Parenting without blueprints

Note: discusses relationships between gender/sex and anatomy.

This morning my daughter asked me if her dad pees out of his butt.

Back up for a moment. Mr. G and I are both feminists (shocker, I know), and committed to applying what we believe about gender equality and female empowerment to how we parent. Part of what that means for us is providing our toddler with accurate, age-appropriate information and terminology about her body and human anatomy in general.

So when she started saying a few months ago that her pee comes out of her butt, I explained to her that it actually comes from her vulva. (“Urethra” seemed like more detail than a 2 year old really needed.) Of course she wanted to know if her dad and I have vulvas, too. I explained that I have a vulva too, but her dad doesn’t. I may have explained that her dad has a penis. If I did, she didn’t remember.

Back to this morning’s conversation, then, which went something like this:

Kiddo: Does papa pee from his butt?
Me: Uh, no…*pause* Papa pees out of his penis.
Kiddo: He pees out of his penis?
Me: Yes.
Kiddo: Pe-nis?
Me: Yes.
[This may have gone on for a couple more rounds. Nightmares of my daughter randomly going up to strangers and blurting out “penis” – or worse, asking them if they have one – may have flashed through my head.]
Kiddo: Do you have a penis?
Me: No, I have a vulva.
Kiddo: Do I have a penis?
Me: No, you have a vulva too.

And so on. It became clear that she had more questions about this, so I explained further that her dad’s penis is in the same place as her and my vulva is.

And then I felt a moment of panic, because I could see she was heading towards asking more general questions, not just about her body or her dad’s or mine, and I didn’t know quite what to tell her. Translating what I’m so accustomed to writing here on the blog – gender isn’t determined by genitals, that sex and gender both come in a diverse array, not in rigid, mutually exclusive binaries – for a toddler? I didn’t quite know where to start.

Telling her boys have penises and girls have vulvas was out, of course, as it’s not true. Most boys have penises and most girls have vulvas, but some girls have penises and some boys have vulvas? Closer, but potentially more complicated than she can understand right now, and leaves out intersex and/or nonbinary people, whom we haven’t really talked to her about yet.

I finally settled on “Most people either have a vulva or a penis.” This seemed to satisfy her. And it seemed to me like an answer that gave her the information she was curious about without imposing universal claims on other people’s bodies or genders, and also leaving space for future conversations about sex and gender.

This brief conversation set of a frequent line of thought for me. Namely, about how the uncertainties and unexpected challenges of parenting are compounded by our choice to parent our child according to principles we weren’t raised by, and to which we’re quite new ourselves. And this applies to much of my life outside parenting. It can be scary territory.

Coming to believe something different that what you were raised to believe doesn’t erase all your prior socialization. I have a lot of lingering discomfort around talking openly and honestly about anything I was taught to consider “sexual.” This morning, some part of me was deeply uncomfortable with discussing not just penises in the abstract with our daughter, but my husband’s body specifically. Despite the fact there was nothing remotely sexual about our conversation, that it was simple, age-appropriate curiosity, that my daughter had a right to an honest answer and I had no reason to withhold one.

And at the same time I was conscious that shutting down, redirecting the conversation, or otherwise denying her an honest answer would send the message that these things were secrets, not to be discussed, not to be asked about. In fact reacting that way would have had, in the long run, the exact effect I was socialized to perceive in the conversation: it would have taught her to sexualize bodies, by seeing knowledge about them as taboo.

It may not be so long before my daughter can sense my hesitation, my searching for words, my awkwardness and desire to bolt in these conversations. I know these kinds of conversations between parents and children are often (always?) awkward for at least one party. But I don’t want her to think these things are secrets or wrong to ask about. For her sake as well as my own, I want to to work to make minimize my discomfort with talking about sex, to have a healthier attitude about it.

And this is the other scary part: I’m figuring out how to do this on the fly. Which is also part of the nature of parenting. Still, as a parent who has consciously rejected much of parenting “wisdom” from the communities Mr. G and I grew up in, I feel a heightened sense of being in uncharted territory. We have so few models for how we want to relate to to the kiddo. The conservative evangelical blueprint for “doing things right” as a parent is now mostly a set of guidelines to what we don’t want to do as parents.

Figuring out what we should do instead? That’s a lot harder. That requires actually seeking out people and communities who’re forging new models for parenting. Models that are often not as socially supported as “traditional” conservative models. Models that can seem less time-and-trial tested, less proven – even as I realize that the supposedly “time-tested” models haven’t worked out so great so far, certainly not for me or many people I know.

