Sunday, December 1, 2013
Ladybug Girl and the Birds and the Bees
Somehow, we have an almost-four-year-old. Bee has been excited about her fourth birthday since the summer, and every day she adds to the list of things she's decided she wants. "The List" is the greatest thing ever: she will beg and beg for some outlandish thing I would never buy in a million years, I tell her we'll add it to the list, and somehow she is magically appeased. I hope this works for years! She fantasizes for what feels like hours about the party she will have, the cake she will have, the friends who will come, and of course, all the presents. It's so wildly narcissistic but, at three, is she supposed to know a world other than one that revolves around her?
At night I scrunch myself into a ball next to her in her toddler bed and play with her hair and whisper stories about Ladybug Girl as she falls asleep. Ladybug Girl is Bee's alter ego, or so it seems. We've been talking about Ladybug Girl's fourth birthday for weeks. I can tell you all about it: it was at Minnie Mouse's house and they baked a cake and Ladybug Girl's best present was wings she could fly with. How can I possibly top that in February when Bee finally turns four?
Ladybug Girl is an interesting kid. She has a backpack and a Hello Kitty dress and her best friend is Minnie Mouse. She has two mamas and two daddies and thirty brothers and sisters. We work through a lot of Bee's questions and issues via Ladybug Girl and though I sometimes dread the pressure I feel to be creative, Bee clearly looks forward to these stories every night. She clings to me with one hand (and picks her nose with the other, to my disgust) and insists that I put my head down on her pillow while we talk. "More Ladybug Girl story!" she will whine when I try to extricate myself without breaking the flimsy bed not meant to hold my weight. "More, Mama!"
Ladybug Girl gives us both the freedom to talk about things that, even at three, Bee knows are hard to talk about.
A few weeks ago, we had parent-teacher conferences at Bee's school. Parent-teacher conferences for a three-year-old? I wondered that same thing last year when she was two, and I was surprised at what a serious thing it was. The teachers had notes on her and they handed me samples of her artwork, photos of her with her classmates, and so on. And of course they loved her. Who wouldn't? So this year, I went in expecting pretty much what happened last year: her teachers marveling that she's so smart, she's so cute, we love her so much. And I did get that, but I also got a very hesitant report from the teachers about Bee's use of language.
"She said 'my mama has giant nipples,' one told me. My initial reaction was to assure them that I do not, in fact, have giant nipples, although compared to her own I can see why Bee would think I do. Instead I furrowed my brow. Is this a problem? I wondered. Bee nursed well into my second pregnancy and then she watched me nurse her sister for more than two years. Teeny still nurses from time to time. So of course Bee has seen my nipples. But so what? She knows what they are and what they're for. She knows one day hers will grow and that maybe she too will nurse a baby. I taught her to say "milk" for nursing. She doesn't say "nana" or any of the other words I've heard kids use. She doesn't say boobs. She says breasts, nipples, nurse, milk. We take showers together. She sees my naked body, her sister's and occasionally her father's too, and she likes her own naked body so much that she will often declare, "I want to be naked!" and strip right down to her birthday suit. She doesn't know that she shouldn't say "nipples" in school.
I love Bee's school. I love her teachers, I love her classmates. I could not be happier with her whole preschool experience. So sitting in a tiny chair in her classroom having my nipples described to me, I tried not to be defensive. Ultimately, I didn't say anything other than, well, I am trying to teach her to love her body and bodies in general. Shouldn't she grow up to be a confident woman who loves her own body?
But there was more. One of the other teachers turned bright pink and took a deep breath. Apparently, Bee also remarked offhandedly one day that she could see this teacher's vagina. Which startled the teacher into thinking she had a hole in her pants or was otherwise exposing herself. But no. Bee is three. When she's standing and a grown up woman is sitting, she's at vagina height. So is that really so weird?
At that point I really wasn't sure what to say. Why were they telling me this? They launched into a compliment, saying that Bee is very verbal and expressive for her age. But I was still stuck on nipples and vagina. I explained that as far as I could tell, Bee says vagina the same way she says elbow. She knows her vagina is for her alone and that nobody should ever touch it other than her. But she doesn't know it's a secret word that she shouldn't say. After all, she knows about half the population has one. She knows what the other half of the population has, too. I also said that it was very important to me that my daughters grow up not having the body dysmorphia and self-loathing that I have. I have spent way too much of my life standing in front of the mirror hating what I see, praying to wake up in a different body, thinking I am so fat that no one should ever talk to me. (Yes, really.) That kind of craziness is debilitating and shameful and I don't want to pass it on to my children. So I work to normalize their curiosity and to address things directly. I don't tell them not to say certain words. I don't force them to eat when they don't want to. I don't deprive them of occasional sweets. I tell Bee she can pick her nose or touch her body when she's alone in the bathroom or in her room (not that that stops her from picking her nose most of the time, though I do insist she wipe her boogies into a tissue so I don't find them dried and stuck all over the apartment). I let her wear what she wants to wear. She picks what she feels beautiful in, and as long as she picks something appropriate for the weather, I let her wear it even if I hate what she chooses. I encourage my kids to listen to their bodies and to love them no matter what they say. And I worry all the time that I'm not doing the right thing.
