Saturday, 27 May 2017

Let's Talk About Sex: Mindful Parenting

Picture, if you will, this scene: Me, in the kitchen, cooking dinner whilst sipping on a freshly-poured glass of red wine, dipping some crusty bread into a balsamic and olive oil dip (on my 8 year-old's request, who casually informed me that "Balsamic is my favourite sauce, Mum", which made me chuckle, not least because it triumphs over the discussion he had with his big sister earlier today in a cafe about the difference between dulce de leche and chocolate spread, rendering my kids painfully middle-class and me totally to blame for the whole thing). Whilst I stirred, quaffed and dipped, I was also strumming on my acoustic guitar, one leg up on a chair, trying to remember the chords to It Must Be Love by Madness, and somewhat failing.

Then, in strolls my daughter, age 12, clutching at my 24 year-old copy of the hefty hardback
Pathophysiology: The Biologic Basis For Disease in Adults and Children, which she had extracted from the bookshelf today to have a good look at. This is one of the books I would hug close to me, in the vague hope that I would somehow find the miracle of osmosis passing on information to transfer into cerebral knowledge without me having to study for hours on end, sweating over the pain of rote learning. So I felt a sense of joy at seeing my girl interested in this book, a contradiction to my utter heart-sink moments at having to read through pages and pages to try to find the answers to questions or a nugget to use in reference to an assignment during my training (oh, how different things would have been to me if the internet was in use when I was studying).

"Mum", she says, placing the book noisily on the table, as I see her biceps quiver in relief. "I have questions."
Ah! I thought. I can help here. I am fundamentally Good At Questions. "Fire away, my love" I said, stirring my bolognese with a confident gusto, enough to splash sauce over the tiles at the back of the hob. "What is it that you wish to know?"

"Well..." she began, gingerly, whist flicking through the pages of the book. "I am confused. What is going on HERE?". She pointed animatedly at the page of the reproductive system, showing foetal development of the sex organs. I suddenly begin to realise I am in interesting territory. Unperturbed, I take a sip of red wine, and continue. "Ah, OK, so you're confused about how a baby's gender is determined? Well, here it says that at 7 weeks gestation -"
"What's gestation, mum?"
"- Gestation is the term used to describe the development of the baby, called a foetus, whilst it's growing in the womb"
"Oh". I feel confident. This is going well. I take another sip of wine and a deep breath. Not at the same time though, as that would be silly.
"So," I continue, "As you can see from these very detailed diagrams, here is development at 7 weeks, but here, at 40 weeks, the gender of the baby has been determined and is fully developed. But it is of course down to DNA that decides the gender of the baby". A moment of acknowledged silence. I pause all stirring, strumming and sipping has ceased, in order to give my daughter the detail she is asking for, but wondering what is coming, next. I begin to feel just a teeny bit nervous, as she continues to flick through the pages, and chapters. Then I realise where we are heading. Oh God, I thought, taking a bigger, braver quaff of wine.
"Mum....what is this? It looks disgusting!"
"Oh, that?!" I said, loftily yet injecting an air of teacher-ness intojj the mix. Must stay on top of the situation, I thought. Must not show fear. She is pointing at a photo of a syphilis chancre on a penis.
I take another gulp of rioja. And then I take 2 mindful, grounding, deep breaths.
"That" I said, weakly, then clearing my wine-lined throat. "Is what is known as a Sexually Transmitted Infection."
Silence. For 8 seconds. 8 seconds of pondering.
"Hmm" Said my daughter. "How did that happen?"
"Well" I said, going back to my stirring of bolognese, feeling strangely relaxed. That rioja is wonderful, I mused, as I thought about how to continue the conversation.
"You see" I began, "when people decide that they want to um, have sex with each other, sometimes they don't share the right stuff, and do share the wrong things. Syphilis is one of a number of infections that can be passed on to couples when they have sex, if they choose not to use protection from infections and contraceptives". At this point, my 8 year-old son walks in. "What's contraceptive? Ugh, what's that a photo of? Ugh, it's a PENIS!" Cue giggling that would befit a Minion movie. "Ha! I just said PENIS"
I inwardly wince. Christ almighty...
"Yes, contraceptive" I continued, "Is what men and women use to stop the woman becoming pregnant. Because..." Oh God, I thought, I have landed myself in choppy waters, now. "Because...umm...sometimes, people like to have sex with each other because it feels really good - not just to have a baby." There was a silence. The bolognese sat on the hob, muttering its own nuances on the topic that was distracting the creator away from it, causing some bottom-burning on the pan. I realised just in time, that this was the cue to take me out of the discomfort that was edging from my toes, to my knees, to my chest and to my face, leading me to feel all hot and uncomfortable for the briefest of moments.
"Ugghhhhhh!" both children chime in fascinated disgust. My daughter flicks over a few pages, to look at photos of genital warts. Oh, bloody fantastic, I thought. We're on to Herpes. "Look, mum! How did that happen to him?"
"Because at some point he didn't use a condom" I reply nonchalantly, breaking spaghetti into boiling water and for a millisecond wondering why I hadn't done the same, all those 13 years ago.
"What's a condom?" My 8 year old asks. I explain. He looks at me as if I am telling him about dancing unicorns in the enchanted forests of some unknown world. "It's like a special balloon that a man puts on his penis and catches the sperm to stop it reaching the lady's egg in her womb. It also stops infections spreading between each person during sex" I explain. "Oh" He said, and I believe he understands me. I feel jubilant. I'm handling this so well. Much, much better than I thought I would. But that's because I'm a nurse and I can handle this, I reassure myself, taking another sip of wine.
"SO," I continued, in my teacher/mum voice. "One thing you need to remember, is that just because you can't see it, it doesn't mean it's not there. Like HIV" I said.
"What's that? Is that like AIDS?" My daughter asks. "No, it's not AIDS. It's a germ that can be passed from one person to another when they have sex, but wearing a condom helps to stop that from happening, as well as passing sperm on which can make a baby". Is this going well? I ask myself. "I don't know, is it?"My inner voice replies, impatiently. Apparently satisfied, both children saunter off to the lounge to watch CBBC, which at that point, means my work is done.
I realise something rather magnificent has happened, here. My biology bible, the book that gave me neck and shoulder strain as I commuted from Green Lanes to Waterloo to get to uni, all those years ago, the book that has seen 5 house moves, a marriage, two babies, a divorce and a life re-boot, has just opened up a brilliant dialect between me and my children. It has enabled open, honest, relaxed (ish) conversation about sexually transmitted infections, a subject many parents struggle with , and I have nailed it. Sort of. I know that this isn't the end of it. In fact, it's the beginning. I am happy to chat to my children about this subject. They need to know. De-mystifying it is far better than shrouding it like a confusion condom, preventing good quality, informed decision-making and correct information. I, as a parent, have a duty to teach my children about safe sex, to teach them that sex is good, fun, but to be treated reverently and with the deepest respect on all levels for it to be safe and successful, as well as for them to know that there are infections and illnesses that can cause big consequences if the wrong choices are made. I tell my children often that I am happy to answer all questions and take away that layer of mystery and fear. That is my mindful approach to parenting. I could never have imagined, however, that McCance and Huether would ever be referenced in a conversation with my children about what safe sex is.
Now, where's that rioja bottle...?