For much of the modern Western World, the most exciting thing to happen this week had nothing to do with what you might expect (Easter, Spring Break, the “usual” mid April fun-tivities).
NOPE. Millions (yes, literally millions) of people sat glued to televisions, mobile phones, laptops and tablets, eyes fixed on the hind parts of a certain giraffe. April the Giraffe, to be specific. If you had asked me a year ago if a zoo animal giving birth could capture the attention of so many simultaneously I would have absolutely, wholeheartedly said “No way!” Yet, here we are. It wasn’t so much the novelty of a giraffe giving birth, you can find any number of videos of such scattered across the interwebs with paltry views. It was the fact that the keepers at Animal Adventure Park had this fantastic idea – capitalize on our voyeuristic society, set up a live 24 hour “giraffe cam” in April’s enclosure, and hopefully raise awareness (and thus funding) for their zoo program. And we took the bait!
The thing about the live broadcast of a giraffe giving birth in captivity that struck me most was not particularly how awesome it was to see nature at work. It wasn’t even how extraordinarily hands-off the zoo keepers were, knowing it was best to let mother and baby do the work of birthing themselves. It was much of the conversations online surrounding the subject that peaked my interest.
As modern as our world is becoming, working to shake off cultural taboos, become more tolerant, more open, less conservative, there still remains a particular stigma surrounding child birth – and in particular women’s bodies and the subjects of sex and reproduction. Sex sells everything from cheeseburgers to kitchen ranges these days, but many of us still struggle discussing the “facts of life” openly and honestly with our children.
In my childhood, sex, sexuality, and the reproductive functions of our bodies was something that was fairly shrouded in mystery and discomfort. Granted, there was an awkward conversation sometime in grade school where my mother laid out the “facts”, me probably noticeably flinching every time a penis or vagina entered the conversation. As I entered puberty my memories are tied mostly to being remarkably uncomfortable when one extended family member remarked openly and publicly upon how my breasts were becoming visible through my tee shirt. The squeamish conversation where I had to tell my mother my period had come, and she cried and hugged me while I just wanted to be swallowed by the floor. As I came of age bubbled within the culture of conservative religion I struggled to find my worth and perspective as a women as anything less than something to be hidden.
I discovered early on I was much more comfortable seeking and gaining information from books and pamphlets than from open conversation with my parents. It’s a wonder that as I aged, I took the experiences of growing up like this and my stumblings through teenage sexuality and eventually marriage and motherhood, deciding that birth work and women’s health was something I wanted to pursue as a career. I had not a single warm and fuzzy, comfortable recollection regarding these topics and my education on them as I grew up. And I think that was precisely what propelled me into an industry still generally deemed unfit for dinner table conversation.
Speaking as a doula and childbirth educator, I can say firsthand how I’ve seen lack of education and being at ease with one’s body affect adult choices, health, and long term relationships. There is a GAPING hole in anatomy, sexuality, and child birth education. We shouldn’t have adult women not knowing how to properly name their own body parts (raises hand. YUP I had no idea there were THREE holes down there until I was about 23!) We shouldn’t have adult men so afraid of menstruation and childbirth they refuse to discuss it, then trying to be meaningful parts of reproductive health decisions. We shouldn’t have teenagers with unplanned pregnancies because a class showed them how to use a condom but they actually have no grasp of how a woman’s cycle works in relation to fertility and conception. We shouldn’t have college age women doubled over from the pain of endometriosis or PCOS, not discussing these issues with a care provider because they’ve been led to believe pain during their period is just par for the course as a woman. We shouldn’t have children being assaulted and not seeking help because they don’t know the parts of their own body and how to say no or describe what happened to a trusted adult. We shouldn’t have marriages with sexual dysfunction because so many women in conservative circles were taught how to say, “No”, but no one ever ever taught them how to say, “Yes!”
So how do we break the cycle? How do we change the narrative? It has to begin with our children, right? But when so many adult’s experiences with sex and body education mirror my own, how do we talk to our children about that which we ourselves are still made decidedly uncomfortable by? From my personal growth and experience, it starts with language. And refusing to let the beautiful, wonderful, astounding parts of our bodies go unnamed and un-talked about. We spend so much time trying to shield our children’s innocence, we often neglect to clue them in to how their bodies are for so much more than sexuality, and how we can openly discuss their body parts without fear or shame. We have never used anything but proper terms for body parts in our household. I don’t believe there is anything “age inappropriate” about telling your daughter she has a vagina, or labia, or a vulva – because she does! It is HER body whether she is 3 or 13. The names don’t change when she hits puberty. Listen guys, kids are such wonderful resilient little sponges. They accept things you tell them as normal and reasonable for the longest time when they’re little. So when we found out we were expecting another baby and had a 4 & 5 year old at home- you can BET we have had hundreds of wonderful, open conversations with them about childbirth. Conversations that have built upon the foundation we as parents have already built for them of body confidence, autonomy, and open dialogue about anything they find curious. My kids know exactly how babies come out of mommys, and have watched numerous birth videos at my side – long before a famous giraffe ever birthed her baby live on YouTube. They attend all my midwifery appointments and are not relegated to the waiting room, out of earshot. And not one thing about it is strange or weird or shameful for them – it is simply life. How beautiful and amazing it was to watch April the Giraffe birth with my kids by my side, hearing them discuss what was happening without fear or disgust and ask poignant, educated questions about the process.
To start having these kind of open chats with my kids, I had to overcome my own personal internal biases and shame. I had to start using the right terms for my body, and be willing to talk about them. I had to read books and watch videos and hold dialogue with other adults who had already “arrived” so to speak. And I had to make life, ALL of it, fair game to discuss within our family. To instill in my children an unshakable belief there was nothing wrong with their bodies and nothing they had to be ashamed of, I had to open up the dinner table so to speak. This doesn’t mean I’ve never said “Hey that is a great question! I would love to answer that when we’re not in the check out line at Target, OK pumpkin? Remind me when we get outside.” But it DOES mean I will never shush them when a topic digs up stuff from my own experiences and makes me a bit uncomfortable. It does mean when my kid says something silly like how she’s mad her brother can pee standing up and she has to “pee from her butt sitting down” I’m going to chuckle and then explain it’s not actually “her butt” that pee comes from. I won’t say “that’s gross” or “we don’t need to talk about that”. We will talk, and they will get on with their day and hopefully when the really big, important questions come – they’ll be just as willing to come to me. I cannot expect to be able to teach them about body autonomy and healthy sexuality in relationships as it becomes necessary if they don’t know their body to begin with. And I cannot expect them to be part of changing the culture surrounding birth that I work in everyday, if they don’t recognize normal, physiologic birth.
So we too, watched a giraffe give birth. And it wasn’t sugarcoated, we didn’t try to shield them from the details. We’ll handle every birth, whether in our family or in the wild the same way. And when the day comes they’re actually curious about how that baby got in there to begin with, we will be just as frank. We won’t tell them to ask us when they’re older and we won’t try to tiptoe around the tricky parts. Because kids really can understand, if we give them the chance. If we as adults can overcome our fears and our shame, we can instill such a beautiful reverence for those “facts of life”. And that’s something everyone, no matter their age, has a right to. How would our world change if children grew to own, cherish, and respect all of their and each others’ bodies? I get shivers just thinking about it.