In the end, I chose not to say anything to Bee about what her teachers told me. I debated it, and then decided I didn't want her to feel shame for using the correct words and for being curious and expressive. So I let it go and I worried for days whether I made the right choice.
For me, this is all pretty uncomfortable stuff. I have a kid who likes to be naked when I hate, hate, hate to be naked because I feel fat and ugly and exposed. She likes to talk about her vagina and nipples (and apparently everyone else's too) when I've been conditioned not to go there. She stares at the page in Everybody Poops towards the end where the animals and the boy are pooping. "Look Mama! You can see right where the poop comes out!" And every time she points right at that awful picture, I want to turn away from it; I don't want to look at anyone pooping! She giggles and owns it when she farts. "Mama, I farted!" she will say, cracking herself up, whereas I would rather absurdly blame the cats than admit it was me. And then, "aren't I beautiful, Mama?" she will ask when she's all pink and princessed out. I tell her she is, and that she's beautiful no matter what she wears because she's beautiful on the inside.
Now she's interested in how bodies make babies. At a friend's recommendation we stumbled upon the perfect book, called What Makes A Baby, that has given her all the facts and none of the "when the mommy and the daddy love each other very much..." nonsense that dominated the books of my generation. This book is free of gender, of stereotype, of assumptions. It is important to us that we raise children who are broadly aware that every body is different and every family is different and every kid has a different story. This is one way Bee is starting to understand that. Now she has language for how babies are made factually; she knows egg, sperm, uterus. She knows a lot of different people were waiting for her to be born, and that those people are her family. She also knows she came out of a hole cut in the belly of our family's uterus-haver (whom she knows was me) in a hospital while her sister came out of the vagina of the very same uterus-haver in the bathtub at home, and both were completely acceptable ways for babies to be born. Now I am fully prepared for her to drop those words in school as casually as she did vagina and nipples.
A couple weeks ago Bee's sister Teeny had an appointment to see her physiatrist. If you're a kid seeing this doctor, you definitely have some kind of physical disability. The waiting room is often full of families that look a lot like ours. Sometimes there are children who have much more severe issues than Teeny does, and on this visit there was a little boy sitting in an adaptive wheelchair. He was maybe eleven or twelve, and his mother was feeding him. He could not feed himself, nor speak, nor walk. Johnny was getting Teeny measured for a new kind of leg brace, and I was sitting with Bee waiting when I caught her staring at this boy. This was the first time I found myself in a situation like this and I was not at all sure what to do.
She inched closer to him, completely rapt. I got brave and faced it head on. "Bee? Are you curious about this boy?" She nodded shyly. "Does he remind you at all of Teeny? Do you have questions you want to ask me or his mama?"
His mother stopped feeding him for a moment and looked at us. I was terrified that she might snap at me or at my kid, but instead she smiled and beckoned us even closer. "We love questions, don't we Billy? It's fine for you to ask anything you like, or you can just look as Billy eats."
In that moment, I loved that woman. Looking at her son and thinking about my other daughter, I could only imagine a tiny bit of what her life must be like, and yet she had the time, the patience and the emotional maturity to address my daughter's needs even while tending to her son. And I loved her for that. But Bee didn't want to ask any questions. She was frozen; she wanted to stare. I was embarrassed, but I also remembered how hard it was not to stare when I was a little kid. I tried to think about what might be going through her head. I pulled her to me and I started talking to her quietly about the boy, about her sister, about how everyone's body is different. That we are all differently-abled and we can do different things by ourselves or with help and that it's all normal. That seemed to snap her out of her silence. She started talking a little about how she can walk by herself but her sister can't, and how some bodies need more help than others, but then she lapsed into silence.
She forgot about Billy long enough to decide she needed to pee, and after that, Teeny was finished and it was time to leave. Once we were back in the car, I asked her about the boy again and if she could describe what she was feeling. She couldn't. She didn't have the words to explain what she experienced, but she seemed relieved to hear her curiosity was normal. I told her it was okay to be interested in that boy, and then I dropped it until later that night, when we were in the dark talking about Ladybug Girl. I tried to bring it up again, and to my surprise, she was ready.
"Hey, Mama?" she asked me suddenly. "Did you know that Ladybug Girl has a little sister who can't walk?"
"She does?" I acted shocked.
"Yeah, but Mama!" she said, suddenly awake and excited. "Her name is Teeny. And she can't walk by herself. But Mama, she can fly!"