Saoirse pitched a bit of a fit a few months ago when Bob and I dropped her and Ula off down at the farm with my parents. We were going home for a date night. She had a few creative works in progress on her craft table; she knew we were having lobster for dinner; we were at a good part in the book we were reading at bedtime; and she just didn’t want to be separated from her mommy.
Her jaw dropped open and she seemed incapable of a response.
I didn’t give in. I give enough hours to my children that I tend to suffer little remorse or guilt when I hand them off in order to get some time to myself or some time with my husband. But upon seeing her weeping and acting as though I was abandoning her in the streets, I decided she was old enough for me to experiment with offering a more thorough explanation.
So the next night, after she returned home and was perched on the kitchen stool across from me as I made supper, happily chatting away, I made my move.
“Saoirse,” I said, leaning across the counter, “we need to talk about something.”
“About my leaving you down at the farm last night.”
“What about it?”
“I wanted to go home and have sex with your father.”
Her jaw dropped open and she seemed incapable of a response. I was acting from my gut on this one, and I needed to charge forward before I lost my courage.
“Look, it’s like this. Parents who like each other have sex with each other.” She gave me the grossed-out kid look.
“Oh, quit acting surprised. You know your dad and I have sex. If we never did, you wouldn’t be here. That’s part of what makes a happy marriage.” As an afterthought I added, “And a happy marriage means that your kids get a happy family life.”
Her mouth closed and she nodded. I took that as a cue that I could fumble ahead.
“And I’m madly in love with you and your sister. I love all the time I spend with you. But other parents send their kids off to school, and in other families, the kids sleep in separate bedrooms. Your dad and I don’t make you sleep in a separate bedroom, and I don’t send you away to school every day.” We have a large loft that functions as a “family bedroom” in our house.
“And while that means your dad and I get to spend a lot of great time with you, we also need time alone once in a while to take care of our marriage.”
“It’s OK, mom, I get it,” she said. “But you made sure you won’t get pregnant, right?”
This. From a nine-year-old.
But the discussion of preventing conception is not a new topic for her. While I had never, until this moment, admitted to a time and date for the actual crime, I’d never denied that we had a sex life, either. A set of cycle beads hangs from my bedside reading lamp that Saoirse and Ula have thoroughly explored and asked questions about; they’ve seen a box of condoms on Bob’s side of the bed; we’ve talked about how pregnancy happens; when it happens; the different options for contraception; the rationale behind Bob’s and my particular choices.
I simply decided early on that I wasn’t going to shy away from the questions they asked.
I never sat down to give them any formal lectures on the topic. I simply decided early on that I wasn’t going to shy away from the questions they asked. As they get older, their questions get more sophisticated, and so do my answers. I want them to be comfortable enough with their sexuality to be able to wait until the time is right. In my deepest hopes, the right time for sexual intercourse will be once they have entered into a monogamous relationship, when a pregnancy, even if unintended, can be supported appropriately. But no matter what, I believe the best way to teach sexual education is to model a healthy, happy union.
Our daughters’ sexual education is a family matter. In our household, we resist the use of conventional drugs. We resist buying GMO foods. We resist any food that has been treated with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, or hormones. We treat our children and ourselves with herbs, reiki, massage, chiropractic care, kinesiology, and homeopathic medicines before we will allow any form of conventional medical intervention. We hope they can make similar holistic choices about their bodies when they become sexually active.
But no matter what they choose, we want to be the first people they turn to when they have questions or concerns. And since that is the case, we need to make sure the door is open for them to ask any and all questions. Even though the tips of his ears occasionally turn red, Bob does his best to answer any questions they pose to him about penises and erections. The less abashed partner, I easily tell them anything they want to know about vaginas. And we don’t hide our affection for each other. They catch us smooching in the kitchen, sigh with mock disgust when we make eyes at each other over dinner, tease us when they find us cuddled up on the couch. Living a happy life in love is the most important sexual education we can give our kids.
Which brings me around to the start of my story, and my rationale for explaining to Saoirse why I left her at the farm that night. Our conversation was wrapping up. I was scooping kale salad out of a bowl with my hands and arranging it on the dinner plates when she leaned across the counter once more.
“One more thing.”
“What is it, sweetie?”
“Please just tell me you washed your hands afterward.”
Shannon Hayes writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her books include The Grassfed Gourment, Radical Homemakers, and Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled.