Morning Coffee Feminism: “No, it’s okay. I can do it.”

The front brakes on my bicycle were busted, and close examination suggested that I needed to take them apart to fix them. It’s not that I used my bike for commuting – I was thirteen, and I caught the train to school. I did, however, use it for rollicking around the park and getting exercise and having fun, and I wanted it working, so this was a priority for me.

I went inside. “Mum, where do we keep our screwdrivers?”

“Our what?”

“I need a Philips head screwdriver to fix my bike.”

My mother looked puzzled. “We don’t have any screwdrivers.”

It was my turn for a blank, flabbergasted expression. “That’s really stupid,” I said, being an outspoken, slightly bratty, introverted thirteen year old with a very limited grasp of keeping your temper when your parents say things that don’t make sense. “How are we going to fix things?”

There was a lecture about rudeness, but it did not address the fact that it was just stupid to not have your own screwdrivers.

Here’s the background: my parents had been divorced for a year or so at this point. (formally or informally, I forget when the paperwork went through. I don’t think this was something either of them felt the need to tell me about, and that’s quite fair). They had a pretty traditional division of labour back in the early days.

But I grew up with a father who spent most of his free hours mucking about happily in the garage with old motorbikes and other various engineering projects. The idea that I lived in a house without any tools was honestly bizarre. It was as though I’d been told we didn’t need oxygen, we’d just get it from Mal next door. I’d assembled my mother’s gigantic brass bed with only a firm grip and my own double-jointedness, and it occurred to me at this point that a shifting spanner (that’s a wrench to you Americans) would have made the process a little simpler.

(please note that, due to this problem, in my early adolescence I once assembled a bookshelf using one of Mum’s high heeled boots from the 80s as a hammer. I had no personal transport or cash to go and buy tools, and I wanted my bookshelf, damn it, and even IKEA flatpacks tend to assume you possess a hammer)

I called my father and complained that we didn’t have any tools, so how was I supposed to fix my bike?

My fourteenth birthday came around, and my Dad gave me a present.

It was – ta-da! – a set of tools, appropriate for a fourteen year old who had limited applications for them, but perfectly sensible for fixing bicycles (I later learned that they were not really appropriate for disassembling computers, but to be fair, I had taken apart and reassembled my computer case about eight times, including removal and replacement of CD drives, RAM, hard drives and floppy drives, before I finally managed to completely strip the screws and learned that it was important to have a selection of sizes in screwdrivers). One flat-head screwdriver, one Philips-head screwdriver, one set of bull-nosed pliers, one set of needle-nosed pliers, and a small claw hammer.

My mother looked at the tools when I proudly brought them home from my birthday visit with my father, along with the AD&D second edition Monstrous Manual, and then looked at me, and said dryly, “He does know you’re a girl, doesn’t he?”

If any of y’all wonder where my feminism comes from, look ye no further.

My mother did not believe in fixing things, or fiddling with technology. I’d been moved out of the house for about four years before she stopped calling me and asking me to come over and reset the clock on her VCR, and I suspect that’s only because she replaced the VCR with a DVD player, and by that time I had a boyfriend she could ask for help instead (see below).

I played the role of “man of the house” for my mother. I absolutely did not mind. It was more important to me to get things done, and I thought the gender shit was stupid.

As the years went by and I progressed into puberty, my mother would get wistful and start talking about how we should build a collection of perfumes and cosmetics for me to play with. I had literally zero interest in this, to the point where a close friend got really, really insulted because I pointed out that expecting women to wear make-up – and not applying that expectation to men – was sexist (she actually sulked. Quite possibly it came across as me judging her for being interested in cosmetics, and quite possibly she was right, and I was judging her, because I freely admit that at that age I lacked nuance on these issues. It mostly came from the fact that I had no interest in that stuff and I was sick of being made to feel weird for it).

