It’s been quiet in the car for a few minutes. With the windows down, I’m breathing in the newly-minted greenery that’s emerged from hiding overnight. “So there’s one thing I don’t understand,” you pipe up from your booster seat. “If there needs to be a sperm and an egg in the uterus, how does the sperm get into the uterus?”
Last week, it was enough for you to know the recipe for a baby is a sperm, an egg and a place for it to grow. The leaves were buds and we’d go off-trail on our forest walks to find new spots for fairy houses.
When I was fourteen, I came home from school to find a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves sitting on my bed. Gross, I thought. I’d just started menstruating, last in my friend group, and any nod to puberty felt way too late. We never talked about it.
I roll up my window. C’mon, human sexuality is your thing.
“There are a few ways the sperm can reach the egg.” I explain intercourse, and call it that. I tell you about sperm donation and about in vitro fertilization, though I don’t call it that. I’m pseudo-prepared for this conversation since a friend brought up a similar one recently. Her 6-year-old was worried about getting pregnant, and a mama-text-chain dialogue ensued.
We’re eating snacks on a rocky slab, looking out over low-tide sludge at seagulls dropping shells onto the rocks below.
“Mom, why does hair grow in your armpits?”
How many times did I study that fold-out in the tampon box? Why did so many people seem to have success from that strange, tiny drawing? I tried over and over and ended up throwing the whole box in the trash, ashamed to be unwrapping the crinkly plastic to yet another maxi pad. Something was wrong with me.
I tell you about puberty, about the places where hair starts to grow thicker. It occurs to me I’ve never seen a baby seagull.
“How do you not make a baby when you don’t want a baby?”
What else is hidden? Most of my friends say their parents never talked about sexuality, that they want it to be different for their children. Adolescent shame is the most universal human experience. No adolescent knows that.
When I was twenty-six, I was living in a women’s health clinic in the old capital of Guatemala. A boy from the local high school came in to talk to the midwives. My Spanish was still shaky, but I understood he was seeing a lot of teenage pregnancy in school and wanted to understand menstruation and ovulation. He was sure he wasn’t the only one who had no idea how pregnancy actually worked.
When I got home, I joined a cohort teaching an expansive sex ed curriculum to middle schoolers. Standing in front of giddy twelve and thirteen year-olds for the first time, I felt more like one of them. Some of the material still made me uncomfortable; what right did I have to be teaching this stuff?
With time, I grew more confident. I learned consent can be explained through a tea-drinking analogy and got used to saying masturbation and anal sex with ease. I laughed as the kids tried to construct ovaries out of pipe cleaners. I facilitated discussions about the lyrics to their favorite pop songs. I examined gender identity and sexual attraction from perspectives my teenage self had no idea about.
“If you take one thing from this class,” I told them, “I want it to be this: variation is normal. There’s nothing wrong with you.”
I watch a crab sneak out from under a rock and scuttle back. I describe abstinence and birth control pills.
“And there are these T-shaped things a doctor puts into your uterus so the sperm and egg can’t grow. That’s what I have.” I see myself in a principal’s office, a red-faced mother spitting in my face: These are not conversations to be having with a child!
“Well how did I grow in your belly if you had one of those?”
“I had one, then we took it out. After you were born I had another put in.” Relax, I imagine saying to the mother, at least I didn’t describe condoms. But wait, why am I worried that a description of condoms borders on pornographic, but have no trouble telling you about my IUD? This education is lopsided—I don’t want to leave you in the hands of my teenage self.
I describe vasectomies: “People with penises can also have a little surgery. The tubes that sperm travel through are cut so none can get out.”
You ask if Daddy has had one. I say he’s thought about it, but hasn’t yet.
“Good,” you sigh, satisfied, “ Because I want a little sister.”
You’re eyeing my favorite lilac sweater. “Mama, can you please keep that one forever so I can have it after you die?” I try not to smile. You ask if people wear beautiful things to funerals. I say sometimes a funeral is serious—people wear black—and other times it’s more like a party. “Can I wear something beautiful to your funeral?” I tell you to wear whatever you want, you wonder if the dresses you have now will still fit.
We’re playing with magnet dolls in your room. One has light pink skin and a rose leotard. The other, caramel skin and teal leotard. You usually pick the pink one, saying, “I like her bathing suit.” Today, you say, “I want that one because I like her skin better.”
I look down at the magnetic mermaid tail in my hand. Every day for weeks, a tiny group of protesters has gathered at the busiest intersection in our overwhelmingly-white New England town waving signs in defense of Black Lives. Why have I told you I’m honking to “show support for everyone, no matter what they look like?” It’s alarmingly vague.
