As children this age are wont to do, my three-year-old son has started asking me about body parts.
“Where’s your penis button?” he asked me the other day, conflating the two anatomical terms.
“Mommies don’t have penises,” I told him. “Mommies are girls. And boys have penises,” I explained.
My husband and I have always been open about our bodies in front of our son, believing that they’re nothing to be ashamed of, even if we don’t work out as often as did before he was born. We want him to see his body for what it is — natural and capable and strong and healthy.
We explain notions of privacy to our son at the same time that I change into my pajamas unabashedly in front of him. When our son pulled his penis out at the dinner table a few weeks ago, excited to show me his trick with the cool hole at the front of his underwear (“Mommy! Look at this!”), I told him he was welcome to touch himself in private, but that it wasn’t something we do at the dinner table. As he’s become potty trained, he’s learning the concept of wanting privacy in the bathroom while he does his business — before quickly calling me in to help him get re-clothed or wipe his bottom or both.
So we talk about privacy, and what’s appropriate in public versus at home, at the dinner table versus the bathroom, and at the same time I have no qualms about changing into my swimsuit in front of my three-year-old. Or at least I didn’t.
Recently, he pointed to my chest and asked, “What’re those, mama?” which might seem like a question as simple as the one about my penis button.
But my breasts are different — gone, actually, if I’m being honest, although they’ve been reconstructed into something resembling breasts. My new breasts are marred by scars from my bilateral mastectomy, and my nipples aren’t nipples at all but tattoos made to look like the real thing. On the plus side, my new breasts don’t sag or even jiggle much, but on the other hand, they’re cool to the touch and have lost most of their sensation because so many nerves were cut through. And they’re not exactly breasts, if I’m being honest with my toddler.
Above my new breasts, I have a power port implanted under my skin, a device about the diameter of a nickel and raised, like someone stuck a piece of Jujube candy under my collarbone. The port is where my nurses administer the IV infusions of chemo I still receive every third week. It delivers the medicine straight into my jugular vein.
“What’s that?” my son asks, pointing at his own nipples in comparison, a questioning look on his face.
“No, honey. This isn’t a nipple. This is where I receive my medicine.”
“I know,” he says, surprising me. My throat constricts with emotion.
So I tell my son they’re my breasts and I explain with brevity that my port is not a nipple, but I know someday I’ll have to tell him more. I’ll have to tell him how I was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer when he was just five months old, how I had to wean him from nursing in a little over a week so that I could start my first course of chemotherapy. I’ll have to tell him how it came back a second and a third time, how I’ll probably have to be on medicine forever, and how I get scared, too, because they don’t yet have a cure for what mommy has.
But not yet.
For now, I tell him he has a penis and a belly button, and mommy has one but not the other. I blow his mind when I explain that his belly button is where he was attached to me when he was inside my belly. I tell him that some days I’m tired and want a nap (just like him), so we can watch extra shows and cuddle on the couch when that happens.
For now, I try not to worry about the words I’ll use when the time comes, when he starts asking more complicated questions about our bodies and the things they can do.
Related post: 8 Things A Mom With Breast Cancer Should Know