Let's talk about sex, baby: A bewildered mum, a growing child, and that dreaded milestone
Today, when it is my turn, I see myself going blank and realize that I am no different from my mother.
Editor's Note: The following excerpt is from Battle Hymn of a Bewildered Mother, written by Shunali Khullar Shroff. The writer begins her journey as someone chronically devoid of what is naturally termed as the maternal instinct. But in spite of her misgivings, she eventually realizes there is nothing else she’d rather be doing than burping her babies while avoiding all traces of tranquilizers.
by Shunali Khullar Shroff
My first-born is growing quickly. In a few years Z will be a teenager. I remember how it was when I was coming of age somewhere in the eighties. The girls in my class were growing horizontally suddenly, and I sensed a feeling of an unspoken sisterhood among those who had crossed over the threshold of sexual maturity. I, however, was a late bloomer.
Other than me, there were 15 other boys from my class who did not belong to this ‘sisterhood club’. It wasn’t as if there were no visible changes in my body when I reached my teens, but they were not the only changes my mother was hoping to see. A hint of a moustache had begun to find its way on my upper lip and I was suddenly taller than most boys in my class, but on all other crucial accounts, I was lagging behind girls my age.
As time passed, my mother began to panic that nature had an unusual and a possibly androgynous future in store for me. Fortunately for her, my endocrine glands decided to oblige before it got too late and put my mother and me out of our collective misery. And so it is that I finally crossed over.
The significance of this life altering moment that my mother had spoken to me about before my 11th birthday, however, was lost on me. I only knew that in spite of all the physical discomfort and mental confusion that these new hormones were bringing in, I felt happy to finally belong.
I could, at last, contribute to the conversations that other girls in my class were having in this area of life and I felt all ‘grown up’ for it. But if mother was obsessing over the lack of estrogen in my body, up until that moment, after this landmark development of my life, she began to get sleepless nights about the excessive testosterone in my environment. I became aware that suddenly every boy who ever interacted with me was being looked at with suspicion. My father reasoned with her and tried to allay her fears, but mother’s delusions that she was raising a beauty in her backyard and that every boy she encountered was a possible reincarnation of Jack the Ripper, kept her too occupied to pay any heed.
Since there wasn’t any satellite television in those days, books were all that we could turn to during moments of boredom, sadness or inquisitiveness. I had, by then, begun to outgrow the usual Malory Towers, Secret Sevens, Nancy Drews, etc. and was looking for more invigorating material to read. Between the two of them, my parents had amassed a vast collection of books ranging from literary classics, books on theology, poetry, an assortment of highbrow, and also some average writers of their time.
In my worldview, there are two kinds of parents. One who will sit you down and impart sex education to you, and the other who will leave suggestive material around for you to figure it out on your own. My mother, as it turned out, was neither.
In her bid to keep my ignorance/innocence intact, mum had suddenly cleared our library at home of all age inappropriate books such as Nabakov’s Lolita, Updikes’ Couples along with several other written by the authors like Irving Wallace and Harold Robbins. The books that survived the donation drive were typically Tolstoy’s classics along with works of Ayn Rand, Pearl S Buck, PG Wodehouse, Nayantara Sehgal, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Kahlil Gibran, Aurobindo Ghosh, and Meera of Auroville (obviously!).
These were considered safe and were allowed to continue on those shelves either because mum knew that I was too young to make anything of them or because their protagonists were likely to die without ever having had sex. After all Bertie Wooster or Tess of D’urbervilles were not exactly known for enjoying a high-octane sex life nor were Natasha Rostov or Elizabeth Benett. There were a few Barbara Cartland books in our house too that mom pretended were not hers, as ‘they were reading material for the dull-witted’. From what I can remember these were harmless books about simple, old-fashioned love. If I was
hoping to find any relevant material in those pages, I was looking in the wrong place. They always left the crucial bits out and one was left just as curious in the end.
Although mum and I never really had a chat about the birds and the bees, I was warned about men with bad intentions and it was left to me to fill in the gaps with my rather fertile and somewhat ridiculous imagination about what those ‘intentions’ really were. Oh she did tell my sister and me about ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ but that was all she was hoping we would know, till we left for college. I wasn’t the only one who was being raised behind this iron curtain, so to speak.
We were an entire generation of girls being raised with a veritable Kangchenjunga standing between us and the whole truth about procreation and its neighbourhood. In spite of the odds, we eventually figured things out, with some help from encyclopaedias and biology textbooks over discreetly pleasurable and hushed discussions among our peer group.
Today, as I brace myself to tackle all sorts of questions from my older one, I am filled with dread. I fear I will not know exactly how much to tell her and that when I do tell her, I will not seem as cool and collected as I should. And yet, I do not want to raise a stupid child who will go scavenging for information.
Now I can understand my mother’s reasons for withholding all that information from me; she was just forestalling the end of my innocence. In spite of being a well-informed and educated woman, mum was just not comfortable talking to me about sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Perhaps Karr, the French novelist, knew what he was talking about when he said, ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same.’ Today, when it is my turn, I see myself going blank and realize that I am no different from my mother. I think it would be so much simpler if I had sons and could leave it to the husband to expound on all matters pertaining to sex. Perhaps he would just show them some girlie magazines and talk to them about respecting women and being responsible. Yes, that is right, that is the only time I wish I were a mother of boys.
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