(my eventual curiosity about make-up made more of an appearance much later. Amateur classical theatre had a lot to do with it)

At fifteen, I hosted a sleepover for my friends. One of those friends was a guy. He was not particularly burly (on account of being fifteen), and this wasn’t anything I’d ever really paid attention to. I was hauling the spare mattress into the lounge room so we could all sit around and talk teenager crap in a shared space, when my mother saw me and said, “Kate!”

She sounded quite shocked. Horrified, even. I’d say embarrassed.

“What?”

“Shouldn’t you let [male friend] do that?”

I exchanged a glance with my male friend in question. We both suddenly felt very awkward. Not being attracted to each other – a fortunate thing in a high school hetero-friendship – we pretty much ignored the fact that we happened to be different sexes. He suddenly shuffled and looked as though he were about to offer to take the mattress, and I think I gave him the sort of look that promised evisceration if he tried.

“No, that’s okay,” I said calmly, “I can do it myself.” I actually prickled. Like a spiny hedgehog.

I feel like “No, that’s okay, I can do it myself,” is the catch-cry for my life and for my feminism. And here’s the thing: my mother was perfectly happy for me to pick up the slack, carry heavy things, reassemble complicated pieces of furniture and machinery, handle any necessary computing and the like. This worked for her, entirely, because it got her off the hook and to be fair she had other things to do. She was comfortable with it and, if we’re honest, she sometimes seemed a little proud of me for it (when she wasn’t busy being defensive about the fact that she couldn’t or wouldn’t do it herself).

Unless there was a male around. At that point, it all went to hell, and she began to worry that I wasn’t feminine enough; that there was a pattern of social expectation and that I was not following it. She see-sawed between wanting me to be an independent sort of woman and wanting me to follow the sort of pattern she could relate to and recognise. I think it was hard for her.

But Mum never mowed a lawn if she had a male neighbour she could ask to do it for her.

(I once confided to her that I was considering asking out a boy I liked. She was horrified. “No, Kate,” she said. “You wait to be asked.” I thought about all the boys I knew and how they were just as anxious and shy and nerdy as I was, and I thought I would be waiting a very long time for that to happen. There were no more confidences after that)

The minute I entered an adult long term relationship, it wasn’t me who was being asked to set clocks or repair things – it was my boyfriend. If I was the only one around, sure, I would do, but I was a second choice.

Now, again, to be fair: this no doubt had a lot to do with how she was raised. But the way I was raised clearly taught me that if I waited around for a guy to show up and do things for me, I’d be waiting a long time, and nothing would get done, because we didn’t have any guys at the house. QED. It also taught me that I was perfectly capable of lifting and hauling and carrying and building and, incidentally, reading the freaking instruction manual (RTFM, people). It taught me that these are not things that are demarcated by gender.

The message I got from my mother was this: I was allowed to do things for myself, and I was capable of doing things for myself, unless there was a guy around, in which case I should ask him to do it for me, because reasons. Because I should pretend I couldn’t do it, so I could ask him. Because I should pretend to be less than I am in his presence.

I took her logic – such as it was – to its obvious conclusion, and I didn’t like that conclusion. It pissed me off. It still pisses me off today.

If you’re reading this, and you’re a man, and you have ever wondered why a perfectly innocent offer of help with physical labour has been poorly received by a woman, this is why. There’s a context and a history there.

I’m not saying don’t offer. I’m not saying you’re a bad person for doing it – quite the contrary! I offer to help people as well when I see they are having difficulty. It is nice when people offer to help (true facts). It is true that in terms of muscle mass there is a common female disadvantage, and I have occasionally had to accept that what is a gruelling trial for me will be a minor effort for the bloke who has just offered to give me a hand, even if he doesn’t work out (mutter mutter so unfair mutter). It does still feel like failure to accept that hand, but occasional exhaustion has forced me to do so, with graciousness (because he wouldn’t have offered if I hadn’t been visibly struggling, so kudos).

