me again. So I tell him. I give him the word that every heterosexual male has come to love.
It’s called cleavage, E.
And my feminist, scientific, and mommy selves DIE.
The next day he asks again.
Except it’s while my husband is leaning over without a shirt on. E pointed to a SKIN roll (NOT a fat roll) and says: Beavage! Which I guess is breast plus cleavage. Or right around the time Child Protective Services calls.
A version of this post originally appeared on The Mommies Network