My MOMS Club book group met on Wednesday night, supposedly to discuss “Beatrix Potter, A Life in Nature.” Instead, we talked about vulvas.
Actually, it’s not as strange — or as prurient — as it seems. The book itself, you see, was something of a dud. Or at least most of us found it so. As such, only one of us — not I, mind you — had finished it. The rest of us, including the woman leading the discussion, had made very meagre headway indeed. Ironically, we had all gotten bogged down in roughly the same spot: about a quarter of the way through the book, at page 110, when Ms. Potter enters upon her years-long obsession with — wait for it — fungi. Or more specifically, the reproductive life of fungi. And lichen. And spores. Or maybe the spores are the reproductive life. It’s hard to say. I gave up at page 120.
There is surprisingly little to be said on the topic of fungi. Unless you are a mycologist. Which none of us happen to be. (Although one of us did bring a mushroom appetizer for the potluck.) So, once we had made as much of the first part of the book as possible, we had no choice but to drift to other subjects. This happens, to some extent, at every book club meeting — I recall one very serious colloquy about civil rights devolving into a rather raucous exchange about the sexual habits of dolphins. But at this meeting we really had no choice. The book itself simply proved — like many of its fungal subjects — to be totally indigestible.
Where do you go from fungi? What’s the natural next step? Well, for us it was vaginas. I won’t spell out exactly how we got there, in case any of you are squeamish. But suffice it to say that fungi grow in all kinds of strange places, not all of them old broom handles.
From vaginas it was a short leap to a current parenting craze: talking about sex with your young children. It was mentioned, in passing, by one of the ladies present that “vagina” is no longer the proper nomenclature for a woman’s genitalia. Surprisingly, most of the women present seemed to already know this. Except for me. Why? Because I’m a lazy, shallow mother who would rather write about mop handles than read a parenting book. These women are superior to me. They have read everything. They therefore already knew that in “Speaking of Sex,” by Meg Hickling, a book very much in vogue with today’s progressive moms, it is stated that the correct coinage for a woman’s privates is “vulva,” and that that is what we should be teaching our daughters. As in, “men have penises, girls have vulvas.”
This was troubling to me. It was hard enough that, earlier in the evening, I had learned from a woman in the group that I may have damaged MJ’s aesthetic sensibilities irredeemably by letting her paint with more than one color at a time. Apparently this is common knowledge. It’s in the parenting books. You are, instead, supposed to let your toddler “really get to know” one shade before letting them work with the next. As if colors are boyfriends, and tonal one-night-stands were deeply frowned upon.
Now, as if ruining my daughter’s artistic future wasn’t bad enough, I had also taught her an archaic and incorrect word for her vagina! Yikes! But that’s what I was taught! I still use the word! It’s always worked for me. Who knew I was such a cretan? Still, one likes to think that what one generation names a body part, the next generation will too. That is heritage. That is continuity. That is common sense! But that is apparently not going to happen. The vulva train has left the station. We can get on, or MJ — and her dubiously titled nether parts — can take a cab.
The worst thing? Ms. Hickling and her acolytes are not wrong: Mike and I looked it all up in our “MacMillan Visual Dictionary” last night. (Yes, we had to look it up. I’m not ashamed. Sort of.) It does seem that “vulva” is the proper term for the “entire frontage,” as Mike rather genteely put it. The vagina is just a small — although not unimportant — sub-part that somehow came to represent the whole. Talk about your synecdoche. Where was all of this when I took AP English?
So fine. Vulva. Vulvavulvavulva. I will get it. But there’s more. Apparently I am supposed to teach MJ much more. And much sooner than I realized. To quote the author directly:
Your preschool child needs to know (before starting preschool):
–the names for genitals: penis testicles, scrotum, anus, vulva, labia, vagina, clitoris, uterus, ovaries
–that reproduction happens when a man’s sperm joins a woman’s ovum by sexual intercourse
–that the baby grows in the uterus
–that the baby is born through the vagina
–the basics about menses and nocturnal emissions as clean and healthy processes
–not to pick up condoms
Wow. Preschool kids need to know this? As in, at three years of age? Come on! Some of that stuff I didn’t learn myself until I was in my twenties! OK, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Still, nocturnal emissions? I barely know what those are now! I thought at first Ms. Hickling was talking about something cars did at night. But no. She means nocturnal emissions. And I am supposed to teach my toddler about that? Well, guess what? That’s where I draw the line. It’s enough that I have to issue an anatomical retraction next time I do a diaper change. “Sorry, honey. You know that thing I said was your vagina? There’s been a development.” How much faith will MJ have in me after that? Next she’ll be questioning all of her body parts. “Are these really ‘ears’? Are you sure? Will they still be tomorrow?””
With all of that going on there is no way I’m bringing scrotums into the picture. Or menses. Who even uses that word? What are we, Freudians? And as for teaching her not to pick up condoms? Um, I think I’ll just try to not let her play on the street in hookerville. How’s that for good parenting?
Anyway, it was an eye-opening — and head-scratching — night. I had fun. I laughed. And I certainly learned a lot. But I admit, I did leave there wishing that Beatrix Potter had skipped the fungi stage and went straight to making kids’ books. Then perhaps, we all would have finished “A Life in Nature.” And somehow, after talking in depth about Ms. Potter’s skill as an illustrator, her pithy phrases, her memorable characters, we might’ve ended up back at dolphins again. Or cute rabbits in blue jackets. Or frumpily dressed mice. Or anywhere — other than in another parenting book.