But if you are offering to help a woman lift something because she is a woman and not because she appears to be having difficulty, you won’t always get a polite response. You might get a very strained, clenched-teeth reply of “NO THANKS, I AM FINE,” because that woman has been raised to pretend she can’t do things, to contribute to a culture that thinks that woman can’t do certain things, to maintain a façade – a legal fiction – that makes no freaking sense, and that is not a good feeling. It is kind of a dirty feeling, and not in a fun way.

If you are offering to help a woman with something technical or mathematical because she is a woman and not because you are personally familiar with the gaps in her personal skill set, that’s a problem, not a kindness. I was in the nerd class with all the other nerds, and there were plenty of girls who were super awesome at maths, so coming out into a world where guys – any guys – would assume I was not able to do maths or science or technical things was a bit of a shock for me, and completely at odds with my experience. It was amazing how quickly I started to buy back into it, too, but that’s another story for another time.

Now, most of us receive these messages about what it is and is not possible/appropriate/normal for you to do as a woman (and there are some pretty toxic messages about masculinity floating around as well, I’m not even kidding). But not all of us get these messages reinforced at home, or by our peer groups, or our schools, or any of the places where we get these messages and ideas and roles imprinted on our brains as a kid.

I felt like a lot of the messages I was receiving were amazingly conflicting. I was reading – as referenced previously – Anne McCaffrey and CJ Cherryh and Patricia C Wrede books where women were kicking arse and taking names. And I was reading Conan and various problematic fantasty novels where women were only existing as temptresses or princesses (so to speak; the virgin/whore dichotomy). I was watching movies were women mostly needed to be rescued and were mostly only relevant if they had a romantic interest. I was watching TV shows where women would constantly get men around to “fix” things, because that was an option for them, and I was playing computer games where, if women appeared, they were usually prizes (80s, early to mid 90s), with very few exceptions (honestly, the first even faintly well-rounded female character that appeared on my radar was Rebecca Snoot, from Return to Zork. I was a PC gamer, remember).

So when it comes to those of us who grit our teeth, and say “No, that’s okay, I can do it,” and have trouble asking for help – it’s easy for people who haven’t felt those conflicting influences, who haven’t had their presumed ineptitude and weakness reinforced at home with weird stereotypes, to say, “But it’s not like you’ve got something to prove, is it?” and mutter about egos and chips on shoulders (sigh).

But sometimes, yes, we do have something to prove – not to you, the observer, but to ourselves. Because those imprints last, and there are still little voices in the back of our heads that are saying, “You should get a guy to do that.” And it doesn’t matter that intellectually we know that’s bullshit; we’ve internalised it at a young age, and it sticks like glue from that point, and now I prove it to myself, over and over, easier each time and with a little glow of pride, that yes, I’ve got this, and I don’t need a guy to do that. It makes it hard to ask for help because that little glow, that little “I proved it again!” victory, and the opportunity to smack that gender-norm-reinforcing voice in its stupid metaphorical face – those things are good, and they feel good.

They feel empowering.

And by the way, I did fix my bike, and I do still have those tools. I treasure them as recognition from my father that sometimes you just have to get shit done, and you can’t wait around for someone else to do it, regardless of gender.

“He does know you’re a girl, doesn’t he?”

He does. And he knows I’ve got this.

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DOG QUEST: Amos’s protective drive

Usual disclaimers apply here – I’m not going to delve deeply into canine behavioural psychology because, at this point, it is beyond my ken. There are some really good questions around territoriality and protectiveness, and I’m not much for answering those decisively, although I would love to know more.

This is about Amos, and some general perceptions of dog behaviour, and a bit of a brag, because I’m biased, and Amos is my bud.

Our first anecdote begins one bright Saturday morning when my father drove out to our place to help us with some yard work (this was before we adopted Abby). This is an ongoing project, ever since a fifty-metre-plus mountain ash with delusions of glory launched itself into our yard over a year ago and smacked down perfectly parallel to the fence line. Dad came around with his trailer and a tale of woe.

This is not unusual, and it’s a family trait. We love us some tales of woe.

