For reasons that are unclear to me, parents are extremely uncomfortable when it comes to talking to their kids about sex. Perhaps it is because our parents didn’t model how to do it well. I recall asking my parent some elementary question about sex when I was in middle school, this was probably around 1961. Just to show the level of ignorance I was operating under, there was no internet, no access to naked lady magazines, the only anatomically correct instruction I had ever received was from National Geographic magazine photos documenting their visits to indigenous villages. So after much nervous anticipation, I broached ‘the subject which should never be mentioned in polite company,’ and my parents could not have been more mortified if I had pointed to a bulging erection in my pants and asked, “Anybody have a clue what we have going on down here?” I don’t recall getting any answers, but I remember my parents frantically paging through volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica which started to pile up on the dinner table. I recall Darwin being cited.
Fast forward to 1998, Rebecka, the girls and I have just moved from Honduras to Maryland and we are taking the girls to their first medical exam in the U.S. As a reminder, we had adopted Elizabeth as a baby when we lived in Guatemala, she was probably about 6 at the time of this story. Iliana was born in Honduras and she was around 3. And to complete the backstory, Rebecka had been working for 9 years in international family planning, maternal and child health, and had started her career in public health doing sexual orientation for adolescents in Mexico City.
The girls were enjoying the antics of the male doctor, giggling when he looked in their ears and whistled, “How in the heck did that little birdy get in there?” As Elizabeth’s physical was wrapping up, he moved on to more sensitive issues.
“Now Elizabeth, you should always remember that your body belongs to you and that no one should ever touch you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable.” Elizabeth was at an age when she was really good at tilting her head and giving dumb looks. “What I mean is, that no one should touch you where your bathing suit is.”
Elizabeth draws back. “Are you talking about my vagina? Why would anyone want to touch my vagina?”
Now it’s the doc’s turn to draw back. “Never mind, it sounds like your family is handling this.”
Fast forward a few more years, Elizabeth is around 9 and Iliana is around 6. We are at the dinner table and Elizabeth ask a ‘birds and the bees’ question and Rebecka responds with relish.
“The mother has an egg and the father has a seed and when the seed meets the egg they start the baby. The baby grows in the uterus of the mommy and when it is time to be born the baby comes out the mommy’s vagina.”
Elizabeth nods and goes back to eating fish sticks and tater tots.
Even in these early days we used to say that Iliana was going to grow up to be an investigative reporter because, while Elizabeth may have been satisfied with Rebecka’s Sex Ed 101 course synopsis, Iliana was not. The next night at dinner Iliana of the Washington Post is duly recognized from the podium of the Whitehouse Press Room, “But how does the dad’s seed get into the mother?”
Press Secretary Rebecka, “The daddy puts his penis in the mommy’s vagina, the seed comes out of the penis, into the vagina, moves up to the uterus and meets the egg.”
Rebecka moves on to the next reporter, Iliana looks thoughtful.
A few days later I step out of the shower and Iliana is waiting for me. As I start to towel off, Iliana is staring directly at my penis, which is eye level to her.
“May I help you with anything, Iliana?”
“No,” see says, continuing her inspection. “I was just wondering about something.” Eventually she turns and walks away.
I wonder how my Dad would have responded to such a visit. I can’t decide whether it would have been a heart attack or stroke that carried him away.
Which reminds me of young Ilana’s typical comments:
I once complimented a woman on what she was wearing and my daughter Iliana said, “Please ignore all fashion advice from my father.”
Another time I was leaving for work and 12-year-old Iliana called out, “Dad, do you ever even look in a mirror?”