Most parents I know dread the birds-and-bees conversation, avoiding it until their children ask, point-blank, "Where do babies come from?" Not so in my household.
In our older son's early years, my wife Tracie and I actively sought opportunities to educate him about his origins. Why? Because we figured someday, some playground know-it-all would hurl the inevitable "you can't have two moms... it takes a man and a woman to make a baby" at our unsuspecting offspring, and we wanted to provide him with an informed response. Proactive parents, right? Well, sort of.
Recently we realized that while our older son could recite the egg/sperm/donor story at age 2, we're not sure what our younger son knows about his beginnings. We're not certain if we've made a parenting gaff (we forgot to tell him), or if we're experiencing a memory lapse (we forgot we told him). Either way, we need to address it.
Rather than staging a formal talk with Little Guy, we decided to wait for a teachable moment to arrive, which happened one morning last week. While packing the kids' lunch boxes, I overheard this conversation taking place at the breakfast table:
Little Guy: "Did you know that chicks grow in eggs only if there's a boy chicken and a girl chicken?"
Big Guy: "Yeah, but if there's no boy chicken, then you just get the kind of eggs that you eat."
Little: "Yeah, but how does the boy chicken put the chick in the egg?"
Big, after a pause: "I don't know. Mom?"
I know the answer to this question: The hen and rooster rub their butts together. Well, the technical description includes words like "cloaca" and "vent." In kid terms, though, it's all about the butts. If I told my dudes about the butts, I would 1) incite squeals of laughter, 2) provide some awesome reproductive 411 they can share with friends, and 3) earn serious street cred as an A-class potty talker. Tempting as this might be, however, I decided to turn the conversation a different way.
Commence "Operation Inform the Little Guy."
"You know how it takes two ingredients to make a person baby?" I asked. Both boys nodded. Good. "So, you know how one ingredient, the egg, comes from a woman's body, and one ingredient, the sperm, comes from a man's body?" Two more nods. Cool. "Same with chickens," I said. A wrinkle of confusion knit Little's brow. I proceeded: "Remember that story about how Mama and I wanted to make you guys, but we were missing the man ingredient, so some people helped us find a man called a 'donor' who gave us the ingredient?"
"Yeah...," Little nodded, but a question mark floated at the end of that word. I waited. "But where did you find him?" he asked. "At like a store or something?"
"Kind of," I said. "It's called a sperm bank."
"And someday we could go there to meet him?" Was he remembering that we used a donor who is willing to meet the boys after they turn 18, or was he asking to meet the guy right now?
"Well, he's not actually at the sperm bank, but when you're 18, if you want to meet him, the people at the sperm bank will help us find him for you."
No matter what our kids' origins may be, all parents walk into delicate territory when we talk about reproduction. This subject isn't any more awkward for queer folks than it is for straight couples. But while hetero parents have whole books dedicated to advising them in these conversations, same-sex parents are exploring relatively new psychological ground. We enter these conversations armed with little more than our best intentions and a desire to tell the truth, in terms our kids can understand. While I often wish I had a list of FAQs and psychologist-approved answers to guide me, after nearly eight years of winging it, I'm beginning to trust my instincts.
As for last week's talk, it appeared to end abruptly when, in a classic, done-with-this-conversation move, Big Guy changed topics: "So, Mom, when I get my iPod, I want you to put all the songs I like on it, OK?"
Lesson complete. Or so I thought.
Just as I was about to return to packing lunches, I noticed that Little Guy's face had transmuted into one of those big-eyed Margaret Keane paintings from the 1960s. Uh-oh. "What's up, buddy?" I ventured.
And then he said it, in a voice two octaves above normal: "Mommy, did the boy who helped make me not want me?"
The question eviscerated me. As I scrambled to maintain my composure, I stared deep into those saucer eyes and said, "No way, buddy. I can't think of a single person on this entire Earth who wouldn't want you."
My response was knee-jerk, subpar, not to mention that it was a lie. I know plenty of folks who don't want kiddos, not even fabulous ones like Little Guy. In truth, I don't know how our donor feels about kids. I just know that he wanted to help people like us create families.
Aha! I'd found my entry point: "The donor wanted to help people like Mama and me, and we are so lucky he did, because now we have you!"
I studied Little's face, waiting for the response. A beatific smile emerged, and he nodded. Read: Yes, Mom, you really are lucky. Then he turned to his brother: "When you get your iPod, I get to listen to it, too, right?"
But not really. The game is never over for the parent. The kids move on; the parents second-guess, worry, overthink. I needed to debrief. So while the dudes hammered out the details of their iPod agreement, I searched the house for Tracie, whom I found in the bathtub. I unloaded the entire conversation: chicken inquiry, instructional detour, zinger question, improvised answer.
"Sounds like you did a good job, babe," she concluded.
"Guess we'll see," I shrugged.
"So if he asks again," she said, "we'll just focus on how the donor wanted to help us make the babies we wanted."
"No way, man," I shook my head. "Next time, I'm going with the chicken butts."