Since the tree had crushed our original fence, gate and retaining wall, we’ve had some “temporary” pool-safety fencing up to prevent Amos from wandering the countryside. So Dad and I stood next to this fence as he shared his tale of woe. On the other side of the fence, Amos stood, wagging his tail and gazing happily up at us (Amos adores my father).

Now, this was a tale of betrayal and crappy friendship and a few thousand dollars lost between ex-friends, and my father gets very animated when telling a story.

This, too, is a family trait. Why simply tell a story with one’s lips when one can throw in waving hands and puffed out chests and facial grimaces? This is not merely a story, people. This is theatre, and that is our noble way.

He was very angry about what had happened, and, being Dad, he kind of got in my face, while shouting about it.

Let’s be clear – my dad wasn’t threatening me at all, and I was well aware of that, but I am not good around overt displays of anger or temper. I tend to freeze up a little, and twitch back.

“WOOF.”

Dad stopped mid-rant, mouth open. I frowned. As one we turned our heads towards Amos. He was standing in a very alert position, staring at my father. Now, Amos will bark to invite play, so I checked his body language – nope, this wasn’t a play bark. It wasn’t a full-on aggressive bark, either. “What?” I asked the dog (who, naturally, did not reply). “Nothing to worry about here. Everything’s okay.” I stroked him on the head and under the jaw and he relaxed, his tail wagging happily again.

I turned back to Dad. “Resume story,” I said, knowing the value of delivering a good rant.

Dad continued in his rant, and again, he got in my face.

WOOF.

And again, we turned to look at Amos.

The light dawned. “Ah. Dad, he thinks you’re yelling at me.”

“Oh!” Dad relaxed at once, and came over to give Amos some petting and love, and he backed off the story a bit, and all was well.

Now, I don’t know if Amos was responding to Dad’s aggressive body language (and it was very intimidating body language, particularly if you don’t know my dad), or my instinctive twitchiness in the face of anger, or possibly the combination of the two, but I’ll be honest: I think his reaction was excellent, and I’ll tell you why.

Dogs are attuned to human body language. It’s the only way they know to communicate with us. Every piece of information is crucial. I wouldn’t be entirely happy if my dog was so clueless that they couldn’t pick up on this sort of thing – it would probably be harder to communicate with them. I wouldn’t necessarily want a dog to become desensitised to it either, because that would indicate that displays of anger or temper are commonplace, and that’s not an ideal situation for anyone.

On the other hand, a dog that is overly protective – one that goes from zero to a hundred without warning – is really not desirable either. If a dog doesn’t let anyone they haven’t met get near you, that’s a problem, not just from a practical standpoint (having to put the dog away every time you have guests is frustrating. We sometimes have to do that, but admittedly that’s because of excessive social enthusiasm, not territoriality), but because it suggests that your dog thinks you can’t take care of yourself.

That may seem like excessive interpretation (and anthropomorphism), but bear with me: essentially, you want your dog to trust you to take care of them, not the other way around. In other words, it’s nice that Amos has my back, but clearly he follows my judgment when I declare things to be “safe” or otherwise. This means that if I don’t overreact to storms and earthquakes, he probably won’t either (note: lots of dogs are scared of storms and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your reaction – but your reaction can make it worse). If I react with warm enthusiasm to a visitor, that tells Amos that the visitor is safe.

If he were getting protective, even from people that I obviously like, that would indicate that he wasn’t trusting my judgment, and I need my dog to trust me.

I have another example. Last year, I had surgery. It was relatively minor surgery, but it did involve an open wound that took a while to heal, and Amos could smell that I wasn’t at my best. He didn’t get over-protective, but he did become a little bit more of a velcro-dog than he would normally be.

One day, a few days after I got out of the hospital, I stepped out on the back deck to find that Lenny, the kelpie from next door, had come to visit. Lenny is a sweetheart and a charmer, with an ant-eater style tongue that attacks you like a friendly, sloppy ninja, so I was delighted to see him. He galloped over to me for a pat.

