THE QUESTION: At what age, and how did you learn where babies come from?
When I was four or so, my grandma told me a story about a farmer’s wife who went out in the garden and found a baby under a cabbage leaf.
My mother had a garden but no cabbages still I went out to check for babies now and then by the iris.
There were better clues as I got a little older.
“Mama, why is that lady so fat?”
“She’s not fat, she’s pregnant.”
One hot summer day, when I was seven or eight, mama’s little shadow, I was curled up on a cedar chair next to my mother and our neighbor Mrs. Levine.
They smoked cigarettes and sipped coffee while I digested a fairy book until…
…they were talking about how much it hurt to squeeze that baby out from between their legs. The ring of fire when the head crowned. Pain!
So much for my fairy book.
Mrs. Levine said to my mother, “Little pitchers have big ears.”
I knew the saying. They’d caught me listening to grown-up talk.
I mumbled an excuse and disappeared into the house with my book, resolved that I would never ever open my legs and have a baby.
Little did I know.
For me the awakening came quite late. I knew about this thing people talked about, sex. But I didn’t know what it involved or why people did it. The sum total of what I knew was that sex was between a married couple and that men and women were built differently – thank you page 3 bikini girls in the Mirror newspaper.
All this wisdom was achieved by the premature age of 6 or 7.
But the getting of babies was revealed to me at an education evening arranged by my school when I was ten years old. The school hall was filled with the boyish faces of my peers too young to sprout pubic hair, and their dads. Then there was me, with my mum. My father had made a stand that any discussion about sex and babies was the duty of the mother and so it was left to mum to take me to the “Father and Son” night.
In hindsight, I am extremely glad the entire evening was an animation fixation that left out all the gross bits about how babies were made. The narration was heavily coated with euphemisms and cartoonish depictions to make the whole horrible subject palatable enough to keep the squirming of the dads (and the one mum) down to a minimum.
So it was on one movie blockbuster evening that all was revealed about ovum, sperm and how the two met to make things like sisters.
Where babies came from has never been a particularly important or fascinating question for me. Neither before nor after that fateful evening in the school hall was it a question I devoted much time to. However, since learning the truth, a much bigger question has plagued me most of my life.
Where babies come from is a fairly simple thing to understand, but a more puzzling question to me is where do they go? All the babies I have known in my life have disappeared. Who took them, where did they go to is mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes.
Just one in-person experience can top any educational video out there.
And that’s a fact.
Fourth grade. Private school. We watch a video of chicken eggs getting fertilized, then baby chicks hatching. I learn precious little about how babies are made, but refrain from eating eggs until I am 13 because I now think they are filled with tiny baby chickens.
I don’t tell my mother this when she cooks eggs for me. I just push them around my plate and drink milk for breakfast.
Fifth grade. At a friend’s house. My little sister and I are called upstairs to “witness something wonderful”. I’m not sure what I expected, but in-home childbirth was definitely not what I would have guessed. I didn’t know what was happening until I actually saw the baby come out. I thought I might faint.
I don’t mention this to my boyfriend when I’m 19 and he’s talking children. I just change the subject and turn on the radio.
Adulthood. By now I’ve watched my sister eat eggs a variety of different ways, but I can only manage to stomach them scrambled. Neither one of us has ever had any babies.
I don’t ask her for her reasons. She doesn’t ask me either.
And that’s a fact.
Nobody told me.
I made it all the way to eighth grade without having any clear idea about babies or sex.
Despite getting my period in that year at age 13, and the torn images my best friend and I found as young girls behind the church at the end of the alley. Pages that had us mumbling at age 9, “Children shouldn’t see this.” We found a trash can and threw them away. Despite growing up in a village off the west side of Chicago, not buried in the Bible belt.
I walked through my early years thinking a baby was inevitable once I reached my working years. I thought I would be hired temporarily, somewhere with a water-cooler, typewriters, and the baby would arrive. I would find a place for it, then run off west to be a rancher. I didn’t want one. I thought it would arrive in my early 20s, and that still felt a lifetime away.
1983. The nun herded the boys and girls into separate rooms in that final year of grade school. I sat up on the brass heat register of the old radiators, elbow to elbow with other girls in our white uniform shorts, and red plaid skirts. All of us, the girls I had attended school with for almost eight years, sat in a semi-circle around the sister. She euphemized her way through the sexual act in a blur of a sentence I can’t even remember, except I left that room none the wiser.
Somehow, when I sat through the sex ed section of health class as a public high school freshman that fall, I seemed to already know all the answers. I am unsure how or when the knowledge arrived, because it wasn’t explicitly explained. A mysterious enlightenment. But there was a relief in joining the club. All I needed was clarity. I moved on.