This is one of the things I think people who haven’t spent much time in or around conservative evangelical communities (or similar high-demand groups) really don’t understand. About why people stay, what people get out of it. One of the big attractions is the psychological assurance that having someone tell you what the “right way” to do things can bring. More than that, it’s having a whole community of people who are ready to affirm the exclusive awesomeness of this “right way,” who you can look to as “right way” examples and success stories. It’s the power of a common vocabulary, shared commitments and frustrations, living out the same blueprint together with so many other people.

This might sound contradictory, given what I’ve written about the ongoing negative impact this cultural emphasis on always “doing things right” has had on me personally, and how the seemingly endless litany of things you have to make certain you’re doing the right way is an extremely powerful means of controlling people. And it is absolutely that.

But part of what makes it so powerful is precisely the sense of security and community it offers, feelings that can coexist right alongside intense negative feelings about striving for the unattainable standard of “God’s way,” or not being able to choose how to live, or not being able to escape an oppressive family or church community. In fact it can be precisely this deliberately cultivated and ingrained confidence that one is doing things “God’s way” that gives people the ability to so thoroughly repress or deny negative feelings about being part of a high control religious group. That’s part of what makes it such a powerful tool for manipulating and controlling people.

And the flip side of this is that when you leave such a group, you suddenly find yourself without the roadmaps and blueprints and authority figures you’d relied upon to instruct you in every detail of how to live your life. It can be terrifyingly disorienting. At least, it was for me. I felt like anything was possible, anything was permissible, and that wasn’t a good thing. All of a sudden there are so many ways to do things, and no way to know which ways were right and which were wrong.

Of course, this is exactly how I was trained to feel if I ever seriously contemplated not being a Christian. We’re totally depraved, so left to our own devices, what we want or think is best is usually wrong, wrong wrong. Choose between the safety and support of the group that gets it right and fucking everything up all alone.

And this is why I’m so grateful for feminist parenting blogs like bluemilk and Raising My Boychick. They make me feel not quite so alone in trying to cobble together an approach to parenting that doesn’t always come organically or easily. Because that kind of community support is important. Not a community that dictates a blueprint for “doing things right,” not a self-congratulatory, exclusionary community, but a community struggling together to turn ideals and principles into action, providing support and shelter through all the complications and unforeseen challenges and unsolicited lectures about how we’re doing it all wrong. Ideally, anyway.

All of that from a question about whether my husband pees out of his butt. Make of that what you will!

22 Comments

  1. I still consider myself a Christian, but I’ve stopped attending church because of the manipulation that goes on there. I know it’s not healthy for me, but I sometimes miss that community. I know the feeling. I’m trying to learn to trust myself–to see myself as an intelligent human being, not a depraved, messed up sinner. I’m finding community in support from my feminist group that makes me feel the opposite of how church made me feel. And I’m finding that reading Christian blogs feels more like church is “supposed” to feel–encouraging, loving, supporting.

    I still have trouble trusting my instincts. One of the worst things the traditional church taught me. Sigh.

    • I don’t identify as Christian anymore, but I completely relate to everything you said, including about more welcoming Christian blogs, heh. If I had found a community like that earlier, maybe I would identify differently now.

  2. Thank YOU for providing a model, even a trial-and-error one, for those of us still to have children :)

    One of the reasons I love the blogosphere is that it has helped me find guidance for those things I want to do differently with my future children than the way I was raised. When I found The Earthling’s Handbook, I read through all 100+ of her posts on Parenting in a single afternoon because I was so happy to have some guidance from someone who approached parenting in a way I wanted to parent and actually had a kind of road map of what worked and what didn’t. More recently I’ve fallen in love with Offbeat Mama because they explore all different approaches to parenting (and creating a family to begin with) in a non-judgmental, discussion-based way. So thank you for being another voice creating these new roadmaps for those of us a few steps behind :)

    • Thanks, Jessica! That’s one of my favorite things about the blogosphere, too. We can find like-minded people and have conversations that are so difficult to have in most other contexts.

      Thanks for the linking the Earthling’s Handbook and Offbeat Mama, too! I follow them on twitter but haven’t had a chance to really check out their blog (I have so much less time to read other blogs since I started blogging, lol). I’ll check them out!

  3. I remember these first conversations! They are ongoing, so don’t feel like you have to get everything right the first time.

    When Lil’T first learned about vulvas she was shocked to find out her dad didn’t have one. She thought her daddy had a tail instead and felt sorry for him. She did go around singing about body parts and this was no exception. Once she went up to my husband’s coworker who was over for supper and announced she had a vulva. He didn’t understand her toddler babble and by the time she was coherent to strangers, she was bored by it or noticed it wasn’t a good way to start a conversation.

