birds & bees

I Want My Daughters To Have Better Sex Ed Than I Did

Don’t procrastinate on this one.

Written by Laura Onstot
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images

As a nurse, I've always based the answers to questions my kids ask around science. The bleeding on their scraped knee stops because their platelets come to the scene and clog things up. Cancer, they know, is when cells start dividing when they shouldn't. They've listened to their lungs and heart with my stethoscope, and they know what happens when a person dies: Sometimes the lungs stop working first, and other times it's the heart.

I’m doing this very intentionally. I was raised in a family where information about how my body worked was murky at best. At age 10, I believed all you had to do to get pregnant was to pray for a baby. As one of eight kids, it was evident my mom prayed a whole heck of a lot. After reading about a pregnant 10-year-old in the newspaper, it occurred to me that I too, could pray to be pregnant. After all, I loved babies.

So one day, after months of prayer, I decided I was probably pregnant. (I was tired, and my stomach didn’t feel great.) It felt worth mentioning to my parents, who, after the confusion cleared, realized it was time to tell me how babies are actually made. It was a real shock, let me tell ya, to learn my parents had done this thing, at that point, six times.

I was in that awkward stage of life where everything was embarrassing. I had only ever seen the word “vagina” in writing, and when we had to watch a video about puberty in school, I felt absolutely flooded with shame when the female reproductive organs were listed. Though my mom ended the conversation with, “I’m always here if you have any more questions,” I decided I was never going to broach that topic again. The last thing I wanted to do was talk about it any more.

Until, that is, it came time to parent my own daughters. Before they ever exited my vagina, I vowed my daughters would get honest answers to their questions about their bodies. But when our oldest daughter asked at age 3 where babies come from, my empowerment quickly turned into “oh sh*t, already?” According to my panicked calculations, it seemed a little too early to dive into the full scientific explanation, so I kept it simple: Mommies and daddies each have a special cell that they put together. When the cells go together, they start to make a baby.

But after a few years of increasingly pointed questions, I realized it was time. We were into the nitty gritty questions: “If two girls can be married, but you need a man and a woman to make a baby, then how do two mommies make a baby?” In-vitro actually felt much safer to explain than intercourse, but I decided it was time to tell them the whole thing.

So I explained how exactly a pregnancy comes about to them, at ages 6 and 8. And boy, were they surprised. “WHAT?!” my youngest yelled, "you did that... TWICE?!" Ah, yes, that question again. At least I didn’t have to admit to eight times.

In some circles of friends, this conversation felt quite early. In others, I had waited a long time. For us though, it felt like just the right moment. I knew if my daughters were asking questions and they didn’t get the answers from me, they’d get them from someone else. And due to their young ages, they aren’t embarrassed by anything yet.

I think each family will have a different “right time” for these conversations to begin, or for how in-depth the explanations go. And parents may have their own history of sexual trauma: The CDC reports over 50% of women and one-third of men are victims of contact sexual violence which may play into their ease/discomfort of broaching these topics.

As a nurse, I know our culture (any culture) infuses the human body with morals, ideals, and values. And I also understand the danger of being secretive about how our bodies work. When we don’t talk about sex, it doesn’t mean a kid’s not going to have sex. It just means they will find answers from someone else, or make a decision without enough information to calculate the risk. A Columbia University study showed that not only does sex education decrease unwanted pregnancies, but it can also prevent and protect against sexual violence.

We’ve somehow separated these big conversations into different boxes: “the sex talk,” “how babies are made,” “the puberty talk.” But they aren’t one-time conversations, and they’re about a whole lot more than babies. When we talk about sex, it’s about what “love” means, boundaries, safety, worthiness, desire, pleasure – the scope of human experience, really. I don’t want them whispering the word “vagina.” I want my daughters to be able to ask questions without feeling ashamed, or like, this secret power of their body should remain hidden. I want them to get the sex education that I didn’t. And so I’m willing to swallow my own awkward feelings and answer their questions.

Laura Onstot writes to maintain her sanity after transitioning from a career as a research nurse to stay-at-home motherhood. In her spare time, she can be found sleeping on the couch while she lets her kids binge-watch TV. She blogs at Nomad’s Land, or you can follow her on Twitter @LauraOnstot.