In the spirit of Sophia Petrillo, picture it: 2013. A beautiful Saturday morning in May. My nine-year-old son Jeremy and I are enjoying the warm sun on the back patio while my husband and six -year-old son sleep in. We are the early risers, more so during those days because we had an active puppy. Major was nearly six months old and busy.
I’m sipping my coffee and Jeremy is deep in thought. Major frolics in the yard, everywhere, all over the place. Busy. Knowing his puppyhood is short-lived, I say casually, “Man, I can’t wait until he gets fixed.” Without missing a beat, with not a moment between my last syllable and his first, Jeremy asks, “So, is it a tube? Is it a tube that connect the boy and girl? Is it just a tube?”
I freeze. Right there in the delightful morning sun, as we sit in our pajamas and I sip coffee, he asks me the very first question about sex. He is nine, and I am dying.
The subject of the dog getting “fixed” was not a new one. We’d had a dozen inappropriate moments with Major and the couch pillows. Major and the leg of a house guest. Major and the hand-stitched quilts. Major and nothing but the urge to do what pubescent dogs do. We’d explained his behavior as “the urge to mate.” We kept it simple. We deferred to biology. We referenced the animal kingdom. But something in Jeremy’s brain had been processing these conversations for months. He’d seen enough documentaries on mating in the animal kingdom, and he had enough curiosity.
So, in that moment, I had a choice. Run with it, or deflect.
I ran with it.
As cool as I could possibly be, I began with anatomy. I used the real words, the actual terms, even the gross ones like sperm and ovulate and fertilize. For an hour he asks questions and I answer them accurately. I remind myself over and over again that he has always been this way: mature, older than his age, and curious.
The freak-out showed up when Jeremy asked me whether or not brothers and sisters mated, and it was at that point that I calmly replied, “You know, I’m gonna refill my coffee and I’ll be right back. Keep an eye on Major, okay?” I slipped inside the house and closed the door gently behind me. Then, I flung my coffee mug on the dining room table, raced to the bedroom, and climbed on top of my husband, who, at this point, was blissfully unaware of the morning’s event. I violently shake him out of a deep sleep. It is a wonder he didn’t slug me.
“YOUR SON IS ASKING IF BROTHERS AND SISTERS HAVE SEX YOU NEED TO GET UP RIGHT NOW AND COME OUTSIDE I CANNOT DO THIS ALONE I AM DYING.”
All one sentence, all one breath.
Five minutes later, as if there wasn’t a crack in the earth, he joins us on the porch with a bowl of cereal. Nonchalantly, I catch him up to speed. I act as though nothing has fazed me, though I am confident my life has been cut short by a few years. We go on to answer more questions. We move the conversation inside and talk for another full hour. I am amazed at our performance, that we are so incredible under pressure because surely this is where we were going to fail. When the biology lesson ends, we affirm Jeremy: “Your questions and curiosities are totally normal. You can always talk to us. We will always tell you the truth. You, however, are not the teller of these matters. Leave it to your friends’ parents, please.”
When the event ends, he trots off to build LEGOs. Jeremy is perfectly fine. I exchange a look with my husband and immediately the tears fall. There is nothing left. My words are gone. I bawl.
Today, Jeremy is 14. We’ve had half a dozen more conversations that I’ve cringed through. He still comes to us, and we still tell him the truth. We have many years ahead of us when it comes to cringey conversations, but in reflecting upon how this journey began, I am confident that we are on the right track.
1. We didn’t force it. The moment arrived organically and we made space for his questions. We choked down the shock and showed up for the task.
2. We didn’t shame or criticize him. These curiosities are normal, and we’ve all been there. We made our boundaries and morals known, but we affirmed that simply wondering about mature matters is completely natural.
3. We used the proper terms and kept it age-appropriate. While it’s tempting to sugar-coat and re-route, this is one of the few areas of growing up that demands direct, accurate language. For example, at nine, we didn’t talk about sexually-transmitted diseases. It wasn’t age-appropriate. Eventually, though, it will be.
4. We acknowledged that this talk is not “one and done.” Talking about sexual intimacy and relationships is ongoing. Whenever the topic arises, everything stops and we talk. We never wait for a better time because there is no such thing.
5. We realized that there is no official timeline to follow when it comes to talking about sex. At nine, Jeremy was ready. Our current 11-year-old though? He has no clue. Jackson’s not even close. However, when the moment arrives and the door has been opened, we’ll answer his questions too as calmly and cooly as before.