A few nights ago, I gave my six-year old son a bath.
Typically, this lovely and uncomplicated ritual goes well in our household. I pour myself a cold glass of Reisling, fill the tub with warm water, and yell at Andrew to get undressed and in the bath. Then I pull down the toilet lid, sit down and get slightly drunk as Andrew stretches out, fills an old shampoo bottle with water and pours the soapy water all over his body. Occasionally, our dog Roxy ambles in, sticks her nose in the water and takes up all available floor space. The very essence of childhood innocence, minus, of course, Mommy guzzling her wine.
On this particular night, I did what always do: I washed Andrew’s hair and poured the liquid soap onto his face, back and arms. Then I soaped up a washcloth, handed it to him and said, “Wash your private parts, please.”
“You mean my dick and ass?” Andrew said.
Did I mention my son is six?
“Andrew, don’t say that.”
“Mom,” he said, standing up, and cleaning his privates, “is there such thing as a wiener massage?”
What was I supposed to say? Yes, a hand job? I don’t think so. So I lied, and said, “No.”
“Is there a butt massage?” he asked.
This time I decided to be truthful. “Yes.”
I search for words. “Yes, you can have a massage and the person who’s massaging you can massage your back and butt.” Where the hell was my husband?
“Ew,” Andrew said. “Does that mean you’re naked?
“Ew, that’s gross.”
“Not really.” But how could I explain an erotic massage’s pleasures? At what point do we start telling the truth to our children about sex? At what point do we lie to them?
Speaking of lying, I lie down with my children every night and talk to them about how their days went. Is my proximity to them, in bed, confusing them? Maybe. I nursed each of them for almost a year. Was that too long? Doubtful, but still. I am just getting situated in the mothering saddle and my kids are galloping away from me.
Last week, we received a letter from Pete, our almost-11 year old. He has been at sleep-away camp two weeks. He has been writing astute, funny letters, and it is clear that the boy-girl thing is starting. In his letter, he described the “girlfriend” (whatever that means) of one of his bunkmates. “His girlfriend (sorry, but this must be said),” he writes, “is a total lying slut!” Gee, last year he was writing about how much he loved playing “ga-ga” and how hard it was to sleep on the bottom bunk.
Andrew kicks some water over the tub and onto the floor. I look down. A copy of The New York Times Book Review is on the floor. It is open to a review of two biographies of Hillary Clinton. I point to the caricatures of her and say, “That woman might have been President some day.”
Andrew looks at the pictures. One depicts Hillary as an angel, one as a devil. He points to the angel and says, “You mean Hilary Duff could be president? Mom, if Hilary Duff were president, she’d sing a lot to the country.”
My son knows too much and too little. He is both a big boy and a big baby.
A couple of days later, my husband, 42, and I leave Andrew with my mother for the weekend. We drive five hours to a romantic inn in Vermont. My husband is still going crazy taking pictures with his new camera, so he takes a picture of the giant, copper-lined bathtub that dominates our bathroom. Since it rains much of the time we are in Vermont, we spend most of our time eating, drinking, playing Scrabble and taking baths. A few days after we get back, my husband shows Andrew some pictures of the bathtub.
“Did you do the s-thing while you were there?” Andrew asks.
“The ‘s’ thing?” my husband asks.
“You know, sex.”
Should I repeat that our son is six?
My husband doesn’t know how to answer the question so he ignores it.
Later that night, Andrew stands up in the bathtub and asks, “Do you think I have a short wiener?” Now, this is a question I really don’t want to answer. I think about ignoring it, but I’m a reporter, and I hate when people don’t answer my questions. So I answer it honestly. In my head. Yes, compared to your father. No, compared to the other six-year old wieners I’ve seen (and there haven’t been many, given that I stopped seeing other kids’ private parts once my kids’ friends became toilet trained and there were no more diapers to change on drop-off play-dates.)
Without looking at my son, I say, “You’re normal.” And I pray. Please God, can we please end this conversation?
Andrew jumps out of the bath, puts on his pajamas, skips brushing his teeth and climbs into bed. I read another chapter of Peter Pan, tuck him in, and say, “Good night, honey, I love you.”
“Where are you going Mom?” Andrew demands.
“I’m going to bed. I’m tired and it’s late. We had a busy weekend.” It was a weekend that included his friend sleeping over Friday night, my nephew sleeping over Saturday night, a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese, a tennis lesson, and a barbecue at a friend’s house.
“You just want to have sex with your little boyfriend!” Andrew says.
