We had The Talk with our son, Nathan, the night after my husband Jon’s vasectomy. Explaining why Dad was sitting on an ice pack and what that had to do with our ability to have additional children seemed like the ideal segue to a conversation that felt like one big non sequitur, and we seized the awkward moment before us.
I realize I’m making it sound like it was a spur of the moment decision, when that’s really the furthest thing from the truth. I’d ordered a book months before, one of those “It’s Not The Stork” ones that walks you through how to explain the mechanics of baby making to the babies you’ve made. Actually, I ordered four books after a full afternoon browsing Amazon and comparing customer reviews, read them all, and kept the one I liked the best. Jon and I flipped through it together and had multiple “when should we tell him” conversations that all ended with some vague decision on “soon.” I also consulted friends, asking “Have you all had The Talk yet?” in hushed tones or via text, with varying responses.
“Oh man, not yet, but it’s coming. What book did you use?”
“I tried, but he got so embarrassed that I finally dropped it and figured we’ll try again later.”
With all of this forethought and planning, you would expect that I was fully prepared and executed the conversation flawlessly. The reality is that I left Jon to handle it solo, vacating the premises entirely with our daughter who is at an age where any amount of information about bodily functions is weaponized and she’d be inclined to ask the grocery clerk about his vas deferens just to spite me.
When we returned an hour later, I was surprised to find the boys still deep in conversation and Jon holding the box of condoms from our armoire. I was flat out stunned to see that Nathan looked neither embarrassed nor desperate to escape. He was asking questions and nodding thoughtfully at Jon’s answers. Emboldened by how well things seemed to be going, I asked if Nathan had any questions for me.
“Um, yeah,” he said. “Have you gone through puberty, Mom?” Immediately regretting my momentary bravery, I said that yes, in fact, I went through it some twenty-odd years ago now.
“Then how come you don’t have hairy armpits?” he asked, pointing to the picture in the book. Relief washed over me; of all the ground they’d covered, I got to talk about armpits? I grinned and explained that I choose to shave them.
Nathan nodded. “And when you have your … menst- … menu- … Dad, wait what was the bleeding called again?” he asked, swiveling to Jon.
“The word is menstruation, bud, but you can just call it a period,” I interjected.
“Right, yeah—that. Do you use a bandaid when it happens?”
“Ah, no. I use tampons,” I said and, suddenly understanding how Jon came to hold a box of condoms in his hand, I went to fetch the box of Playtex from underneath our sink. Nathan studied the box thoughtfully, nodding.
“And when was your last period?” Nathan asked. I felt like I was at the OB/GYN’s office, scratching my head and counting backward on my fingers.
“Uh, about three weeks ago, bud. Anything else?”
“Nope. Can I go watch an episode of Pokemon before I shower?”
Later that night, Jon was in bed queuing up the newest episode of Big Little Lies as I returned from the kitchen, a fresh bag of crushed ice in hand.
“Can you believe how well it went?”
“What, the vasectomy?” Jon asked, brow furrowed as he tried to remember his brother’s HBO Go password. “I know, right? I haven’t had any pain at all!”
“No, not that,” I said impatiently, waving off the painlessness of Jon’s sterility. “I mean the conversation with Nathan.”
“Oh, right,” he said. “Yeah, he did great … why can’t I sign in—maybe it starts with a capital letter?”
I rolled my eyes and made Jon put down the remote for a second so we could properly celebrate this victory. The conversation we’d been dragging our feet on for months had gone well! We executed a non-cringeworthy version of The Talk! Obviously we were parenting rockstars. All that Amazon research I did totally paid off; it was just a matter of being prepared. I was ready to start strategizing our conversations about Instagram use and underage drinking when Jon brought me back to razor sharp reality.
“Love, you know this isn’t just one conversation, right?” he asked.
“Of course I know that,” I huffed, but Jon wasn’t done.
“We haven’t talked about who has sex or when to have sex,” he went on, shifting the bag of ice. “All we really did was tell him exactly what it is.” He stretched and resettled himself on his pillow then eyed me. “That’s hardly the most difficult part to tackle.”
I said nothing for a moment, not wanting to admit how far ahead of myself I’d gotten. But Jon was right. The mechanics were easy enough to explain, and Nathan was the type of kid to readily accept facts and data, but there was still plenty more material to cover with no diagrams to fall back on. I mumbled something about being glad we were off to a good start at any rate, and curled into Jon’s shoulder as we watched the show. My mind wandered though, and long after we’d turned off the TV and Jon’s breathing had shifted to the deep and even pattern of sleep, I lay awake thinking.
When do we tell Nathan when it's okay to have sex? How old exactly does he need to be? Should he talk to us about it first? And what about drugs and alcohol? Peer pressure? Oh Lord, is there a way I can delete social media from the universe so he doesn't ever have to deal with it? And what on EARTH are we going to do when he’s 15 and refuses to say more than three words at a time to us? Maybe we can draw up some sort of timetable so we can squeeze in all the hard conversations over the next four years while he still likes us and listens to what we have to say.
I finally fell into a fretful sleep that night, but I spent days in the headspace of developing the perfect plan to raise a child who never makes a misstep on the big important things. I’d probably still be there, except for a friend who delivered the words that stopped me in my research-laden tracks.
“No amount of information is going to assure you that everything is going to be okay,” she said. “There’s not one single book or movie with a story arc of ‘my parents gave me all the information I ever needed to make all the right decisions and nobody got hurt and everything was wonderful’ because that’s not a thing.”
That’s not a thing.
Not in books. Not for my kids. Not even for me.
My parents said all the things they were supposed to say; they packed plenty of wise advice and sound counsel into my growing up years. And I kissed the wrong boys and fell in love with the wrong boys and at 19 even moved 500 miles away from home for the wrong boy.
I did remember to say no to the punch at college frat parties and sipped a coke instead. But two years later, after three vodka-cranapples, my college roommate and I decided it would be an excellent idea for her to teach me how to drive her stick shift in the parking lot of the mall below our apartment complex. The mall that also housed the local police precinct. The worst thing that happened that night was we both laughed so hard we literally peed our pants, but I wince now at our dumb luck.
Yes, I made plenty of wrong decisions. More than one person got hurt.
But I also found my way back home. I fell in love with the right boy. I’ve both taken risks and made the safe choice, and while I know my parents would still really like it if I made it to church every single Sunday, I think maybe they’re proud of me, too. Even if this is the first they’re hearing of the driving lessons story.
Now on the other side of the hard conversations, I find myself wanting to shield my children from the mistakes I made while also acknowledging that my mistakes are part of what makes me who I am. Who knows if I’d be here, with this husband and these children and this life, if I hadn’t said yes to a few things I should’ve said no to.
Maybe the things I have to tell them aren’t just how to make the right decisions and make sure no one gets hurt.
Maybe I’ll tell them to pay attention, because these are the moments that matter, the ones you will replay in your mind in 10, 20, 50 years, and getting them right might not be as important as learning whatever it is they have to teach you. I’ll tell them regardless of where their yeses and nos might lead them, they can always find their way back home.
I’ll tell them to try and exercise a little wisdom and a little restraint (I am their mom, after all), but also to be sure and catch the story, so someday they too will have something to tell.
Words and photo by Jennifer Batchelor.