Amos body-blocked him. He didn’t growl. He didn’t snap. He just ensured that Lenny could not get close to me, and after that, he actually gently herded Lenny over to the other end of the deck, and then came back to me, looking very pleased with himself.

It’s true that when Amos and Lenny (or Amos and Abby, or any combination of the three) are in the presence of any of their favourite humans, they get possessive and a bit jealous. No! I want all the pats! You can’t have any! And they will body block, and wriggle, and bounce, but there’s a very obvious no-hard-feelings about all the body language involved. I’ve never seen them herd each other before.

“Aw,” I said to Amos, “That’s sweet. But I want to pat Lenny.” So I put Amos in a drop, and walked over to Lenny, who was looking quite forlorn-

-and then I went back to Amos, and put him back in his drop-

-and-

Okay. It took a few tries to get past Amos’s instinctive conviction that Lenny shouldn’t be too close when I was vulnerable, but we got there. Amos held his drop, with a desperate look in his eyes, and I petted Lenny and told him he was very cute, and then I released Amos and petted them both, and the moment seemed to pass.

While I felt quite loved, herding away a smaller dog that we know well bordered a little bit on over-protective for me. He did it gently, with no overt displays of aggression, but it was an unnecessary level of caution. So, I decided that I had to demonstrate to Amos that I get to make all the decisions about patting other dogs, even when I’m sick and have an open surgical wound, and we did this in a controlled setting.

My favourite story, though, is a bit more ridiculous. It takes place the day after we brought little Amos-puppy home. He was nine weeks old and a bit under five kilos.

For nearly the first 24 hours that we had Amos, he interacted almost exclusively with me. Husband was working from home that day and things had apparently gone a bit pear-shaped, so he was very busy. I’d picked up Amos from the breeder and brought him home, talking to him the whole time and petting him at red lights. I’d put his box next to my side of the bed that first night, and slept with my arm dangling in it so he could lick me and get petted when he felt uncertain (just for the first night, I didn’t want to create a pattern). There was a very quick bonding process.

The evening of the second Amos-day, I was still very tired and not feeling at my best. Husband was stressed out about work, and we had what passes for a fight when two people are very grumpy but too tired to get excessively worked up. I was lying on the couch, and little Amos was sprawled on the carpet having a snooze.

Voices were raised. Tempers frayed.

Then, the adorable puppy growl: “rrrrrrrrrrRUFF.”

Little puppy Amos had woken up, and positioned himself closer to me, glaring at Husband.

We both melted immediately, and the fight was over. Husband held out his hand for Amos to lick, and all was forgiven. So, it was established early on that Amos is not a fan of raised voices in the home, or cross voices, and I’m not entirely sure that was a protective urge (he was just a baby, after all) so much as his own personal discomfort with the vibe of the room.

Still, I like to say, “Amos doesn’t like it when people yell at me.” And that works out well, because I don’t like it either.

Morning Coffee Feminism: Large Dogs

“Really?” he asked. “What breed of dog would you get?”

“A rottweiler,” I said, surprised by the question. I’m sure I’d made no secret of my preference, and I knew he loved the breed also.

There was silence for a moment. “Are you sure?” he asked, looking as though he were trying to fish more tactful words out of the air. “You need to be very strong-willed…”

I blinked. Had he met me?

“…have a lot of force of personality, you know… strength…”

If you’ve met me, you’re probably not labouring under the delusion that I lack personal stage presence, and if you’ve spent any time with me at all, you’re unlikely to think I’m anything other than strong-willed.

I like phrases like “strong-willed” and “determined”. They sound so much better than “stubborn” and “plants her feet like a recalcitrant yak.”

My guest – who knew, and knows me, very well – refused to meet my eyes, and it was at that moment I realised: this wasn’t about whether I could command an audience on stage or look stern at a puppy. This was about my sex.

But we didn’t say that. It would have started an argument.

 

***************

“You treat that dog as a child substitute.”

