Looking back at my choice of a career in women’s health, I believe it began in childhood. My questions about bodily changes or processes frequently were met with silence, a change of subject or ambiguous terminology. Studying women’s health was a legitimate way to get straight answers. Over the years I found that many women must have had the same vague answers, because they frequently had little understanding of the specifics about their anatomy or how these parts work.
The phrase “down there” was commonly used whenever the issue involved one’s “private” parts. In jest, I would sometimes ask patients if their toenail was the problem. Ultimately as a women’s health nurse practitioner, I became more and more passionate about informing consumers/patients about how their bodies work and encouraging their questions.
I believe this is one of the best preventive health strategies. Lack of accurate information or embarrassment can lead to avoiding screening exams, needless anxiety, preventable risk-taking, and being ripped off by the many products marketed to women. A few examples include the push to use feminine hygiene products and the whole farce about bio-identical hormones. Ignorance about our bodies can cause physical problems through neglect of needed actions or overuse of products that cause problems.
In today’s world, where predators have access to our innocent young people through cell phones and computers, our silence on issues related to body parts or sexuality have even greater potential for problems. Lack of information can make an uninformed person a victim through online dating and traffickers.
That is my disclaimer for bringing up “unmentionable” topics. This probably traces back to my mother. It’s always the mother’s fault! She avoided discussions about anything related to genital topics or the changes associated with puberty. I learned from my girlfriend, whose mother was more open. I was mortified and embarrassed to have to tell my mother when I started having periods. This is how normal functions become needlessly cloaked in silence or shame.
I was determined to not repeat this pattern with my own children. I vowed to always answer their questions as factually and understandably as I could — whenever they asked. God’s has a keen sense of humor because I became the mother of two boys! As any parent knows, the specifics about the meeting of sperm and egg present unique challenges. I again reflect on my childhood puzzlement about this very subject.
At the age of eight, I was an only child and bemoaned the fact that I didn’t have a brother or sister. One day I innocently and bitterly told my grandmother how upset I was that “neither my mother or father would have a baby!” My family laughed about this comment for years. Their silence about the topic did nothing to improve my ignorance and a teaching opportunity was missed. But alas, another opportunity arose.
I was raised in the city of St. Louis on weekdays and spent every weekend on a farm my father bought that was managed by my very stoic German grandfather. His philosophy was largely that children are to be seen and not heard. There is nothing like a farm as a learning lab for the “show me” state girl.
My first insight about how babies are made came because of our cattle. The lunch discussion was about breeding cows. The adults kept talking about a bull and getting the cows bred. I only knew about “bread” that one ate and couldn’t put this all together in a sensible way. I looked at my father, Daddy’s girl that I was, and asked if I could go with them to watch. I can still remember the scowl on my grandfather’s face. He strongly disapproved, but my father said “yes.”
I will never forget him perching me on a gate that surrounded the pen where the cows and bulls were put together. As the bull mounted the cow, I was truly frightened and saw a huge animal mounting a smaller one in a not so gentle act. I looked at my father and said, “Daddy, he’s hurting her!” He looked down and calmly replied, “No, he’s not.”
He didn’t seem disturbed, so I kept watching. Finally a light dawned on me as I saw the act in graphic detail and in astonishment said, “Daddy, do people do that?” He chuckled and said, “Pretty much like that.” I thought it was quite brutal and icky.
I still appreciate that he let me watch and that I had some rudimentary ideas of how males and females “breed.” His calm demeanor assured me this was normal. I still had much to learn and am not suggesting this is the best way to learn the fertility ritual.
What I am suggesting is that it is a good idea to start our children with the right vocabulary for all our body parts and get more comfortable with dialogue. The words vagina and penis are as acceptable to a child as nostril or earlobe; but adults frequently replace proper anatomical terms with silly and inaccurate words like “pee pee” etc. I believe that if parts are given their proper name, their functions are easier to discuss when questions arise.
Questions will inevitably arise and having a vocabulary that names body parts correctly will make future discussions less sensitive. We will have set the stage to have treated body parts as normal pieces of the human body that have a function. Now we can proceed to describing how they work and their amazing abilities. We can now address hygiene, changes with maturity, moral behaviors, relationships and sexually related topics as they emerge.
More to come on the details of life stage changes…..