When my ten-year-old came home from an AIDS talk at school to tell me that you can “catch AIDS by sexual content and pregnant women,” I could have just nodded and said, “That’s nice honey.” Instead, I saw a golden opportunity to exercise my parenting skills and prolong folding laundry. “I think you mean sexual ‘in-ter-course,’ William, not content,” I said, immediately realizing that he probably meant sexual “contact,” not “intercourse.” He meant anything but intercourse. “What’s intercourse?” he of course asked and I did what any bad parent would do in the same situation—I coughed. I coughed, and choked, and ran into the bathroom, locking the door behind me.
Sitting where he’d not too long ago perfected his pee-on-the-cheerio drills, I reached for a vague, but somewhat decent, explanation for intercourse. I could explain it as a communication or exchange between people or groups and then slap my thigh and say “so back to AIDS!” That would work like a charm. But could we have a real talk about AIDS without first having a real talk about sex?
I wondered how the school had handled this issue. When the notice arrived a few weeks ago that there would be an AIDS talk at school, I thought to call the Principal to see how he planned to handle the topic. I also wanted to see if there’d be an information packet going home to parents to continue the conversation at home. If not, maybe I’d create and distribute that information packet myself, to make up for all the times I hadn’t baked cupcakes or gone on trips. As I was watching the Lifetime movie of my school/home works in my head, I realized that I had my annual check-up the next morning and would need to find the matching knickers to my decent bra. I don’t usually associate William’s Principal with decent knickers—though he does look a little like Tom Jones—but to make a long excuse short, I didn’t make the call, the information packet, or the movie. And I didn’t know what they had covered in school.
Was William even ready to talk about sex? Was I? How soon could I get him started in therapy? Were the Yankees—my pinstriped bathroom pass—playing tonight?
My rapidly aging reflection and I considered our options: Ten year-olds have a short attention span, so I could easily become really engrossed in scrubbing the toilet, and he’d easily forget our unfinished conversation. As my reflection and I looked at our freshly painted nails and our not so fresh toilet (noting that we needed to redraft our husband and younger son for cheerio-target drills), we realized that there would be no scrubbing, scouring …or scuttling away from parental duties tonight.
I folded towels, shuffled catalogs, and studied a few shampoo bottles, and when it seemed I could delay no longer, I unlocked the door.
Walking toward my firstborn, I wondered how knitted he was to my “we found you under a head of cabbage” procreation theory. I was pretty sure he knew nothing about sex, though—thanks to Adam Sandler—he sniggered knowingly at the word in the same way he responded to the words “fart,” “boobs,” and “balls.”
I sidled up to my innocent and prepared to have him meet his “maker.” I thought I’d start with the obvious—yes dear, pregnant women are dangerous—but as I scanned his unblemished babyface, it hit me: I couldn’t talk about sex and AIDS without first breaking the news about Santa Claus!
I flung myself to the floor to massage an imaginary spasm on my calf (and calm a real one in my head). Could sex and Santa co-exist in a ten-year old’s mind?
There was no running away coughing from the fact that it was definitely time for a serious chat, but which one?
I’ve been laying the groundwork for serious chats for a while now. Every bedtime for the last four years (since his attention-sucking little brother was born), William and I have curled up on his bed and had a just-us chat. We talk about our day at school/work, who has the best MTV Crib, the problem of steroids in sports, and we work on William’s Irish accent.
Sometimes we think ahead and try to imagine William as a grown up. It’s in these close nighttime chats that William has decided against the priesthood because he wants to have lots of children, and debated how he’d deal with being scouted by the Mets when his heart and loyalties belong to the Yankees. Sometimes we look back and I tell William about the time he had eye surgery as a little baby, and about the time I was dangling him in the air and he threw up … in my mouth.
Lately our conversations have been turning to girls. We make fun of his friend Adam who thinks he has three girlfriends. We joke about how gross it was to have to hold “princess” Diana’s hand at ballroom dancing practice. We act all bothered by how cheeky Tatiana was to declare herself his girlfriend—as if!—and laugh at how annoying some of the girls in his class are. We give credit where credit is due though to girls who are taller than the teacher, good at sports, or just cool.
I can talk about girls in the same “whatever” tone I’ve learned to use when talking about his clothing choices: “Oh you’re going to wear green socks with those blue shorts? Okay,” I say in my best whatever-tone as I saunter out of the room seemingly preoccupied with more important things. He’d never know by my blank not-bothered face that I’m contemplating spilling hot tea on his lightly fuzzing legs so that he’ll have to take those socks off (so that I can throw them away).
Just like he’d never know that Santa Claus is really a big fat lie dressed up in a red polyester suit. Or that Mom and Dad were not … gardening when they planted his little cabbage seed.
“Are you okay Mom?” William asked, helping me back to my feet. “Yes, but maybe you should lie down,” I responded and he started to laugh. I kept the laugh going (and going), to buy me a few more minutes with the realization that perhaps I didn’t want to just ad-lib the AIDS/sex/Santa talk. This was big stuff and he might not talk to me again—ever—after such a bombshell conversation. So instead of tackling all three at once, I developed a three-prong approach to blowing his mind. We’d talk vague AIDS tonight, clear up the whole Santa thing tomorrow, and then talk PG13 sex—with an AIDS refresher—next week. This would allow adequate time to prepare for surprise queries re: tooth-fairies, guardian angels, and maybe even God.
The first step went really well. I asked William to tell me exactly what they had talked about at school and then I clarified his few back-of-the-auditorium misunderstandings.
The next day, as we waited for his little brother at swimming class, I asked William how he was feeling about Santa these days. He was a little thrown and almost scared at this question, but being his mother’s son, he ducked to tie his shoelace and cracked a joke.
I’d really thought he’d be onto the whole Santa-gig last year, but I’m a really great liar and he’s a really great believer. I didn’t want him starting Junior High and still believing in case he wouldn’t be badass enough for the school band. It was definitely time. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Adam says there’s no such thing as Santa.”
I held his stare and shrugged my shoulders. He faltered a little and suggested, “What? like parents spend all that money on gifts?!”
I laughed and said, “Maybe, what do you think?” We both laughed and kept laughing. I wanted to talk about the history of the Santa tradition and make him feel that the possession of this secret was a coming-of-age gift, but we were laughing, really laughing, in this hysterical “enough said” kind of way.
So step two is yet to be completed. I’ve sowed the seeds of doubt. He knows. I know he knows, and he knows I know he knows. And one of these days we’re going to talk about it.
And right after that we’re going to discuss how Mr. Claus and Mrs. Claus would make baby Claus (if they actually existed), and what precautions they’d take against STDs.
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