I glanced across at my dog, who was happily flopped on the paving, his leash hooked onto a post. Since he was tied up, the other end was hooked to his harness, rather than his collar, because if he tugged at it, I didn’t want him to give himself an accidental correction.

“I don’t put children in correction collars,” I pointed out.

After a brief digression of black humour, I returned to the point. “I also don’t have them sleep in crates, leave them outside in the rain during the day, or kick them out of the house when they misbehave. I admit I haven’t had the opportunity, since I don’t have a kid, but I can promise I wouldn’t do these things. I also wouldn’t insist a child sit before coming inside, or wait for an invitation before coming up on the couch, or stay in a fixed position while I prepare food.”

“Yeah, but-”

“No, wait. Are you absolutely sure that you didn’t decide that, because I was female, I was going to treat any dog I got like a child? And are you sure you didn’t decide that ahead of time, and interpret every action I take in light of that? Because that’s called confirmation bias.”

There was silence for a moment. My conversational companion sipped at his wine. “Yeah. Okay. That’s a fair point.”

I only won like that once. The next time we had this conversation, he completely denied it. It would have destroyed his belief that mostly what women want out of life is to have babies, and somehow they’re incapable of viewing pets as anything other than babies. And if only I wasn’t so happy with and interested in my dogs, I would be absolutely trying conceive some potential offspring right now.

 

***************

I used to spend some time on a rottie enthusiast forum – I mostly lurked and just read things. I didn’t post. There were some really good tips and lovely people on there. Also, some absolute rubbish.

I remember being really affected by one extremely long conversation where a man insisted, at length, that women just didn’t have the force of personality to manage large dogs like rottweilers. They needed a man’s touch. I can provide links if anyone wants to watch the carnage that followed from numerous female dog owners and handlers.

This just in: you don’t need to be able to lift the dog – if it comes down to a need for physical control, all you need is leverage. Very small people can have leverage, and dogs don’t usually know how to work around it. If you’re getting to the point where you’re a big strong guy and you’re relying on that to control your dog, you have a serious problem. Furthermore, despite reports of dogs being sexist, I’ve found just as much anecdotal evidence going the other way. I think it really does have a lot to do with body language and confidence, as well as patience and determination, and these are not specifically male traits.

Furthermore, I’ll just link you through to The K9 Company again. There’s two women on the front page. The taller one? That’s Cat. She’s one of our trainers and runs the business with her partner, Brent. The delighted rottweiler there is Zooka. He’s honestly the best trained (and perhaps one of the most loved) dogs I have ever met. He is Cat’s dog.

If you want to tell Cat that women can’t handle rottweilers, be my freaking guest. Just let me know ahead of time so I can track down a flak jacket, because I don’t want to get injured as I enjoy the show.

 

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Post. “Morning coffee feminism” is a new blog post series I’m starting up, basically telling short stories about times where sexism and gender essentialism has impacted my life. They’re mostly what are called “micro-aggressions”, the little things that just start to add up like crazy over a lifetime. I was just going to write one post but it was reaching novella length, so here we are! Feel free to share your own experiences or opinions in the comments.

“Male cats have… what?” or “How I learned about ‘Sex and all that stuff’”

This is the story of how I learned where babies come from. I find this story highly entertaining, but that could just be my slightly eccentric sense of humour.

I learned – or at least, I began to have strong suspicions about the process – at the hairdresser. Not from the hairdresser, you understand, but in the actual salon.

I was six years old, and I was waiting for a haircut. I was sitting with my mum in the little waiting area, surrounded by the clip of scissors and the smell of conditioner, and I was bored, drumming my feet against the benches. “Read a magazine,” my mother suggested, being well aware by this time that handing me reading material was the easiest way to keep me occupied. I don’t remember if she chose the magazine or if I simply rifled through the pile myself, but to those concerned about handing a small girl a women’s magazine, don’t worry; my mother was well aware that I had no interest in reading about anything she would find objectionable (at six, anyway).

