I remember painfully clearly how at the age of ten my mother sat down on the end of her marital bed and patted the floral, rose pink covers beside her. We could see ourselves in the dressing table mirror opposite and instinctively I knew exactly what was coming. I closed my eyes and recited a silent prayer, ‘please, God, no.’
There was an awkward hush as my mother adjusted her half propped bouffant before reluctantly launching into her speech. ‘The school phoned last week and they thought it would be a good idea for me, I mean us, to go over the facts of life.’
‘The facts of life, dear God, no!’ I screamed inside my head as I leapt off the bed my face flushed scarlet. I quickly reassured mum that she needn’t bother, I knew it all. I felt confident about this at the time as I thought back to how, at the age of seven my brother, four years my senior and even then so clearly gay, took me on a tour of my older cousins underwear draw. Not to look at her modest, waist high, skin coloured briefs but to examine her pads. I remember as he removed one of the giant pads from the draw and held it up for me to inspect.
‘This,’ he said is what girls wear when they turn twelve.’ He wasn’t yet in possession of all the facts but muddled along as best he could.
‘Why?’ I asked innocently wide-eyed and curious.
‘Because that’s when you get your period,’ he explained.
‘Blood comes out of, you know,’ he pointed to his crotch but spared me the details and I nodded wisely, pretending to understand. Hearing my cousins approaching footsteps we stuffed the pad back inside the draw and ran off to the lounge to tease our Barbie’s hair.
Luckily I had my best friend Catherine who was an entire year older than me and had two older sisters, to fill me on any details I may have missed. So almost four years later when I had so thankfully escaped my mother’s lecture I turned to Catherine, who confirmed everything I needed to know, including some bonus information on sex and blow jobs, which we both found hysterically funny and equally disgusting at the same time.
Sex education at Intermediate consisted of mother and daughter film nights, which pictured merry-go-rounds (a metaphor for the circle of life) and medical diagrams of erect penises. And to follow the agony of those silent car rides home.
Puberty was painful.
Puberty was painful, literally. It was only after overdosing on four panadol and a very generous hot toddy, made by my mother (who was staunchly Irish Catholic) was I sufficiently wasted enough to get through the agony of ‘that time of the month’.
Tampons were banned from our house, reserved for married ladies – those who had already lost their virginity. My prudish mother made the nuns look like trollops in comparison. This meant many a missed swimming lesson, not to mention PE which was greeted with a certain amount of suffering. However, I was not alone. Those small, thigh length pleated skirts in a Wellington wind drove terror into the hearts of all of us. Tennis balls were left rolling untouched on the ground – it was either that or let go of our skirts to reveal all. The 80’s pad wasn’t slim lined, winged and absorbent like they are today, they were about as fat as your arm and there was always the dangerous possibility of it sliding sideways, dropping to the floor, something that didn’t bare thinking about.
French V’s Sex Education
At college I took French, which meant we simply didn’t get sex education. The larger typing class on the other hand did and were sure to fill us in at lunch time, while transforming tampons into mice and throwing them around the room. I always wondered if the nuns that taught us had conducted their own study and had statistically proven that girls who took typing were more prone to teenage acts of sexual misconduct – as Prince would have put it, it was ‘a sign of the times’.
It wasn’t until sixteen that we were all included in a religious sexuality class where a nun (more progressive then my mother) stood up in front of the entire class and reassured us that it was ok to masturbate. We all knew it was coming, we had been warned. This lesson was legendary and was given every year. Never-the-less we all groaned audibly and slid down further into our chairs trying hard not to imagine Sister Margaret in the act. These classes continued in the vein of open discussions generally leading to the conclusion that sex was alright so long as it occurred after marriage.
Sex control wasn’t widely discussed as the Pope had declared contraception illegal during Vatican II and the Catholic church wasn’t moving anywhere fast on this one. However, there was an alternative – natural family planning. We all looked at those in the class whose parents so obviously practiced natural family planning – those whose siblings numbered ten or more. None of us were sold.
Am I in 19th century Ireland?
Looking back some might compare my childhood to that of growing up in Ireland in the 19th century. If I looked sideways at a boy my mother would accuse me of thinking unholy thoughts, rosary was said most nights and much to the disappointment of the 80 year old congregation we were marched down to rosary and benediction once a week, bribed with the promise of an ice cream and a place in heaven. Any protests were greeted with the promise of a place in hell where we would be sure to burn for all eternity and no ice cream would be served, ever. My mother was a retired actress and always favoured the dramatic. I therefore emerged into my teenage years with a certain amount of dread, a fear for the male sex and a firm belief that sex before marriage was, of course a sin. For a girl who had spent her formative years wanting to become a bride of Christ puberty and boys had never held a lot of promise. Although I do have one thing to thank God for, emerging into my twenty’s – Amen to that.
Praise be and fast forward
My ten year old daughter on the other hand asks frequent questions about sex, periods and body hair, pubic and other. So I have learnt to take deep breaths at these unexpected bombardments and pretend to act calm while trying not to recall my own childhood memories. And then I try to answer as honestly and well as I can. Thankfully at ten she finds the very thought of sex repulsive – long may it last. But she has already been on her first date – fish ‘n’ chips on the beach with six of their best friends. No kissing was involved and she described it as being “more relaxed than she thought and surprisingly fun”. One of my closest friends advised me to tell her that kissing can lead to the passing on of germs, which could lead to at the very least – a cold. But thankfully I needn’t have worried. We have been through periods and we are prepared or so I thought. I was surprised that she was actually looking forward to this until we discovered that I had omitted the fact that your period is not just a one off experience but generally takes place every three to four weeks for around forty years.
‘Oh,’ she replied when I had explained the awful truth and I watched as the smile promptly disappeared. ‘We all have to go through it,’ I said as I gave her a hug and I quickly tried to think of something positive to say about these times – failing miserably. But no matter how prepared you think you are there are always those times when you are completely caught off guard. At these times I have learned to respond with, ‘I’ll have to think about that one and get back to you.’ I find that they normally forget and you can usually buy yourself a few months or maybe even a year before the subject comes up again. But there are other times when either an immediate answer is required or a quick change of subject.
Check out my etchings
A few weeks ago my friend was clearing out her bedroom alongside her curious four year old girl. She was enjoying the quiet that was coming from the corner of the room when suddenly a cry of amazement rose interrupting the silence.
‘Mummy, what’s this?’ Selina looked up to discover Frida holding one of her old art school books open on her lap. It was a book of erotic Victorian ecthings. She tentatively took a closer look. It was a man giving a woman cunnilingus, her numerous Victorian skirts hitched up around her waist – all was revealed. Selina, normally very open to questions of a sexual nature was forced to pause.
‘They’re having sex,’ she said trying to pass it off.
‘They’re not having sex,’ exclaimed Frida pointing to the picture, ‘he’s licking her virgina!’
Selina was lost for words, she desperately made a grab for a pretty frock lying on the bed beside her, ‘do you want to play dress ups?’ Frida threw the book down, jumped up and ran to the dress up box. Problem averted.