Your first bike was a strider with no pedals. As your feet ran along the ground, you navigated from your center of gravity. After zooming comfortably down the driveway and around the yard, you graduated to a pedal bike before your fourth birthday.
I was six when I teetered down the street free of training wheels for the first time. Rainbow beads clicked together on rusty spokes as the tires spun. I wore a lavender dress and eyelet knee socks with white sneakers.
I was eight when I learned that people kill people. News of the Oklahoma City Bombing was everywhere. I sat in the back seat of my uncle’s car as an anchor listed the children killed at daycare inside the Alfred Murrah Federal Building. Fear was in charge after that. I lay awake at night believing there were killers in the open fields outside my room. I’d never had a TV, but we’d recently moved in with my Oma and Grandpa and the nightly news played one gruesome murder after another. No one had prepared me for this.
I was nine or ten when I woke up to find my dad was gone—he’d left for an unexpected overnight conference without saying goodbye. It was only days later, after the scare with his heart had been resolved, that my stepmom picked me up from school and told me we were headed to the hospital. Why didn’t they tell me the truth?
I want you to know that a police officer put his knee into George Floyd’s neck until he stopped breathing and no one stopped him. That the world is angry because this happens to Black people a lot. That our white skin means we’re treated differently. I run it by Daddy. We’re a team.
“I don’t think she’s ready to hear about murder.” I think of Gianna Floyd, not much older than you.
“You’re coming on too strong here,” he continues. “She’s four years old and terrified of fire alarms. She doesn’t know people kill people and she doesn’t have to yet.”
I borrow a book: Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage. “White fear is not subject to scrutiny. White fears are treated as fact.” I scribble the words on the back of a crossword puzzle. I’ve always believed that if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t—that my fears tell the truth. As parents, we worry about showing you too much, think we’ll terrify you, but the discomfort is ours. We set up safeguards in the name of preventing later trauma, but they’re lies. We let other children die. We delay, afraid to make a mistake, pretending we don’t see the suffering piling up around us. We pride ourselves on sixty hour work weeks, pour more glasses of wine, go back to our smartphones. There’s a basic law in propaganda, “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.” We convince ourselves avoidance is protection.
In Jungian psychology, when children are six or seven, they can recognize fantasy and prefer to live in the reality of the world. At three, they live almost exclusively in fantasyland. In between, there’s a purgatory that melds the two. It’s when fairy tales are potent for teaching themes like good and evil and death and triumph. You regularly remind me your stuffies can’t talk, but spend hours pretending they’re your little sisters. I want you to know things you don’t have to know.
On a hot August afternoon, you’re walking in a sea of adult legs. It’s sweaty in your mask and floral sunhat, but you’re not complaining. As voices around us call out names, I realize I’m waiting for you to ask the questions. I bend down so you can hear me over the megaphones. I tell you we’re saying the names of Black people who’ve been killed by the police so we don’t forget them, so we keep fighting to make sure this stops happening. You look up at me and nod.
You’re chatty on the long drive back to the suburbs that night. “I don’t ever want to go to another protest.”
Shit. “Why’s that?” I ask as casually as I can.
“It was too loud,” you yawn and look out the window. You point excitedly at the horizon and begin to sing to the moon. I can see your mind melding the bullhorns with lullabies, murder with a harvest moon.
We’re moving back to Washington after a year in Massachusetts, and I volunteered to drive it alone with you. Minneapolis is on the way and I’ve decided we’ll visit the George Floyd memorial site.
As we approach the infamous intersection, we’re greeted by two young women seated under a pop-up tent. While they tell me about an upcoming event in honor of Black women, I crouch beside you, reminding myself to listen. Instead, I vomit out a garland of need-to-do-betters and humbled something-somethings. I’m trying too hard. This doesn’t feel right. We shouldn’t have come.
People move slowly with heads bowed along the rows of flowers as you whine that you don’t want to leave the sign we made with rainbow crayons. A woman with mesmerizing eyelashes approaches with a donation bucket, but I have no cash. To my left and right, people are posing for pictures in front of the large black & white mural of George Floyd. There’s tightness in my chest and knuckles. We should go. Instead, I sit down on a bench and pull you onto my lap.
You’ve always loved watching videos of your first years. On the day you learn to walk, you take one step, then another and continue around the kitchen in an arc of determined stomps. A week later, dressed in a fleece snowsuit, you start down our gravel driveway and tip over face-first like a small vase holding a single sunflower. Without a peep, you push up and trundle off again. Over and over, you repeat this progression: begin, eat shit, get up, try again.
