On her third birthday, I told my daughter the story of her birth: how my water breaking echoed in my head like a popped juice box, how people outside the hospital had given Dad and me thumbs-up, how I’d barely had to push before she slid right out.
She looked up from her breakfast cake. “What, Mom?”
Dang. I thought I’d told her that part already. I am trying to raise my children in between the zero awareness of my own West Indian childhood and the over-parented Brooklyn model. I grew up in a house of euphemisms; the childhood word I recall for penis is so ridiculous (surely it wasn’t “kilily”?) I recently called my older sister to fact-check its truth (it was). At my daughter’s three-year checkup, I asked her pediatrician if I’d spoiled her innocence. “Not at all,” he assured. “Children need appropriate vocabulary. No ridiculous code words like ‘cabinet’ or ‘flower.’ You gave her information. When she gets older, give her a little more.”
My daughter has adhered nicely to Dr. Cao’s projection. A year ago as I drove the carpool home after what must have been a rough day at elementary school, she announced she wanted girls. “It doesn’t work like that,” I told her. “The daddy decides if it’s a boy or a girl.”
“What?” She sounded dismayed, “How come?”
Here, somewhat paraphrased, is my lesson on chromosomes: “If you have two apples and I ask for some fruit, what can you give me?”
“Apples give you gas, remember?”
“Fine, mangoes. What can you give me?”
“A mango, Mom.”
“And if Veej (our carpool kid) has a mango and an apple, what can he give me?”
“A mango or an apple. But Veej, give her the mango.”
“See? Veej can give me either a mango or an apple. You can only give me mangos. It’s the same with babies. Get it?”
This was maybe too much detail. “The mom has one kind of piece to give. The daddy’s body can choose from two different pieces. One is like the mommy’s. The other one only he has. If he gives the piece like the mommy’s, the baby will be a girl. If he gives the other piece, it’s a boy.” I was starting to confuse myself. “You know that you are a little piece of Mommy and a little piece of Dad, right?”
She tried putting all these pieces together. “Fine then. I’ll just adopt girls.”
Veej, quiet until then, said, “Yeah, but how does the daddy give the mommy his little piece?”
“That, buddy,” I pulled up to his house, “is an excellent question for your own mommy and daddy.” I hopped out the car and locked the door. “Prepare, yourself,” I told his mother. “I think Veej is going to ask about reproduction tonight.”
“Oh?” She sounded wary.
“I was explaining sex chromosomes and gender determination, and he wants to know how the sperm reaches the egg.”
She squinted at me.
“I didn’t say sex or sperm or egg, just mangoes and apples. Two mangoes, girl. Apple and mango, boy.”
“Oh man,” she said, “the other day he asked where babies come from.”
“What did you tell him?”
She laughed. “I told him the elves bring them.”
How we cracked up, my daughter pounding the car window to stop our chatting, and Veej howling to be let out. A year later, same season, out of the blue my 5-year-old son asks from the back seat formerly occupied by Veej, “So what? The mommy and daddy just rub their tummies together to make the baby?”
Did I trump “the elves” with some age-appropriate baby biology? Did I do better than the nonsense words from my childhood? Sometimes my inner West Indian prude outs my attempt at Brooklyn bon vivant. “Rudolph!” I shouted, almost honking the horn in glee at the perfect timing of the 106.7 Lite FM Christmas carol marathon. We’d been hoping to hear that one for a week.
My son has not been playing by the pediatrician’s rules. When he gets a little bit of information, he wants a little bit more right away. My girl had kept eating birthday cake when she learned babies were born through the vagina. My son’s first question had been, “Does that hurt?” and the next thing I knew, I was explaining scheduled Cesareans, epidurals and natural childbirth options.
When I was 8, a kindly Jehovah’s Witness neighbor named Myrtle took stock of the village children’s ignorance and read us the facts of life from a palm-sized, doe-brown book without a cover picture. For years I held images of a naked mommy and daddy crushing each other almost to death, and of a tiny, blind baby crawling down a snug birth canal, which I pictured similar to the wide, mossy drainpipe next to our house. The only reproduction-related conversation I have had with my now 70-year-old mother took place shortly after my daughter’s birth. She vaguely cautioned about having unwanted pregnancies while nursing, sage advice from a woman whose first four children were born within a six-year span.
I’m primed but not prepared for my son’s next query. Regardless of how curious he is, I’d rather eat an earthworm than use any movement or place prepositions to fit the daddy and mommy pieces together— no “in,” “into,” “by” or “between.” Thus far I’ve employed simple forms of the verb “have.” Girls have, you have. I have to come up with better, soon.
My daughter, meanwhile, is still set on adoption.