by Christina Cotter
“Pee pees comes out my penis and poops comes out the back,” my son announced to me while sitting on the toilet one morning. I forced a smile and said a quick, “That’s right.” You have to understand that I am quite comfortable living in my little world where bodily functions do not exist and private parts are not talked about. I don’t think I said the word “penis” until after my son was born and I decided that, now that I was an adult and mother, I couldn’t say “down there” to the doctor when asking a question about circumcision care. I’m not sure how long I thought I could avoid or side step this kind of conversation, but I thought it would be longer than three years.
I was completely unprepared when my son then continued his announcement by saying, “And pee pees comes out your penis too, mommy.” I was like a deer caught in headlights. What to do … what to do. I wanted to say, “Oh, is that the phone ringing?” and dart out of the room. Perhaps I could just get away with the non-committal “Ohhh—” a mother says when she sees it’s pointless to argue anymore about whether or not her child has three eyes. No, this was another time to step up to the plate and be an adult.
This was, in fact, not the first time I was forced into this knock-you-off-your-feet wave of panic that comes to a mother (of a son) out of nowhere without warning. The first time I encountered a “time to grow up and be a mom about this” moment was the first time I changed my son’s diaper. I had no idea what to do with this foreign anatomy and I just stood there with a wipe in my hand looking and wondering where to begin and how not to injure and how not to cause years of visits to a therapist in the future … just long enough to get a full stream shot in the face or on the wall or into my hand trying to block the flow. That’s when I realized this issue needed to be dealt with, and quickly because I was tired of cleaning pee off every surface in the nursery.
All of my friends told me that he wouldn’t remember anything when he was an adult. My husband assured me that I wasn’t hurting him. The books I was reading told me that everything I was seeing and experiencing in these awkward moments was normal. I slowly gained confidence and soon I was a pro. (Okay, well maybe not a pro, but the pee stopped hitting the wall so some level of success was achieved.)
The second time will remain private due to the fact that someday my son will be able to read.
The third time was when my son was taking a bath and he looked down and said, “Mommy, what this called?” and unfortunately my answer, “Your body,” didn’t cut it for him. “No, mommy, THIS, what THIS called, mommy?” I took a deep breath and considered my options. If only I could stop time while I thought about how to respond! Did I want to follow my sister-in-law’s lead and just tell it like it is? Or did I want to follow a friend’s example of picking a “nickname” word to ease the awkwardness—but what word? I thought I’d have more time to think about this. My mind raced. This was an important decision. Whatever word I chose would be cemented in his mind. It would be the word we used at home. It would be the word he used with my mother-in-law when she came to baby-sit. It would be the word he used with his teachers during bathroom time in his two’s pre-school class.
I was frozen. I remembered my friend telling me how her young son once ran around telling everyone at a barbeque with her husband’s friends from business school, “Look at my penis … isn’t it great?!” much to her horror. I then remembered being in another friend’s family room when her young son announced to the room, “Boys have ‘wankers’ and girls just have butts all the way around.” Both were terrible. Which was worse? I imagined my mother having to say the word “wanker” and made my decision.
“That’s your penis, sweetheart,” I said in my best “cool-as-a-cucumber” voice and hoped he didn’t notice how red my cheeks were. “Oh,” he said and then poured water out of a cup into the tub. I shook my head and promised myself I wouldn’t make such a big deal out of this next time. I tried to believe it would get easier.
The fourth time was when my son looked up at me after bath time, and after a little self-exploration while drying off with the towel said, “Look mommy, I have a ball in my body.” It wasn’t getting any easier. How was I supposed to respond? “Actually honey, you have two.” “No, sweetheart, that’s not a ball … those are your testicles, dear.” I thought for a moment and said, “Ohhhh” while nodding my head ever so slightly to acknowledge his discovery and then quickly said, “Where are your PJs?”
Is there a book I can read about these things? What the heck am I supposed to say? I feel like I’m back in Junior High every time one of these situations comes up. Why can’t I just accept that this isn’t a big deal? And where is his father during all of these questions? He laughs hysterically every time I recount the experience in order to seek his advice. He loves to see his sweet, innocent little wife squirm and carefully navigate the conversation so as to use as few embarrassing words as possible.
The fifth time was when we first tackled potty training. How am I supposed to teach my son how to use equipment I don’t have? I did my best while keeping a safe distance but got chastised by my husband in the end for teaching him to “dab” with a square of toilet paper. Apparently there’s a “shake” method I wasn’t aware of.
None of these times had prepared me for the gender talk I was currently about to dive into with my son that morning as he sat on the toilet. How do I carefully tell him that his mother does NOT have a penis without launching into a huge conversation? I had no idea, but felt it was time to set the record straight. I took a deep breath, put on my “adult” face, and prepared to jump into the dark, uncharted gender-definition abyss that lay before me. I was ready for the free fall, which would last for some unknown amount of unbearably uncomfortable time and would most likely end in a relatively unimpressive “splat” at the bottom.
I jumped. “No, actually …” deep breath, make eye contact, remember this is not a big deal, “mommy doesn’t have a penis.” He sat and stared at me for a moment. My heart was pounding. I smiled and tried to think of how to change the subject. “You check, mommy?” He was staring at me “down there” and I was ready for a full retreat. Think, think, think … don’t let him see you panic. Stay calm. You are in control. ”I checked, sweetheart. Mommy doesn’t have a penis. Girls don’t have a penis. Only boys have a penis.” Not bad … that sounded pretty good. But would he accept it? Silence. I could see the wheels spinning—oh, but where were they going to take us? “What you have mommy?” Why, why, WHY??? How did I walk into this? Ok, don’t make a big deal out of it. Just answer the question and he will move on. Thank goodness there is nobody else in this bathroom! Okay, deep breath, no big deal, just say it—“I have a vagina are you all done going potty lets wipe.”
“I all done mommy.” Whew. It seemed to satisfy him. We were moving out of the red zone. We flushed. We washed hands. We dried hands. We left the bathroom. Maybe we’d never have to speak of it again. Maybe he would wait until Daddy was home for his next question. Maybe that would be the last embarrassing “private parts” situation I’d have to deal with for a while.
No such luck. The following weekend the four of us were hanging out in our tent sitting on an air mattress at a family camping trip. I was enjoying watching a lovely family memory-in-the-making unfold in front of me. My son was playing “doctor” and using a flashlight to look in our mouths to see if we were sick. My husband was holding my daughter so it was my turn to have my knees inspected to see if I was sick. My son came over and, after deciding that my knees were in fact ok, he bent down and shined the flashlight right at my “private parts.” Startled, I said, “Sweetheart, what are you doing?!” He didn’t even look up and said, “It’s okay, mommy, I just taking your temperature.” My husband smirked as my cheeks turned a lovely shade of red.