    Our 18 month’s favourite word was vulva for a few weeks. Now her favourite word is turtle. Since we are much more comfortable with ourselves now and family nudity is as asexual as family work clothes, it is much easier. It sure felt weird at first. And I sometimes worry.

    It is also easier to get into more complexities of gender with the five year old. And I am also glad I don’t have the fundy shame about bodies! Being an evangelical would make this a lot harder.

    • Heh, yea, all of those sound like things our daughter would do or has done. She likes to talk about poop, too.

      I know parenting is about a lot more than not doing the things you wish your parents hadn’t done, but sometimes it just blows my mind to think about how all the shame and fear that both of us grew up with is totally not on our daughter’s radar. It’s hard not to think that we’re at least making some headway by avoiding that!

  4. This is one of the many reasons I will never be a parent. I can’t not do that. I can’t not make these things sexual and taboo and terrible – because for me they are. They’re not supposed to be, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that for me, they are exactly that way. Abusers can exploit Christian culture so well. Which is why I cannot even acknowledge any kind of inherent good in it. If you’re entire system can make abusers invisible, because they seem normal? Then there’s nothing good about it.

  5. Thank you so much for explaining the group norming function of a community like this, this is an insight I didn’t have before. Very interesting, it explains a lot of things that I found very perplexing because I couldn’t grasp it before. Thank you for that!
    No wonder you are terrified of doing the ‘wrong’ thing instead of the one single right thing (which doesn’t exist), the kind of upbringing you describe must be a very deep seated influence.

    Don’t worry too much about phrasing things awkwardly, or hesitating. I don’t think that hesitation and searching for words in itself is what communicates discomfort to your daughter. I think it’s more than okay to give yourself a bit of time to think over your answer to a slightly more complex or difficult question. The main thing that you do communicate is the non-verbal energy we all give out (I mean the sort of thing Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, is talking about). The calmer you are the more reassured your daughter will be that things are okay. You could easily say something like: “Now let me think, how does that work?” and then literally think about it for however long you need. And if you’re completely flummoxed then there’s the old trick of paraphrasing the question to get more clues from your daughter about what she wants to know if that wasn’t clear. Just remember to breathe and steady yourself, you won’t feel nearly as awkward or panicky.

    I haven’t had to explain bodily functions or sex to kids but I remember how my Mum later related how she handled that with me. I was really impressed that her ‘technique’ was to answer only the question I asked and no more and I seem to remember that the tone of her voice was natural and relaxed, kind of friendly. But I don’t remember a lot so all her answers must have felt very reassuring at the time.

    • Welcome to the blog and thanks for the comment, Giselle! Really good point about pausing to think being OK. I’ve had healthcare provider who did that – stop to think about a question I’ve asked her – and initially I thought that was weird, but the more she did it, the more I appreciated that she wasn’t just giving me a canned answer. I think you’re right that kids can appreciate that kind of thoughtfulness from their parents, too. I’ve also heard a lot of parents say answer the question that was asked, not anything more (or less).

      • I would say – not as a parent, of course, but as a survivor – that there does need to be information given at any age, regardless of questions asked. Or at least a child knowing from day one that their body is theirs, that no one has a right to touch it in a way that makes them uncomfortable, and no one has a right to touch certain areas, something – just because this was my mother’s method (answer when asked) but I was not a child that asked questions, so I never got any answers.

        Now, part of what’s coloring this is, despite the “answer when asked” parenting, my parents also created an environment where it was not okay to ask questions, so, there’s that. I just think kids need to be equipped with some kind of knowledge early on, regardless of their questions, so they’re not growing up in silence.

        • You’re absolutely right, children have a right to information about their right to have their bodies and boundaries respected. And I think it’s something most children probably wouldn’t ask about until they’re on the older side, when it’s something that needs to be built in from really early on. Thanks for pointing out that “answer what’s asked” isn’t enough on its own to empower kids.

          (possible trigger warning for the rest of this)

          We have talked to our daughter about only touching other people when they want to be touched, stopping right away when someone indicates they don’t want to be touched, and we try to model that with her in how we play and interact with her. Now that she’s starting to understand more, we’ve also started to talk to her about ways its not ok for other people to touch her. And you’re totally right that none of those are things she’d necessarily be able to articulate and ask about at age 3, but they’re already important for her to start to understand.