Spring comes gradually in the Pacific Northwest, unfolding over weeks instead of the sudden bursting in New England. As we’re nearing our driveway, you’re wondering where everything comes from.
“Like my wooden unicorn. It just appeared there . . . .” We’re silent as the deer gate creaks open.
“Mom, did you do it?”
I look at you in the rearview mirror.
“Mom, tell me the truth.”
I conjured up the unicorn last year when you were disappointed about something we’d been looking forward to—the pandemic brought a lot of that. I’d run upstairs to grab it while you were distracted and snuck it onto the table in front of you.
“Yep, it was me.” We’re parked facing the garage now, still buckled.
“How did you do it without me seeing you?” I explain the logistics. I ask how it feels to know.
“I do not like you not telling the truth, even if it’s like that.”
“Even for something special and magical?”
“Yeah—even though it wasn’t magical, because you put it there—it’s not ok.”
The other day, I heard you whispering to your friend about Trump. She hadn’t heard of him, so you said, “He’s this man who lies a lot.” I often obsess about what you’re repeating rote, know you’re capable of understanding nuance, don’t want you to insult someone else’s beliefs. But lying has been a big deal to you since you were three and said you didn’t know where the gum you were chewing came from (you’d picked it up off the ground). When you conceded, I said that was called a lie, and you haven’t done it since. Last year, I pulled you off another friend as you screamed and scratched his face. He’d said, “Let’s lie to your mom.”
I turn to you, say parents think it makes children happy to believe in imaginary things. I’m pretty sure grownups don’t think of it as lying.
“I do not like that you did that to me.”
I confess I’ve already mislead you a few times and ask if you want to know more. You do.
“Well, the Easter Bunny . . . I hid those eggs . . .”
“ . . . and I wrote the card from the Easter Bunny.” You’re ruminating, your eyes saucers.
You smile. “You did a good job. But I wish there was an Easter Bunny. Why do people say there is?”
In Freudian psychology, undoing is a kind of magical thinking: a person believes they can cancel out a regrettable action with a second action. It often explains obsessive-compulsive behavior, like if a boy believes his sexual thoughts are sinful (you know they aren’t, right?) and thinks he’ll erase them by counting backward from a hundred.
We’ve been telling these stories for a long time, knowing we’re going to have to undo them later. We say it’s about innocence, about preserving wonder. But isn’t each little pea shoot pushing soil out of its way in our garden wonder enough? Later, we say, we’ll tell you all about sex and death and white supremacy when you can handle it. As if owning up in the future will cancel out the lies we’ve told all along.
I move on to Santa.
“But Santa Claus is real. I’ve seen him.”
I’ve always hated Santa’s public appearances. We spend a lot of time creating mystery around this special man who visits every home on one super-magical night and it’s brutally anticlimactic to see him at Macy’s. It’s a version so different from the muddy footprints sprinkled with pine needles trailing through my childhood bedroom (our apartment didn’t have a chimney and my window led to the fire escape).
“Mom, is Santa dead yet?”
You know Mr. Rogers died, that you watch videos of him from a long time ago. I say I’m not sure he’s real, that in our house and others, the adults pretend to be Santa.
“Well, I know mermaids are real,” you announce, and ask if you can climb out your window.
By definition, undoing is both ruin and annulment; downfall and revocation. If some things are not undone, they will be our undoing. Knowing we’ll eat shit is no reason not to try. When I write, I spew thoughts and ideas onto a page, sit with them, take out the ones that aren’t right. I replace them with what I hope are more honest ones. “Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth . . .” said Jung.
There’s no line, of course, where appropriate starts. We say we’ll wait for you to ask questions—which you won’t, because our silence is the message, the same message we got from our parents who got it from theirs. You aren’t as affected by each word as we worry you’ll be—your mind paints a picture you understand. You respond to us: how we say what we say, whether or not we can look you in the eye.
Serena Burman is a nonfiction writer living on a small island in the Pacific Northwest. She loves change. Also, her grandfather played basketball for USF in the ‘30s. Her recent work appears in The Black Fork Review.
Featured Artwork: Dancing on Flames Collage Sherry Shahan lives in a laid-back beach town on the Central Coast of California where she grows carrot tops in ice cube trays for pesto. Her art has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Urban Arts, Gargoyle, Down in the Dirt (featured artist), Cleaver (featured artist) and elsewhere. She earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and taught a creative writing course for UCLA Extension for 10 years.