There were two pet magazines. One was something like “Catmopolitan” and the other one was “Dogue”. Obviously they were set up as joke spoofs of popular fashion mags, but they were about pet health. Given that we had a dog, I found dogs boring at the time, and was fascinated by cats (which we didn’t have and were never allowed to have, due to the quite reasonable concern that Baron might eat any cats that turned up on our property), so I picked up Catmopolitan (or whatever it was) and turned to where I always began any magazine reading: the letters page.

I was six. I liked the letters page because the letters are short, and often tell stories.

In the pet magazines, the letters were written from the perspective of the pet, and one was about why female cats scream during sex.

What’s this sex business? I wondered, a bit concerned about how the girl kitties were obviously scared or in pain. So I read further.

“Male cats have barbs on their penis…” the reply to the letter began.

They have what on their what!? I frowned briefly. I knew what penises were. I’d seen my brother’s in the bath. They looked pretty smooth. Alright, cats were different. That was reasonable.

“…withdrawn from the vagina…”

Wait, what? Withdraw? From? What was it doing in the vagina in the first place?! WHAT THE HELL ARE THE KITTIES DOING?

And a light dawned.

Wait a minute. I have a vagina (it’s true, it’s all true). Human girls have them. Human boys have penises. If this works for cats – since they also have those parts – then it probably also applies to humans.

Is that what sex is?

I think anyone watching would have seen the little girl with the long red pigtails blink a few times, close the magazine, and stare at the wall for a few seconds. At that point I was called for my haircut, and I set the matter aside for a while, returning to it later when my small child brain was otherwise undistracted.

So. Sex. Why would people do that?

I’m actually not sure when I made the connection between sex and babies, but the notion filled a reasonable gap before “Babies grow in a mummy’s tummy”. It wasn’t confirmed, I just strongly suspected that there was a connection there. Maybe if I’d kept reading the cat magazine, it would have talked about kittens.

A few months later, I stayed over at a friend’s house, and, giggling, she pulled out “Where Did I Come From?”, the book with pictures of happy cartoon naked parents that has enlightened and, most likely, horrified, millions of puzzled children.

When, about four or five years later, friends would pull this book out in the library and declare how gross it was when the penis went into the vagina, I couldn’t help but think they’d obviously been surprised by this piece of information. I hadn’t been. I’d been smug. When I leafed through the book at age six (possibly seven by then, I’m a bit vague on the details), and I got to the part that would later be declared gross by ten- and eleven-year olds, I thought Aha! I knew it! I KNEW IT! PEOPLE ARE JUST LIKE CATS.

The rest was merely detail.

I should at this point state that zero information on this issue was provided by my parents. I think my mother had this vague notion that I’d ask, eventually (discounting my general preference to finding everything out for myself and being a bratty little know-it-all), or that she’d tell me before I started having periods and thinking that I was haemorrhaging.

In fact, my brother was my best source of information, since he had precisely zero hang ups about what kids were and were not supposed to know (being only three years older than me) and he seemed to have access to a great deal more knowledge about these things (being a whole three years older than me).

I still remember when he tried to explain the circumcision joke, when I was ten. Around a table with another family, all of whose children were older than me, someone – I don’t recall who – told the joke about the Irish circumciser (apologies to any Irish people who might read this and want to indulge in a brief facepalm).

He slipped and got the sac.

A few glasses of wine having been consumed at this point by the adults in the party, everyone burst out laughing. The sixteen year old girl, the thirteen year old boy, my fourteen year old brother, all four parents, laughing.

I sat there looking cross. “I don’t get it,” I announced.

This just made them laugh harder. Heads were rested on hands, and on the table. Sides were clutched. I was surrounded by highly entertained individuals, and I still had no idea what a circumciser was or what was so funny about him losing his job.

The subject was eventually changed (I suspect, based on later evidence, by my mother).

In the car as we were leaving the restaurant, I refused to let it go. Like a dog with a bone (see what I did there? Oh yes), I said, “I still don’t get that joke.”

My brother, sitting next to me, snickered, turned to me and began to explain. “You see, a man’s penis-“

“Ben.” My mother’s voice had a distinct warning tone.

