In the early 2000s I worked with young people and their parents on issues of sexuality. This project resulted in a series of nine films: The Growing Up, Time of Our Life and Badhte Hum trilogies that were designed to address the gap in rights-based conversation around growing up, physical changes during puberty, love, relationships, sexuality and autonomy issues. As a young person in my mid-twenties, several parents told me off during our workshops. As I discussed the value of being open with their children about sexuality, love, sex and relationships they would laugh and tell me to wait and watch till I had kids of my own.
Now I have a daughter who will soon be nine years old. One of the first anxieties that gripped me when I had her was whether I was up to being an open and honest parent – the kind I was asking those other parents to be more than a decade ago.
One of the first decisions I made early on was to include the words vulva, vagina and penis in her vocabulary alongside nose, mouth, ear, and eyes! This was when she was one year old and beginning to speak. The other was being conscious that there would be no shame around the body in our home. This is easier said than done when there are older parents in the house who will at a moment’s notice ask a girl child to sit ‘properly’ or object when she touches her genitals. There had to be many, many conversations.
One of the very first stories my daughter wanted to be told was how she was born. It was easy for me because I had a caesarean section but I knew that at some point I had to share with her that children come out of the vagina. The story of how she was born included the concept of sperm and egg and the uterus as well as the idea that mom and dad discussed wanting to have a child and prepared mentally and economically to look after a baby. This was when my daughter was five.
She still asks to be told that story. The story has grown with details added as she kept asking more questions. She loves to hear how the ultrasound showed that the umbilical cord was around her neck and that she was sitting upright in my uterus with her right hand raised up as if in protest, and how I walked for all of my eighth and ninth month requesting my baby to turn but she was my little rebel and refused to do so! Stubborn and headstrong is an image she likes of herself, and maybe I gave it to her or maybe I did not; I will never know!
She asks me: How did you feel when you first saw me? Was I covered in blood? Did you want to wash me before you held me? How did you know how to bring me up? Is it necessary to be married to have a baby? If the baby comes out of the vagina, does it hurt?
The fun part is that she asks similar questions to my husband as well. Which means my husband and I have to have several conversations about what she is asking and how we are responding to her. There are no short cuts. Every word we utter is becoming a part of her own idea of who she is.
But there are so many dilemmas especially when close friends or other family members don’t have similar conversations with their children. “It’s too soon!” is the standard response I get. “Our son/daughter has not asked any of these questions yet.” I find these responses incredulous and yet I must admit that I have sometime wondered if it is because I started these conversations with my daughter that she has so many questions and if I am destroying her ‘innocence’? Or, are other parents not really listening to the questions their children are asking?
I have persevered despite these uninvited doubts!
We have just watched the first film of the Growing Up trilogy together. The film includes animations and illustrations of the sexual and reproductive organs, the hormonal changes that bring on puberty, and the physical changes the body goes through. It also discusses how babies are born. As soon as we finished watching the film, my daughter told me she had one pubic hair. “It is very long and feels funny! I would like you to see it!” she said.
My daughter and I have discussed menstruation and thanks to television advertisements, one of the first myths I had to break for her was that menstrual blood is red and not blue. We looked at the sanitary napkin, though I chickened out of showing her a used one. She did want to see! If she asks again I have promised myself that I will show it to her! We have even discussed that I tend to become grumpy during my period so I have calendar months marked out and everyone in my house including my daughter knows that I am extra-sensitive on those days.
Of course, all this conversation means that we will have embarrassing announcements for all and sundry: “Mama is angry because she is menstruating!” Which leads to more conversations regarding how my anger needs to be taken seriously and not dismissed, as well as ideas about the public and the private.
I have tried to take extra steps to introduce her to concepts of diverse sexualities and love. When reading fairy tales to her when she was three, I would add things like “There could have been a princess that comes to Rapunzel’s tower. What would that story be like?” And we have often embarked on spinning other stories. I have tried to make the idea of marriage one of choice and not a social norm.
It is a lot of hard work. I do spend time building the kind of conversations I would like to have with my daughter, sometimes anticipating the questions she will ask, and practising the language I should use, in my head. And I keep a constant lookout for books and material that include sexual diversity and a positive sexual conversation for children. It’s a blessing that she is an avid reader but there is limited material out there!
We all grow up in flawed surroundings. My childhood was spent in an extremely patriarchal and violent household. Breaking out of that mould requires constant vigil. I slip up often. Sometimes I recognise it, sometimes I don’t. But being a parent is a mirror that transforms itself into a heady kaleidoscope with the complexities we are capable of adding to it.
Today if my daughter catches me looking disapprovingly at myself because I think I have gained weight, she pipes up, “You look beautiful, mama!” She dismisses the fairness cream advertisements on TV; she catches me and reprimands me if I contradict the values I have tried to inculcate in our relationship. I have many reasons to be proud!
Her most recent question: “What are erogenous zones, mama?”
I am looking forward to starting our conversations around pleasure!
Cover image courtesy of Mark Vesterlund