Shame-free sex education: It’s So Amazing! And only a little bit mortifying

Róisín Ingle: In front of my kids I force myself to be a right-on, liberated, shame-free parent

Sometimes “the right time” arrives at “the wrong time”. Photograph: iStock

Sometimes “the right time” arrives at “the wrong time”. Photograph: iStock

 

We’ve been reading something in our house called It’s So Amazing! A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families. This is called parenting, which is So Amazing! but also sometimes quite challenging.

I’ve had the book for about a year. It’s on a high shelf waiting for “the right time”. Sometimes “the right time” presents itself when you are least expecting it, otherwise known as “the wrong time”.

“What’s virginity?” This is whispered by one nearly 11-year-old daughter while we sit in the audience of a concert watching my other nearly 11-year-old daughter play double bass onstage. The junior orchestra is in the middle of I Got Rhythm. It feels like the universe is mocking me through the medium of variously sized stringed instruments.

“Mum, what’s virginity?” My first instinct is to tell her that it’s a way of describing people who haven’t had sex yet, but then I remember she doesn’t know about sex because we still haven’t read the book.

Apart from that I suddenly realise how much I despise the ridiculous word virgin and the patriarchal, religiously motivated social construct of virginity which suggests women who have not had sex are pure and those who have are somehow soiled.

I think, for the millionth time, about how much better and more open life is for small girls growing up in Ireland now

“What’s virginity?” she whispers again. I whisper back: “We’ll talk about it when we’ve read the book.” And this is called buying time.

It’s all my fault as usual. She only heard the word virginity because I let her watch Derry Girls despite the fact that it’s (a) rated 15 (b) full of, admittedly glorious, swearing and (c) got at least one character that’s obsessed with getting the ride and with vocalising this at every opportunity.

That night after Virginitygate I think, for the millionth time, about how much better and more open life is for small girls growing up in Ireland now. Mine say things like: “I just don’t understand why anyone would have a problem with gay people,” like homophobia is the stupidest thing ever invented.

Stockpiling tampons

They talk with no bother about stockpiling tampons and period paraphernalia so they can “be prepared”. I was in a friend’s house a while back and heard this exchange from a very small girl: “Mum, my vagina is sore.” “Do you mean your vulva?” asked her mother. “Yeah my vulva, it’s sore, mum.”

Meanwhile, this very big girl is a product of a time when your vagina was your own, mostly shame-inducing, business and your vulva was an unknown, unspoken quantity. You wouldn’t know it to listen to me, though.

In front of my kids I force myself to behave like a totally right-on, liberated, shame-free parent. Joining in their future-proofing chats about the merits of tampons over towels, even though I still go red buying them in Spar. I’m faking it till I make it. Hoping I can fake it enough that my own many hang-ups don’t taint the next generation.

The following day, I decide we’d better read the book. Neither of them is keen and communicate this with an uncanny imitation of someone being loudly sick. I end up bribing them with, what else, an episode of Derry Girls.

The book is taken from the shelf. It’s So Amazing! is written and illustrated by Robie H Harris and Michael Emberley. They are also the authors of It’s NOT the Stork! – they like their exclamation marks this pair, and when it comes to this subject I can’t say I blame them.

With all the bigotry and hate we see around us, there are small children being taught important, tolerant, kindness-inducing things by cartoon birds and bees

I was drawn to their seminal work because on the front of It’s So Amazing! there is an illustrated bee begging his friend (a bird obviously) to keep what he knows about eggs, sperm, birth, babies and families to himself: “Can we talk about something else? ANYTHING ELSE?” This bee is my spirit animal at the moment.

It’s ovary not O Vahrry

What works best for me with the whole “talk” thing, and I think we can all agree my comfort is the priority here, is getting the girls to read the book out loud. It also means I can help with any pronunciation issues. It’s ovary not O Vahrry and it’s clitORis not Cli TOE ris. It’s A-nus not A Noose.

This adds to our enjoyment of the experience and means I’m not the one who has to read sentences like this out loud: “The testicles are about the size of grapes or marbles when a boy is young. During puberty a boy’s two testicles grow to be the size of walnuts or very small balls. That’s why some people call them nuts or balls.”

We are halfway through the book. They are learning a lot but I’m learning more. I’m learning that shame-free sex education is less mortifying than I imagined. I’m learning that even with all the bigotry and hate we see around us, there are small children being taught important, tolerant, kindness-inducing things by cartoon birds and bees.

“Some people who are born female may feel or know they are male. Some who are born male may feel or know they are female. People who feel this way are called transgender.”

In fairness to Harris and Emberley, it really is so amazing!