“-isn’t just a tube-“

Ben.”

“It’s got-“

BEN. STOP IT.”

At age fourteen, he was, like myself, still subject to the dastardly changes of parental tyranny and censorship; I didn’t get any answers that night. I can’t remember when I did find out what various words meant (it wasn’t long – months, perhaps), and then reflected triumphantly on the joke, concluded that it was pretty funny, and moved on. I’m not sure why my mother thought I’d find this traumatising.

This all came to a head (heh) when I was twelve and, some time in the middle of a sunny Saturday, my mother called me into the bedroom. I remember it was sunny because she had the curtains drawn in her room and the sun was slanting through the skylight behind me in the main atrium of the house which made her room look all the more dark and foreboding.

I was now just old enough to be properly embarrassed by discussing anything of this nature with my mother – if she’d brought it up two or three years earlier, it might have been acceptable – so when she said, “It’s time you learned about sex,” I immediately was horrified at how awful this conversation was going to be for everyone involved.

I immediately cut her off. “It’s okay. I already know.”

There was silence for a moment. “Know… what?”

“About sex. Babies. That stuff. I know it.”

Her lips thinned. “How do you know?”

With appropriate just-barely-pre-adolescent condescension, I said impatiently, “I read a book.”

“What book?” she demanded.

I wasn’t about to tell her it was “Where Did I Come From?” That didn’t sound very cool. “Just a book,” I said, waving it off. I nearly added, “And a magazine about cats” but decided that explaining the details would just prolong this hellish experience and it was best to keep the story simple.

“When did you read this? Where did you get it?”

“At [friend]’s house. When I was seven. Or six. I can’t remember.”

“At [friend’s] house,” she repeated heavily, as though she’d been given some horribly difficult news, much in the same way she might have said “A cancerous lesion.”

I wasn’t quite sure how I was expected to respond. After some careful thought I tried what I thought was a safe option.

“Yes?”

“That’s it then,” she said flatly.

Oh, thank God. “Yes.” We’re just… ace here. This can stop now. I’m going to leave.

“I’ve failed as a mother.” This was delivered in a shaky voice, in martyred tones. To properly understand how it appeared to me, imagine a teenage girl with the back of her hand held to her forehead. It’s hard to be a drama queen in a darkened room at the age of forty over avoiding an awkward conversation because your daughter reads everything that turns up in a twenty foot radius, but she managed.

“Um. No? I’m… going to go now…” I think I was supposed to be comforting her? Or something? This was never my strong suit as a kid.

I’m aware that this story does not paint my mother in a positive light. To be fair to her, she did come around to the idea that I liked to know things in my own time (as soon as possible) and in my own way (reading). About an hour later, after she had calmed down from this terrible shock, she came to my room and said, “Would you like me to buy you a book?”

Yes,” I said fervently.

When she purchased What’s Happening To Me?, I tried to look grateful (I’d already read it on the same night I’d read Where Did I Come From?) but she was not fooled. She came back later on with an actual novel-length book that entirely lacked cartoons, which was far more what I was willing to read (It was Everygirl, if anyone’s curious).

This gave me the power to answer most of my own questions on these topics, and I have to admit that if I’d had the internet when any of these issues had been raised, I would have got my answers that much sooner.

There’s no real moral to these stories. The only take-home message I would offer would be that, if you’re determined that you want to be the one to tell your kids about the birds, the bees, and inappropriate circumcision jokes – if you think that being the source of this information is really quite crucial to your parenting-fu –  you need to get in early. Your kid may be precocious. Alternatively, they may not be precocious – they might just know a precocious kid who shares information freely. When one figures it out, they’ll tell the others (and they may actually have the wrong information. I know a kid who thought pregnancy happened after anal sex).

Also, try to get it sorted before they’re old enough to be direly embarrassed by the whole thing. It’s alright, you’ll get heaps of chances to embarrass them when the condom conversation comes up.