When my daughter was five, she starting asking questions about how babies are made. How does a baby get in a mommy’s tummy? How does a baby get out of a mommy’s tummy? I’d been to several parenting talks by various experts, who all gave the same advice: answer the question asked, and only the question asked. A lot of times, it was explained, little kids just want a simple answer, and they tend not to delve any further. So that’s what I did. I explained that when an egg and a sperm meet inside a mommy’s tummy, it makes a baby. And I explained how, when the baby is ready, it comes out through the mommy’s birth canal. But of course, I had the kid who wanted to delve. What’s a birth canal? Where is it? Do I have one? What’s a sperm? Where does it come from? I answered her questions one by one, making sure to be as stingy as possible with my answers. But still, we got there. But HOW does the sperm end up inside the mommy’s tummy if it comes from the daddy, she wanted to know.
I’ll admit – I felt some weird sort of pride about how persistent she was, and how she managed to find every single hole in my story. I may have even fantasized briefly about the Pulitzer she would one day win for her hard-hitting exposé in the New York Times. So I told her. The whole thing. The next morning, when my husband was driving her to preschool, she politely informed him that if he wanted to have another baby with me, all he had to do was put his penis inside my vagina. I’m lucky the two of them are still alive, because my husband almost drove off the side of the road.
My son, meanwhile, is ten. He’s seen lots of new babies being born into our family – nieces and nephews and cousins, and many of his friends have had new brothers and sisters in the last few years. But unlike his sister, he hasn’t asked a single question about how it is that all of these babies just show up out of thin air. For a while, I thought that maybe my daughter had told him in a moment of big sister-little brother bonding. But I asked her, and she swore she hadn’t (ew, mom, you think I want to talk to him about vaginas?) So then, I started to worry, as only a neurotic, helicopter-ish Gen-X parent can. Did he have no intellectual curiosity? How could he possibly ever have what it takes to go to a good college if he’s totally devoid of wonder? How will he handle it when his sister wins the Pulitzer?
But recently, I’ve discovered that he actually has thought about how babies are made. Only, instead of asking questions, he just decided to create his own narrative about it. How creative! Maybe he’ll show up his sister with a National Book Award. Anyway, I only learned this because, about a month ago, we were talking about who he looked like when he was a baby. And he just sort of casually threw it out there, as if it was a medically accepted fact: so, when you barfed me out, you thought I looked like your grandfather? I thought I’d heard him wrong. I’m sorry, what did you just say? And he repeated himself – extra slow – as if, between the two of us, I was the blockhead. When. You. Barfed. Me. Out. Did. You. Think. I. Looked. Like. Your. Grandfather.
So I raised an eyebrow and I was like, you think I barfed you out when you were born? And again, he gave me the OMG you are dumber than I thought look. And he said, yeah, how else would I get out of your stomach, it’s not like you pooped me out. After which he laughed hysterically at that idea for a good twenty minutes, as only a ten year-old boy can. When he finally stopped I was like, dude, sit down, we need to have to a talk. And so I told him the truth about how he got out of my stomach. He turned bright red and started laughing like I was joking, but when he saw that I was serious he got really quiet, like I’d just told him that Pokemon Alpha Sapphire actually is an alternate universe, or that Wayne Gretzky never really played for the Kings. And then he asked – very quietly – how he got in there, and I told him the whole thing: sperm and egg, penis in the vagina, no information stinginess whatsoever. His eyes got all big and scared and I could tell that he liked the barf story so much better and was wishing he’d never said anything so that he could just go on believing that the barf thing was true, like a Creationist who’s forced to confront the science of evolution, but is having a really hard time giving up the idea that men rode around on the backs of dinosaurs, because that just sounds so much cooler. And when I was finished, he abruptly changed the subject and never brought it up again, especially not in the car the next morning on the way to school with my husband.
What I took away from this experience, aside from total mortification, is that my kids are SO DIFFERENT. My daughter is all about the facts and the logic and the information, while my son is happy to just make shit up. I don’t think either is better or worse – they both have their pros and cons – but it’s just so crazy to me that they can approach the same topic in such completely opposite ways. At every age, I keep expecting my son to follow the same patterns that my daughter did, but time and again, I find myself totally shocked when he doesn’t. I have to keep reminding myself that children aren’t one size fits all – they’re their own people, with their own quirks and personalities and thought processes. And that’s awesome. One day, my daughter might make an amazing architect or lawyer. And my son, well, hopefully he won’t write books about where babies come from.