        • Hi again,
          I came across a mention of a session at a school which explained the concept of ‘good touch/bad touch’ – I thought it was amazing that kids (not sure what age though, sorry) were given this kind of vital information. Exactly what you pointed out: the right not to be touched regardless of how young a child is. That’s a very, very important point!

  6. MORE PLEASE!

    I am so incredibly thrilled to have found this post!

    I’m really pretty creepily obsessed with babies and parenting, enough to freak my friends & mother out (I’m 24 and single). I’ve been aching to have a baby since I was about 12 or 13. And then this deep urge to be a mother collided with the part of me that, bit by bit, is discovering what it means to be anti-racist, feminist, anti-homophobic–and to truly live according to what I believe.

    I read “An Unconventional Family” and suddenly I realized I WASN’T ready to have a baby; wasn’t ready to spread so many of the biases and privilege and deeply socialized insecurities and inhibitions onto another human being. Suddenly I was petrified of Doing It Wrong.

    So I googled “anti-racist parenting,” “feminsm and motherhood” and all sorts of other things… and was surprised at how lucrative my search wasn’t. Somehow I didn’t find you (and all these other bloggers! wow!) until today.

    Anyway. I guess this is mostly to agree with you that there really aren’t blueprints, and to say thanks and that I’m so excited you’re writing about your Kiddo!

    … and to ask for a list of what YOU read in absence of blueprints–bluemilk and Raising My Boychick are two, are there any more?

    • Thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog, Wess! I’m glad the post resonated with you. I think it’s great that you’re thinking about feminist and egalitarian parenting before being a parent :) Some other blogs I’ve read along these lines: PhD in Parenting, Love isn’t Enough (formerly Anti-racist Parenting). And honestly a lot of my reading about justice-minded parenting these days is on Twitter! There are some amazing parents with all kinds of experiences there :)

  7. Grace, great post. I can tell you that it seems easier if you approach body parts like anatomy lessons. I’m an RN so love that kind of stuff and talking about vulvas is no more sexual to a 2yo than talking about elbows. The good news is that older kids do understand the complexities and nuances. I’ve had some great conversations with my 11yo girl about ambiguous genitalia patients I’ve taken care of, and explained to her over time how the approach to that has changed. And thanks to Dancing With The Stars and Chaz Bono she knows all about transgender identity.

    • Thanks, tofudog! That’s awesome that you’ve been able to have conversations about intersex and trans people with your daughter…I’m both nervous about and looking forward to future conversations with our daughter about this. I can definitely see how it’ll be easier in certain ways once she understands more.

      I’m can’t remember if this is your first time commenting, but if so – thanks for the comment and welcome :)

  8. Yeah, after I wrote this response it got me thinking about the possible ways that gender played a role in who has access to information. My mother often talks about when my brothers started asking questions, but never for me, and I wonder if they had more freedom for that. My mother idealized the time periods where women only learned about sex the night before their wedding – she even idealized arranged marriages, thinking that she would totally be better at picking someone out for me, and that would totally make the relationship last longer. So there may have been that at play too – subtle reinforcement that kept me in the dark because “girls aren’t supposed to know about those things” that my brothers never had.

  9. The links you gave to Bluemilk and Raising My Boychick are broken for me, becase they are relative to your domain.

  10. Great post! We worked to approach the issue with age-appropriate frankness, and it seems to have worked and is still working. One thing I would caution about: because my daughters used correct terminology when referring to secondary sexual characteristics, we were called by schools. They were worried that something “inappropriate” might be happening. While I appreciated the vigilance on their part regarding the safety of our children, I wonder what the world has come to when a little girl knowing she has a vulva can be considered a sign of a potentially abuse situation, you know?

  11. We have a six year old boy, so we had the opposite conversation…he was sure I had a penis too. Also he insisted that boys could have babies! Because it’s unfair that women can but men can’t. I’ve mentioned that sometimes people start out with a boy body or girl body and then decide they want to change, but that’s as far as we’ve gone in talking about trans issues because I could see his confusion. I’m sure we’ll have that discussion more another time. One thing I am really proud of is that we took a firm stand on “gender x is icky” talk. Girls are not icky, neither are boys, that’s a mean thing to say and it’s not ok. Because I really think that’s part of sexist indoctrination–creating mistrust between genders during childhood. Re boundaries…I tried to cut my son’s nails the other day and he said “No! I get to say what happens to my body!” He had me there! I had to think fast, so I told him ok, and then why I wanted to trim his nails. I asked his permission to do it. He thought a minute, then said ok. That was pretty awesome too.