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The Awkward Ongoing Conversation: Having “The Talk” with My Sons

To be fair, it wasn’t my idea to bring it up.

Over a decade ago, I was driving in the car with my two sons, who were five- and two-years-old at the time. I was listening to a discussion on NPR about the complexities of in vitro fertilization, when I heard a voice pop up from the back seat.

“Mom, did it hurt when they put the needle in you?” my kindergartener Max asked.

“What needle?” I asked.

“The needle they put in you to get the egg to make me,” he said.

Damn Science Friday, I thought. I tried to come up with a suitable answer without getting into the whole baby-making enchilada.

“Sweetie, they are talking about babies that are made in a laboratory,” I said as I turned off the radio. “That’s what the needles are for. You weren’t made in a laboratory; you were made at home.”

“How?” he pressed. “How did you make me at home?”

I pulled up to a gas station just in time.

“I’m going to fill up the car,” I responded. “But I’ll tell you when I get back.”

I was sure he’d drop the subject and forget all about it, but when I opened the passenger door to grab my wallet, he bounced in his seat, asking again.

“Mom, how are babies made at home?” His toddler brother woke up and gazed at us, disoriented.

I sighed. “I’ll tell you as soon as I get back in the car.”

I highly recommend having the birds and bees talk in the car.

That way your kids can’t see the discomfort on your face as you tell them how babies are made.

After I told him, quickly, with as few details as possible, I inwardly congratulated myself. Maybe explaining it to him while he was still so young would render the news matter of fact. This way he would be prepared, and it wouldn’t be the awkward surprise it was for me at age ten. Maybe listening to NPR with the boys wasn’t the worst idea ever.

I could see the error of my reasoning right away.

“Ewww, Mom!” Max said. “I can’t believe you let Daddy pee inside of you!”

Realizing my mistake, I gave an explanation about bodily fluids.

He was less than satisfied with my clarification.

“Well, that’s just gross,” Max said. His little brother, always quick to agree to everything Max said, nodded his sleepy head.

It was the beginning of an ongoing conversation that has been nothing but awkward ever since.

Now when my teen boys have questions, they’re more comfortable going to my husband for answers. I’m sure they’d love it if I never brought up sex ever again, but I can’t seem to give up the conversation.

Maybe it relates to my fear that the boys will make a mistake because I neglected to provide them with the right knowledge when they needed it most. I am always trying to cover all the bases by blurting out whatever advice enters my brain.

“Wear a helmet when you ride your bike!”

“Sit in the front two rows of class, so your teachers know you are listening.”

“Throw out your socks with holes.”

The most helpful advice I have ever received about parenting is that kids are listening even when you think they aren’t.

So I give as much information as I can, hoping some of it resonates. Talking about sex feels like a natural extension of my interest in their continued wellbeing.

I talk to them about consent: “Never fool around with a girl who is drunk, or when you are drunk.”

And I warn them about using technology: “Never send or forward naked pictures on your phone—that’s considered distribution of child pornography!”

When they got their HPV vaccine shots from the pediatrician, I reminded them: “This doesn’t protect you from other sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy. You still need to wear a condom at all times.”

My comments, and the books I have given them on puberty and sexuality, are always met with eye rolls. Sometimes I wonder if my well-intentioned advice is filed away for future use, or simply discarded like old grocery lists.

The least awkward conversation I’ve had with them recently happened after the boys and I heard Terry Gross on Fresh Air talking with Peggy Orenstein, the author of Boys and Sex. They discussed how early exposure to pornography affects teens and contributes to toxic views of masculinity. Afterward, I asked the boys what they thought and I was pleasantly surprised when they opened up and expressed their opinions. It wasn’t easy, but I did my best to remain quiet and listen without judgment.

Max is applying to college this fall and the time to impart my wisdom on my sons is waning. I saw a condom in his wallet last week and he told me that his pediatrician recommended he buy them.

“Really? That’s great!” I enthused. “But do you know how to put one on?’ I paused, knowing that I had crossed a line, but thinking better safe than sorry.

Predictably, Max rolled his eyes. “First, there is an article in Men’s Health magazine about how to do that. Second, don’t ever speak to me about this again.”

I nodded, knowing it’s just a matter of time before I do. But for today, it’s enough.

Sarah Leibov is a writer and Feldenkrais practitioner in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and two teenage sons.  She is at work on a memoir about surviving her own teen years. You can find her on twitter @LeibovSarah.

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