“What boyfriend?” I’m startled. “Daddy?”
“You just want to have sex with him!”
“What? What did you say?”
“Nothing, nothing!” Andrew says and giggles. “I love you Mom! I love you!”
The next night, more of the same. “You just want to go have sex with Daddy,” Andrew rages at me, as I turn off the light and say good night. “You just want to hump him!” Dear God. Is he playing me, just trying to say something outrageous so I will not leave him to go to sleep by himself, or is he really jealous?
The New York Times Magazine (curse it!) comes out with a cover story on juvenile sex offenders. Andrew sees the magazine. The cover shows a teenage boy, standing on a chair in a classroom, with a sign that says “sex offender” hanging around his neck. “Why does that boy have a sign that says ‘sex’ on him?” Andrew asks.
Because it’s an epidemic?
That night, my son tries to kiss me on the lips. This is not the first time he has tried to kiss me on the lips. And truthfully, I enjoy his little mouthy kisses. But the urgency of this mouth-to-mouth affection is starting to bother me, mostly because I’m afraid that if he kisses me too much on the lips, he’ll be ruined for life.
“Come here, I have to tell your lips something,” he says.
“Andrew, I’m your mother, not your girlfriend.”
“Yes, you are,” he says.
Oh boy. As a mother of two rapidly-maturing boys, I am in way, way over my head. Pre-adolescent boys and their emerging sexualities is brand-new territory for me. I went to an all-girls summer camp for five years, fooled around with a few guys at camp and in high school and then went to a women’s college. Senior year in college, I did finally have a serious boyfriend (whose name was Andrew—oh boy), but by that point, I was 21 and he was 22 and discussing his preadolescent sexuality wasn’t high on our activities list.
True, I have a younger brother and yes, we were close growing up, but by the time he was thirteen or fourteen and coming to grips with his emerging sexuality, I was in college. And if my brother did ever talk to me about girls, I either wasn’t paying attention, or didn’t care enough to store it in my memory bank. (Sorry, Bro.)
So now, I feel ill-equipped to teach my children about sex or sexuality. But they are learning it for themselves, and my husband seems as confused as I am, so I better start paying attention.
I tell my therapist what is happening. She has a thirteen or fourteen year old boy, so I figure she’s had experience with this. I describe my recent conversations with Andrew, try to convey how passionate, how provocative, how impish and inappropriate he is. What should I do? My therapist smiles, shrugs and says, “He’s six.”
I tell my mother what Andrew has been doing. My mother laughs, says, “That’s disturbing,” then wants to know if we’ve received any more letters from our older son.
I tell my mother-in-law what Andrew has been saying. My mother-in-law had three boys in five years. She must have had her hands full when they were teenagers. She listens to what I have to say about Andrew and says, “He may just be trying to shock you.”
Very possibly. But still, tough to manage.
I consult Freud. I have only read two books by Freud in my life. The first, Civilization and its Discontents, I read for a political science class in college. I remember nothing from it. The second, “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” I read in graduate school. It is frigging brilliant. Freud was a big fan of nursing mothers, and argued that babies experienced the beginnings of sexual pleasure while nursing. I search the book’s pages to see what I underlined about children’s emerging sexualities way back when I was still sitting in a library, reading for six hours a day.
“At about the same time as the sexual life of children reaches its first peak, between the ages of three and five, they also begin to show signs of the activity which may be ascribed to the instinct for knowledge or research...we have learnt from psycho-analysis that the instinct for knowledge in children is attracted unexpectedly early and intensively to sexual problems and is in fact possibly first aroused by them.”
So does my son’s precocious interest in sex mean he’s just interested in stuff in general?
That means it’s a good thing! Then why am I so bothered by it? Because maybe I have done something to provoke him. Have I inadvertently promoted a permissive lifestyle by letting him watch racy shows on TV?
Oh sure, we have TV rules. No TV between Mondays and Fridays during the school year, no inappropriate shows, etc. But the TV in the family room was broken for a long time, so my kids migrated to the basement to watch down there. Though I have a vague idea of what they’re watching below ground, a lot gets by me. The truth is Andrew is exposed to whatever his older brother is watching—which is clearly wrong and way too much.
I should turn off the TV. We should just give it away.
But then how I could watch “Entourage?” Or “Ugly Betty?” And is it really all my fault?
