Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Not the Stork

One day in high school, we had a pretest to start a new unit. We all took out lined pieces of paper and creased and ripped them lengthwise and wrote the numbers 1 to 12 on alternate lines and got ready to write definitions.

"Number one," said the teacher. "Conception."

Wow! I thought. That's hard! I mean, I know what it is, but how do you decribe it? "Conception." I wrote. "The act of having an original or new idea or thought." There, I thought. That's close enough.

"Number two," said the teacher. "Sexual intercourse."

D'oh! I thought (or would have thought, if the word had been invented in those benighted pre-Simpsons days), erasing furiously while mentally smacking my forehead. What was I thinking? I scolded myself. This is Health class.

It's not that I'm squeamish; it's just that my mind isn't necessarily on the body. In any case, we're starting to think about how to explain this particular idea or thought to the Mermaid Girl.

The Mermaid Girl knows quite well where she came from: there was a speck from Mama and a speck from Uncle Skaterboy and the specks got together. We think she might be under the impression that they got together in Mama's tummy, so therefore Mama must have swallowed the speck. We feel vaguely guilty about not being in a huge hurry to disabuse her of this notion, since the reality was so...well, "ridiculous" is the word that springs to mind when I recall the logistics. Also, even if we correct her current misconception (as it were) and explain in careful clinical detail where she came from, she'll still have very little idea how it usually happens. She'll be The Kid Who Thought All Babies Are Conceived By A.I. And while it's kind of a relief to not have to break to our kid the squicky news that her parents did that, it kind of begs the question.

No problem, right? The conventional wisdom is that kids will ask you what they need to know, so you shouldn't go burdening them with undue information too early.

But if we know our girl, she's unlikely to do something as straightforward as asking us. Because asking us would mean admitting she doesn't know everything in the world, and heaven forfend she should appear less sophisticated than her 40-something housemates/parents. Instead, I'm sure she'll do all she can to pick up information on the sly, probably from kids at school.

This approach has in the past led to MG passing on to us such nuggets of wisdom gathered from her peers as "California is going to sink into the ocean soon" and "If you eat something while you're lying down, you DIE." So it's a little scary to think about what they might tell her about sex and reproduction.

On the other hand, she might ask us in disguise, like she did the other day. "[a kid in her class] is so silly!" she said brightly. "He said a woman has to be married to have a baby! I told him that's just wrong!" She tried this out on me and RW separately, and we both agreed that he was mistaken, all you need is a speck from a woman and a speck from a man, but independently suggested that many people, including possibly her classmate's parents, think that it's a better idea for a woman to be married when she has a baby so the baby will have two parents to take care of it, since babies are a lot of work.

(MG's current plan, by the way, is to be a single parent, so she can make all the decisions herself. We have repeatedly gently suggested that single parenthood is not the easiest path, as it's generally very hard to take care of a baby and also earn enough money to live on. "I'll have my baby after I retire," is her solution. Hey, it worked for Annie Liebovitz...)

While we were talking about babies and specks and misinformed classmates, I thought it might be time to slip her some official terminology, and told her that many grownups call the speck from a man a "sperm" and the speck from the woman an "egg," even though it's very very tiny and doesn't look at all like the eggs we have in our fridge.

She stopped jumping rope and stared at me, struck by a sudden thought. "Do you have eggs in you?" I assured her that I do, but they've never met any sperm.

"And," I added, "You have eggs in you, too. They're not ready to make a baby yet, though."

She resumed jumping, looking very smug and pleased.

So I brought home It's So Amazing! for RW and me to preview. We spent the evening looking through it and agreed that it's a terrific book, extraordinarily well-written and informative, with funny and accurate cartoony illustrations. MG might not be quite ready for it yet, due to the overwhelming amount of information and text. Probably next year, though. It covers all the mechanics, and touches in a matter-of-fact way on gay families and adoption and masturbation and (briefly) abortion, and just about everything else you might want (or not really want) to discuss. And the cartoonish pictures are funny and accurate.

Even the masterful Robie Harris has her squeamish moments, though. It might be nit-picky, but I noticed a couple of question-begging elisions in the book. For one, the careful diagram of female genitalia labels all the parts, and also tells what they're all for--the labia protect the vulva, the vagina is where the baby comes out, the urethra is where the pee comes out--except the clitoris, which is just described by apprearance ("a small bump of skin about the size of a pea") and location. No purpose there, apparently. Hmm. Who knew?

Also, on the page where she bravely tackles artifical insemination, the explanation is that "Doctors can place sperm into the vagina or the uterus with a syringe". It was a surprise to read that only doctors can do this; I don't remember there being any doctors around the day we got MG started.

Though both RW and I, like a certain famous Doctor, do have master's degrees... in [library] Science! Maybe that counts.


Anonymous rachel said...

So if you're having the mental kind of conception, does that mean you're pregnant with ideas?

When I was a young kid, my mother told me you couldn't have a baby unless you were married. I think it was an effort to dodge the question and to instill some kind of morality, but the result was that my very logical little-kid mind asked the obvious question: "How does your body KNOW that you're married?" Meaning, if I pretended hard enough that I was married, could I fool my body into getting pregnant?

I tried it. It didn't work. Just as well -- I was 5.

8:47 AM  
Anonymous ppb said...

My mom said that you couldn't get pregnant or have "relations" until your mom said you were allowed to or you got married. That worked until about 4th grade when our babysitter got pregnant, and her mom was Not. Happy.

9:03 AM  
Anonymous wiredferret said...

We just got It's So Amazing, too, because Baz has been bombarding us with questions about why he and his sister are different, and where he lived inside me, and how he got out and....

We're going to take it one chapter at a time, since they're short and single subject. Last night was the introduction. He likes the bird best.

11:06 AM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Hi wiredferret! I've been thinking of you. I like the bird too, though I think MG is more like the bee: fingers in ears singing "I can't heeear you!"

ppb and Rachel--your moms were so sweetly optimistic!

9:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Grade 11 Health Class, they told us that there was such thing as the clitoris, but not what it was for.
Later I learned that it was for orgasm, but was told that female orgasm "had no biological function."
Word on the teenage street said you were more likely to get pregnant if you came, but I wrote this off as more anti-sex, misogynist scare tactics from the grownup "you should be married" camp.
When I started trying to get pregnant, at 38, I began to wonder if it might be true. I asked my doctor, and pored through all the fertility books I could find, but no-one came out and said it. Finally I asked a rather radical midwife, who confirmed that female orgasm IS biologically designed to aid conception. All those lovely fluids released...all those pleasant contractions inwards... Doesn't take Charles Darwin to work that one out. I can't believe it took me two decades.
- Renaissance Woman

10:30 AM  

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