I didn’t see it coming.
We were driving past cows. I told the children that, as a boy, my family kept two cows. I said that each year they had calves. Then the question came from the back seat, “Where did the calves come from?”
Silence. I realised what I had done. Mary and I kept our eyes on the road. I didn’t dare to look across. I might have crashed, but more significantly, I would have revealed my panic. Children smell panic.
I considered other answers.
“Each year we went to the calf market.”
“We used to order them from the calf catalogue, then the calf women delivered them.”
“We gave the cows special calf food, and then 6 months later- BANG. They were pregnant.”
I took a deep breath. I was going to have to resort to the truth. I stole myself. I was about to say the words, “willy” and “sex” in the same sentence, and, on this occasion, I had to not laugh. In another context, I would have given Mary a big hug, said, “I’m going to do this” and then asked her to pray for me. But hugging with a gear stick in the way, while driving, felt a little awkward.
I acted casual. I started carefully.
“Each summer, while we were on holiday, we sent Betsy and Deirdre to a friendly farmer who had a Bull.” [For the purposes of this Blog I have changed their names to protect their reputations]
At this point I paused for too long. The voice from the back seat seized the initiative, “What did the Bull do?”
Oh my goodness. This was happening. I had no time to draft potential answers. Could I distract them with the sudden sight of a bird of prey? Could I phone my Mum for advice? Pull yourself together man. You know this stuff. Mostly.
“If you put a Bull in a field with cows….”
I wanted to shout, “Would you please give me a moment? This is really difficult for me. I’ve never done this before.” Instead, I think I started sweating.
“He has sex with all the cows in the field. That means, with each cow, he puts his willy in their vagina.”
My daughter asked, “What’s a vagina?”
At this point I wanted to stop the car, look at her mother, who incidentally is female, and shout, “See! This is what happens when you choose to call EVERYTHING a ‘bottom’. It simply is not her ‘bottom’. I told you it was ridiculous. I told you to ask your friends what they call it. And it’s not good enough that they shrug and say they call it their ‘bottom’. I said that it would cause confusion. I said that it was Victorian. Why can’t women of the English-speaking world come up with a word for it that they use with their daughters? Men of the world have really got this nailed. We have got lots of words, names and terms of affection for our body parts. We did that for our children. So now look, who has to fix it? Me. I’m a man. I should not have to explain to my daughter what a vagina is. On a cow or otherwise.”
I chose not to have this conversation at that moment. But we both knew that I was allowed to say “I told you so” at the earliest opportunity.
“So after the Bull has put his willy into the cow’s vagina, the cow becomes pregnant”
I was now feeling confident. How could I link this to men and women? Let’s do this.
“That is how it is with all mammals. All mammals have sex when the boy mammal puts his willy into the girl mammal’s vagina”
I had visions of older son experimenting with sex too early. I added, “It only works for adults. Certain changes happen as the boy mammals and girl mammals grow up, that make it possible to become pregnant. So little boy mammals and little girl mammals can’t have sex. That includes boys and girls. They’re mammals. You’re mammals”
Have I covered everything? Oh, hang on. Not all sex leads to pregnancy. There’s something about cycles. Monthly? What about in cows? Are they monthly? I don’t really understand women’s cycles (However, I’m very confident with women’s pedal cycles) I probably shouldn’t guess on cow’s cycles. Move on.
“So when we got back from holidays. We’d collect our two cows from the bull. And they’d be pregnant. Some months later they would give birth to calves. That is where our calves come from. And that’s where babies came from. Well. Not really. But you see what I mean.”
Pause. Wait for the questions. Silence. Here it comes.
“How long did you keep the calves for? Where did the calves go? Who decided their names.”
Oh. So sex is less interesting than my calves?
Days later. No questions. There are some regrets I have. I should have clarified that one man isn’t placed in a field full of women and left to… be busy. Nor are women sent away to a friend’s man while her family goes on holiday. Perhaps I should revisit this conversation. And this time, I might not focus on cows. And if I had my time again, I would not try to cover most of my knowledge of reproductive biology in one conversation when I can’t make eye contact with my children. Instead of the high stakes, deep breath, ‘let’s do this’ approach, I should have gone for the little and often, sat a table, awkward-but-appropriate-pictures-in-a-book approach.
Postscript: We’re still having these conversations. It gets easier. They still don’t ask questions about sex; only ever questions about peripheral organisational details. We’ll get there.
If you want to talk to your children about sex less awkwardly than this, we can recommend these books ‘Bird and Bees by the book‘ is a pack of six books that cover sex, gender, sexuality, your body and pornography. They would be suitable for 6-11 year olds. Although older children could read these on their own, this topic is best tackled with a parent.
‘Growing up by the book‘ is aimed at 10-14 year olds and walks through the changes the body (and mind) go through at puberty.
‘Everyday talk about sex and marriage’ is the follow up to the very helpful, ‘Everyday talk’. Both books are encouraging parents to have frequent, relaxed conversations with their children about the things of faith and Jesus Christ. This book is obviously more focused on how to navigate those particularly tricky conversations on sex and relationships, and is aimed at parents of teenagers.