Commentary Family

Birds, Bees… Abortion? Talking to Kids About Complicated Issues

Sarah Buttenwieser

When we would discuss abortion—my kids and myself—I wanted us to be well prepared. But I was scared. Scared to open the door about how complicated issues pertaining to reproduction—including abortion—could be. 

What happens when you and your babysitter completely disagree about a political hot button issue? Theoretically, nothing, nor do politics come between you. That’s what I thought until politics spilled across the kitchen counter right in front of the young kids like so much apple juice. The issue was abortion rights. I support them; my babysitter did not.

This didn’t come completely out of the blue. Our family’s discovery that she was a Republican fascinated my kindergartner (he hadn’t ever met one and it was a Presidential campaign year). Once he discovered her political bent, my very young lefty goaded her about then-candidate Bush. One morning he challenged, “Name one good thing George W. Bush has ever done.” She blurted out, “He signed the partial birth abortion bill.”

My stomach dropped. Frantic not to have him ask—and ask he would—what a partial birth abortion was, I changed the subject as quickly as humanly possible. Then, rattled, I wrestled for a day about whether I could fire her because of politics. My conclusion was that I could not; she was, after all, a really lovely person and a reliable, energetic babysitter. She was willing to come to our house very early in the morning to boot.

I’ve returned to that incident many times since. Once I’d calmed down, I realized that what bothered me most was that I did want to figure out how the word abortion could surface comfortably in front of my children. It wasn’t that I wanted to bring up abortion the next day or week or month at breakfast (I did not).

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When we would discuss abortion, though—my kids and myself—I wanted us to be well prepared. But I was scared. Scared to open the door about how complicated issues pertaining to reproduction—including abortion—could be. Up until then I’d even shied away from anatomically correct words for body parts. We’d resorted to cutesy, euphemistic ones instead.

So well ahead of any conversations about abortion, I started to use the correct words for body parts. Right away, a tone of realism was set, one that signaled my comfort with our bodies. I hoped my comfort about our bodies encouraged my children to feel comfortable with theirs.

As I adopted this new tact, I remembered how freeing it felt in seventh grade health class when our teacher—the small, white-haired and somewhat wizened, wiry and wonderful Eric Johnson, author of Love and Sex in Plain Language, asked us to list every curse word we knew, which he then wrote on the blackboard. We were thrilled and scandalized to say the words in front of him—and then to define them. We were even more thrilled than scandalized to learn he had sex with his wife—and they liked it. He did not bring any of this up to thrill us. He was comfortable discussing these often forbidden subjects and he expected we could become comfortable with these often forbidden subjects, too.

Rather than dodge the query, when the kids asked about the tampons by the toilet, I explained how menstruation worked. When asked why there was hair on me that wasn’t on them, I told them about puberty. When asked why that lady had a baby in her tummy, I explained what a uterus was and how a sperm and an egg had to connect and how an embryo became a fetus became a baby. Rather than wait for “the talk,” I simply started to talk. And I put a copy of Robie Harris’ book for elementary school aged kids about “eggs, sperm, birth, babies and families” on the bookshelf. The book is called It’s So Amazing

We didn’t speed from menstruation or even how babies are made directly to discussions about abortion. Nor did I solicit a list of curse words or make any declarations about my—or anyone else’s—sexual activity. I wasn’t teaching a middle school health class. These were my very young children. I talked about what came up, like menstruation and babies’ origins—and eventually other things we experienced around us like miscarriage. The concept, though, direct and plain talk, began to feel truly comfortable. By the time they reached the fifth or sixth grades’ Human Growth and Change unit and middle school health class, we’d already discussed that material, and there were no surprises.

During that spring after the breakfast incident, I did bring up the topic of abortion with the babysitter one afternoon while the baby napped and other kids were busy in the playroom. She and I were in the kitchen together cleaning up. I told her about mine—and how grateful I was to have been able to make that choice so I had the chance to become a parent on my terms, once I was an adult ready for the responsibility of childrearing and once I’d partnered with my wonderful husband whom I loved. I didn’t ask her to change her mind; in fact, I didn’t ask a thing, but I’d wanted a chance to share just that much ever since that early morning surprise. I have no idea whether she’d remember that conversation.

By the time abortion came up again, it wasn’t hard to tell my kids what abortion is. Unfortunately, the first time the topic got real attention in our household was just after Dr. George Tiller’s death. Dr. Tiller was a staunch supporter of abortion rights and a medical provider of late-term abortions. That our conversations got political was unavoidable, given the circumstances. By then, my kids had progressed far enough beyond kindergarten that they comprehended both what abortion was and what assassination was. I think the direct way they’ve learned about bodies and reproduction also gave them a solid and reasonable platform to discover their own beliefs.

With Dr. Tiller’s assassination, later-term abortions—the ones the babysitter brought up that morning long ago—were in the news again. I was devastated about the shooting, as were my kids. I found myself grateful to the babysitter, though; her early morning comment all those years before was like that first domino to tumble, the one that got us to talk about our bodies differently. As our dominos clicked to the ground one conversation after another, I began to see that my parental task wasn’t to answer the big questions, it was to feed the larger conversation by answering the small questions and asking more and listening to the click-click sound of our words across time. This was, it turned out, a very big lesson.

Out of the virtual twenty-first century blue, I got a Linked-In message from the former babysitter a couple of years back, and this led to a Facebook friendship and some real world visits with her fiancé. She’d gone to social work school and worked with the homeless. She’d become a volunteer—raising monies to help women unable to pay for abortions to fund them. Turned out she’d followed her own domino path.

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