I found myself tonight having a conversation which I hadn't exactly planned to have.
How does one get into these things? I was sitting at the foot of the twin bed in which Eleanor and Julia were snuggled (the other bed, across the room, has become, through neglect, a repository for stuffed animals and clean laundry). We had just said prayers. The discussion traced a meandering, but more and more inevitable course -- from praying for vocations, to praying for your future spouse, to Eleanor proclaiming that she didn't want to get married because she wanted to work at the zoo and when you got married you had to stay home with your babies (and here I reminded her that she knew some mothers who had childcare or worked part-time), to Julia pointing out that some people had babies when they weren't married, to my telling her that every child deserved to have a mother and father who were married to each other and who had promised to live together forever and give their child a loving home. Having babies before you were married was a grave sin against the baby, and that's why people needed to wait until they were married to show the kind of love that made babies. And being children themselves and seeing it from that point of view, Eleanor and Julia agreed that this was best.
"But then how do people have babies when they're not married?" Julia objected.
Well, having babies is a physical act that doesn't depend on whether you're married. That's why we prayed for purity so that they would always make the right choices and keep their minds and bodies holy. And the act of making babies was a kind of love that was only proper for married people, even if people who weren't married could behave that way, because babies deserve to have married parents who have promised to live together and make a family for that baby, remember? (Here I was starting to squirm.)
I can't retrace the conversational drift that led to discussing how fathers were necessary because humans needed both men and women for reproduction, nor how we got to eggs in women's bodies, but inwardly I was dying. "Just look confident and don't pause or stammer," I told myself, "and then they won't get wise to the fact that this is an Important Conversation." And finally we came to the rock on which I foundered.
"Well," I said, "boys and girls are different, you know. How is Jack different from you?"
"He's crazy!" Julia proclaimed.
I remember how moving it was when John McCain spoke at the 2008 RNC about how he had been tortured by the Vietnamese, and how he finally broke. Reader, I broke. I howled for ten whole seconds, which is a long time to laugh without interruption. The girls laughed because I was laughing, because what was so funny about making such an obvious statement?
"No," I was finally able to say, "how is his body different from yours?"
"He has that dangly thing, " one of them said with scorn.
"Yes," I said. "That's his penis." And this was followed with the briefest and least-involved account of how eggs were fertilized.
"I don't get it," said Julia. "How does the pen-nis touch the eggs?"
"It doesn't," I said. "It... what did you call it?"
"It's a penis."
"Well, I didn't know the name."
"Julia, haven't you ever heard Jack talk about his penis?" I asked incredulously. Jack will be four on Tuesday. We are in the throes of potty-training. There is a lot of discussion about penises here.
Julia dismissed the thought that she would ever pay attention to anything Jack said. "He's crazy."
"He is peanuts," I said thoughtfully. This was the kind of wordplay that the girls could appreciate.
Feeling an ever-strengthening desire to extricate myself from this conversation, I corrected biological misapprehensions with the least amount of detail necessary, and emphasized that these were not things that little girls needed to worry about.
"I don't want to think about it," said Eleanor, preparatory to putting her head under the pillow.
"Good," I said, with more enthusiasm than was seemly. "You don't have to think about it right now. At all. These are things for adults to think about. That's why right now we just pray for purity so that our minds and bodies will be clean and fresh. And that's why you should pray that if it's God's will that you get married, that your husband will be pure and holy as well."
"I'm not getting married," came Eleanor's muffled voice. "It's too much bother to have babies and be sick and get those wrinkly lines on your tummy."
I left the room with my dignity intact. Then, as I started down the stairs, I was seized with a sudden panic.
"You know, girls," I said, opening the door, "these aren't things we talk about with friends. These are only things for children to discuss with their families -- with their parents, okay?"
There was a murmur from the bed, from which I gathered that some people couldn't understand why anyone would want to discuss this subject with anyone, let alone friends.
And I thanked God that, at least for now, no one had cared to take the few logical steps to connect how babies were made with anything that their specific parents had ever done.