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When Moms Fail

Or: The time I forgot to teach my son about sex before he learned it at school.

Most of the time, I have a solid juggling act going on. I am efficient, acrobatic even, when it comes to navigating the working-mama life. My iPhone calendar works as my personal assistant, loaded with activities, appointments, times, and locations, and, most of the time, I remember to look at it.


But sometimes I drop a ball. Or Two. Or three. And sometimes it happens all in one week. You know the scenario. You drive up to an empty soccer field, looking for children in shin guards that don’t exist. “Am I early? Late? Where is everyone?” Then the gut tightens as you double check the calendar, which pointed you here. You frantically hunt down and re-read the email from the coach, slamming your hand into the steering wheel when you realize your mistake. “Dammit. Wrong field!” Then you drive ten miles over the speed limit to get your mini-van to the opposite end of town by halftime.

No? Just me? I didn’t think so.

Last week, my oldest son finished his Human Growth and Development Unit as a fourth grader. To be clear, this was a hotly debated unit that I voted in favor of. I first learned about my own female body in a “Psycho-Bio of Women” class in college, and I vowed my kids would be educated on the strange alchemy of their bodies before hormones stole their logic.

That said, before my son’s HG&D Unit began, I got recommendations for “Sex Talk” books and put them in the Amazon cart. When his teacher began the unit, I checked in with my son after school, keeping it light. I wanted to be the mom who talked about sex so often and so nonchalantly that it wouldn’t become taboo.

“Okay, so what did you and your friends giggle about today? What was the most embarrassing part?” I asked. Then, handing him a pen, “Can you diagram the vas deferens?” Or, holding up a string of spaghetti, “Pop Quiz: What’s a fallopian tube?”

My son blushed, laughed, begged me not to speak of it anymore, but I kept following up.

Until I didn’t.

After several weeks spent reapplying for my job in academia, (a task which involves so much document-gathering and summarizing that you’d think I was applying for the CIA), then another week spent planning a new remote class with an unfamiliar textbook, I got busy. I forgot to follow up.

Yesterday, I remembered the Human Growth and Development Unit and asked my son, “What did you learn this week about puberty?”

“Oh, we’re done with that now,” he said, waving a hand, clearly grateful. “We learned it all.”

My eyes widened. “All?” Like intercourse all? “They told you how babies are made?”

“Yes. All of it.”

Horrified, a hand flew to my open mouth. Egads. I had wanted to prepare him, ease him into the birds and the bees, but I forgot. “Did it freak you out?”

“Kind of,” he groaned, because the only thing worse than learning about sex in a classroom of your peers is rehashing it at home with your intrusive mother. “It’s fine.”

“Oh,” I said quietly, swallowing my guilt. But what about the books I bought–Oh shit. I realized I never actually purchased them.

It’s not that my son had never asked about sex before, but he was younger, so much younger. We needed an updated, Tweener chat that got into the details so he would be emotionally prepared for the school-ish version.


When I mentioned my failure, OUR failure to my husband (because, come on, I don’t hold all the parenting power here), he reminded me that the point of formal sex education in elementary school is to avoid the informal sex education, the misinformation that happens on the playground.

“I think learning about sex in that context, with scientific terms and discussions about the spectrum of gender and sexuality- that’s what we wanted. Is it really a big deal if we didn’t get to the mechanics of it first?”

I decided he was right, that my mom-fail didn’t mean our son would automatically get a girl pregnant in middle school. Still, it hurt that my good intentions, like so many plans we make as mothers, didn’t come to fruition.

But you know what? I will follow up. I will keep having the conversations, because sex education is recursive and fluid and complex, and you can’t learn “all of it” from a three week unit in fourth grade. Sorry.

I still have eight more years to talk about periods and pubic hairs over dinner. It won’t be embarrassing at all.

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