“Ok, and now it’s time to wash your volvo,” my mom told my toddler daughter in the bath.
“Vulva, mom,” I said for the millionth time. “Vul-va.”
When my daughter was born six years ago, I was committed to using correct anatomical names for her body parts from the start. I figured that I could get over the awkwardness of using words like “vulva” and “penis” in day-to-day conversation before my daughter was old enough to spot me cringing. Then, I reasoned, I’d be better prepared to have truly open conversations with her by the time is truly mattered.
My mom and my husband — the other main caregivers for my daughter — were on board. And although my mom often confused the words for the female genitals with a popular car brand, we made progress and six years later, now with two daughter, I take pride in the fact that we can respond to questions without awkwardness or shame.
Building on My Mom’s Openness
When I was a kid, my mom did her best to be open, working with the constraints of social expectations in the 90s. My siblings and I learned the terms “vagina” and “penis,” and every few years my mom would sit us down individually for an updated version of The Talk. In terms of 90s parenting, my mom was about as open as they came.
Still, I picked up on the formality of these conversations, and from that internalized the fact that bodies, sex and reproduction weren’t something that I could ask about freely. Instead, like lots of kids, I turned to older cousins and friends for information that was almost always incorrect of incomplete. After Shania Twain’s hit “Man, I Feel Like A Woman,” mentioned PMS, I asked my cousin what the acronym stood for, and spent years believing her word that it meant “putting up with men’s shit.” Needless to say, I was super confused when I heard medical commercials for the condition.
Fake It `Till You Make It
Today, the word vulva is a daily occurrence in our house. At first, the word felt cringe-worthy, just because we weren’t used to using it. But after years of using the term despite that, my husband and I can talk to our girls about their bodies without any awkwardness.
In the grand scheme of raising empowered, confident, feminist women, that might not seem important, but it’s like a gateway to more in-depth conversations. Recently, after flipping through a National Geographic magazine, my daughter asked how babies are made. Rather than groaning, I was ready, giving a straightforward response about the logistics traditional reproduction and assisted reproduction. I might have been blushing inside, but my daughter didn’t know that, and our first edition of “The Talk” was totally uneventful — exactly what I was hoping for.
The Need for Honest Conversations
Earlier this summer, the world went nuts when the sexually-explicit “WAP” topped the charts. Luckily, my daughter wasn’t in school at the time and is still more likely to be listening to Disney Princess radio than Top 40. However, the song made me realize that — sooner than I would like — my daughter is going to encounter information that I feel is too mature for her.
When that happens, I want her to feel comfortable coming to me. I never want her spending years thinking that PMS means something that makes no sense at all, but not having the gumption to ask me about it. Instead, I want to respond like this mom, who corrected her daughter’s overhead-at-school understanding of WAP with factual and age-appropriate information.
For centuries, women have had incomplete or inaccurate understandings of their own bodies and sexualities, which oftentimes led to them being mistreated or taken advantage of. If I can combat that for my daughters, it’s well worth a little awkwardness on my side.
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