Since a boy’s longing for his mother has been written about since the ancient Greeks, I dig up my old book of Greek mythology to see what got Oedipus into bed with his mother in the first place. Oedipus’s father, King Laius of Thebes, is told by a prophet that his son will kill him one day. Terrified, Laius leaves his baby to die on a mountain top, but a shepherd rescues the baby and raises him. After Laius dies, Oedipus returns to Thebes and falls in love with Laius’s widow Jocasta. They don’t recognize each other, so they marry and have two boys of their own. Once Oedipus and Jocasta realize what they really are to each other, Jocasta kills herself, Oedipus tears his eyes out, and their sons become pariahs. Now that is a tragedy. But at least Oedipus only did what he did because he didn’t realize he was doing it with his mother.
Andrew knows I’m his mother. So why am I the object of his crush?
Because I’m the one who feeds him. (I know this because our dog is exactly the same way.)
A few nights ago, I was waiting for Andrew to get off the camp bus. I had spent the afternoon turning three pounds of fresh Jersey tomatoes and a stale loaf of French bread into tomato soup with bread (pappa al pomodoro, also known as “mush with tomatoes”). I had heated up chicken breasts stuffed with wild rice that the nice man at the farmers’ market had sold me, and made Andrew’s favorite dish, a big bowl of pasta with salt and melted butter. The house was calm, dinner was ready, and I was ready for whatever mood Andrew was in.
“Hey, sexy,” he calls to the girls as he runs off the bus.
“Hey, sexy,” he calls to our dog, who runs down the driveway to greet him.
Give me strength.
One night, while I’m saying goodnight to him, Andrew says, “Mom, you’re so beautiful, you’re so wonderful, I know why Dad married you and why you married Dad.”
I am blown away. Then it occurs to me: Maybe my voluble, playful six year old is just trying to figure out the nature of love. Maybe all this talk of body parts, the kissing, the yearning, the accusations, the flirting, the jealousy, the professions of lust, and the sexual bravado, maybe it’s all just a testosterone-fueled manifestation of his desire to see what actively loving someone feels like.
Maybe he just wants to act like the big boys he hangs out with on the bus and sees on TV.
Maybe my mother-in-law is right: He wants to get my attention.
Well, he has. But I swear, I think love is at the bottom of it.
The comical sexual tension he sees on TV, the swaggering chatter he hears from older kids, it all underscores the fun and promise of grown-up love, without suggesting anything of its difficulties and responsibilities. The flirting, the teasing—the beginnings of love, really–is all he can digest right now, and he’s trying out what he’s learned on me, because I’m the one feeding him dinner.
Eventually if we raise him right, our son will move on, move out and hopefully move in with a female who will love him as much as I do, but doesn’t share his gene code.
And there are indications he may be heading on down the sexual evolutionary path alone. The other night, he asked the difference between sunbathing and masturbating.
Sunbathing is lying in the sun, outside, getting a tan, I said.
Masturbating is touching your private parts, inside, alone in your bed.
Andrew says he sometimes masturbates.
That’s fine, I say. Just make sure you do it alone, inside.
“Can I do it right now?”
“Wait ’til I leave the room,” I say. And I slip away.
The next afternoon. I am in the kitchen and I have timed the steak wrong, so I’m still pulling it out of the broiler when Andrew’s camp bus arrives. I run to the front door.
There is Andrew, standing on the porch between two teenage girls. The one on the right I recognize—she is Andrea, his bus counselor. Andrea is short, olive-skinned and stout. Her dark hair is pulled back into a ponytail. She has a good sense of humor and looks a little like me, twenty-five years ago.
Then Andrew introduces me to the young woman on the left, and comprehension arrives at last. The girl is tall, blond, blue-eyed, lithe and gorgeous, a 17-year old blond bombshell of a bus counselor. She looks nothing like me and says absolutely nothing…until Andrew introduces her.
“Mom, this is Carrie,” Andrew says as he wraps himself around Carrie’s legs. “Can she babysit for me?”
I look at the porcelain doll before me. “Do you baby-sit?”
Carrie giggles and looks at her feet. “Sure.”
The two girls head back to the bus. Andrew and I go into the house.
“I have a crush on Carrie,” Andrew says.
And instead of saying something motherly and mildly corrective like, “Honey, looks aren’t everything...it’s important to be able to talk to the other person...isn’t she a little old for you...don’t you want someone who actually looks at you when she speaks...?” all I can do is feel grateful.
Because the bottom line is: Better her than me.
On the last day of camp, Andrew gets off the bus and hands me a yellow scrap of paper with Carrie’s number written on it in blue magic marker.
“Guess what, Mom?” Andrew says. “Carrie’s boyfriend’s last name is Wiener.”