That time has arrived.
You know, that time: when my husband (and maybe me, too, unless I can avoid it) sit down with our kids and give them the talk about their bodies changing and about how they are becoming men and about how this transition is a beautiful, beautiful thing.
The email from my son’s teacher to all the parents in the class was the wake-up call I needed. She said her classroom had a certain prepubescent funk to it, with kids still thinking they are kids who don’t need showers, clean underwear, or deodorant. Having smelled my boys after an afternoon playing outside, and multiplying that smell by 30, the current size of their classes, I definitely felt for her.
Felt for her, and for me: my babies are growing up, shedding their sweet little boy smell along with their innocence.
In my elementary school in Kansas, fifth grade was the year we officially received The Talk. My parents may have said something about sex earlier; if they did, I don’t remember (and you would remember something like that, right?). I do remember rifling through their Joy of Sexbook, tucked deep in their walk-through closet, and looking at a James Dobson book on adolescence more visibly displayed on their bookshelf. One of those texts—its visual aids, really—proved far more helpful than the other. *
But it was Mrs. Goertz who became the parental proxy for the Hillsboro School District, providing us the sex education we needed in the fifth grade. Girls had a different talk than the boys, although we compared notes later at recess. Mrs. Goertz, the school nurse, was in charge of both lectures; she attended our church, which was only slightly less embarrassing for me than for my classmate, John Goertz, who had to learn sex education from his aunt. That’s how things rolled in a small Mennonite community.
I honestly only remember two things from our sex education talk: 1) Mrs. Goertz showing us this enormous belt-and-pad contraption we would need to wear when we started our periods (thank god I got mine only after companies had switched to the miracle of adhesives); and 2) Mrs. Goertz fielding my question about what a raised middle finger might me. She put hers up, proudly, and said “It’s just a finger. It doesn’t mean anything.” “Then why do all the boys like doing that?” I asked. Apparently, The Joy of Sex hadn’t answered all my questions.
(And surely I wasn’t that naïve, was I? I mean, my boys already know what the middle finger means, and I remember my middle school sister practice her bird flips in the back seat of the car. Was I really that far behind?)
The other day, I found a website that helps parents, or at least mothers, have the talk with their daughters, rather than leaving the job to sex books shoved deep into closets and the school nurse. And I’m not sure what to think of the organization. Over at Blessings by God, mothers can sign up with their daughters (and grandmas!) for Maidens By His Design workshops, which apparently help teach girls about their changing bodies, but in a “biblical” way.
The day-long workshop (which can also be extended over smaller ten week gatherings) allows girls to learn “God made their bodies that way for His Glory.” It doesn’t sound like the class is in the traditional vein of sex education, because the company promises to never mention birth control or male “parts or terminology.” Which is a little bit of a head-scratcher to me, since conservative evangelicals often talk about how God’s biological design for women reflects the need for male parts, if not for terminology. I wonder how they finesse the discussion about the function of a changing body and menstruation without mentioning sex as part of the equation.
The workshop also comes with a handbook describing the menstruation cycle, and includes devotionals a girl can read while she’s on her period, so that she can focus on the Lord and “His Word, and not so much on themselves.” I imagine the devotionals aren’t of the “Good Lord, This Sucks” variety, especially since girls are supposed to be focusing on others, not their own needs and, according to one review of the program, “this is hard to do when you aren’t feeling well!”
I’m of two minds when it comes to reading about the Maidens By His Design program. Or maybe three minds, the first being one of utter mortification. Imagining myself as a prepubescent girl, there is no way I would have wanted to spend a day—or ten weeks—talking about my period with other girls and their mothers, definitely not with my own mom and grandma in tow.
But I also like the idea of helping girls understand their bodies and celebrate themselves. So there’s that: the program definitely tries to help girls see their periods as a positive event, tying them to other women throughout history.
And still, it’s clear that the Maidens by His Design—and other like-programs that teach evangelical girls about their God-ordained “design”—reflect a certain orientation with which I have particular discomfort: sending girls from a very young age the message that God has distinct plans for them, and that girls shouldn’t look beyond what is clearly the “biblical design” for their lives.
The language of the “Maiden” in its own right implies a certain trajectory for girls as they grow into women, but so too does the sense that God’s design for women centers on their reproduction, because “God has created women to bring forth new life into the world.” True, perhaps, but God has created women to do so much more than that, too.
Back in the fifth grade, I imagine I would have relished hearing from someone that my body was pretty cool, but that my mind was, too; that having a period wasn’t always (or ever) pleasant, but that it connected me with humanity in intricate ways; that becoming a woman didn’t mean I needed to start focusing solely on others’ needs, rather than my own; that life is an amazing journey, and being a fifth grader teetering on the edge of maturity—between innocence and experience—can be a wonderful thing.
And, although I don’t have girls, I imagine I could give much the same message to my boys. Except, of course, for the period part. For some reason, I still feel uncomfortable about having The Talk. So maybe I’ll hand the transcript off to my husband. Or, maybe, I should see if Mrs. Goertz is available for a phone-in consultation.
*For those who might be appalled that I’m outing my parents’ reading (and other) habits from 30-some years ago, please forgive me. To be honest, I bet they are more embarrassed that they read a James Dobson book than that they had The Joy of Sex hidden in their closet.