I know my child would rather I not reveal this conversation, but … for the good of parents everywhere, I feel it is my duty. 

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All of our most serious conversations have happened in the car. We were driving when my daughter and I covered gay marriage, and on the way to school the day we discussed divorce, adoption, and biological parents—all the topics I felt unprepared to dive into. I’d been anticipating these discussions, but hadn’t really wanted to sit down and force them in an unnatural way. Lucky for me, the car seems to bring out an interest in delving into subjects that might make people seem squeamish. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that that’s exactly where we were when we had our first ever Puberty Talk.

It was an early release day from school (these drive me freaking crazy, as I can never remember to put them in my calendar), and my third grader and I were looking forward to an afternoon together, just the two of us. We headed for the mall to do some shopping for her little sister’s upcoming third birthday, and of course we had to hit Starbucks, because that’s just how we roll when we’re together.

It all started with our post-Starbucks restroom visit. I will be deliberately vague here, but let’s just say the epic conversation began with an unfortunate observation about a labia that may or may not have been deemed “furry” (I resent that, for starters. “Furry” seems to be going a bit overboard. I digress.) and an expression of gratitude that she didn’t have one. At which point, I felt it was my adult responsibility to inform my offspring that a lack of furriness was only a temporary condition. This sort of blew her mind, and she immediately had questions she wanted answered ASAP. (Come to think of it, public restrooms seem to be another likely place for conversations one was not expecting.)

Having recently engaged in a heartwarming banter with my three-year-old in a public stall, in which she repeatedly and loudly inquired as to whether the woman in the stall next to us was a man, I did not care to discuss pubic hair in the mall restroom any longer. I whispered to my daughter that we’d have to finish our conversation later.

Naturally, the car ride home seemed to be the perfect opportunity. I can’t really remember how she led back into it, but it probably went something like this: “Soooo …. about that whole furry ladyparts thing?”

I patted myself on the back for my presence of mind and composure during this ever-so-important coming of age conversation. I was certain she would remember it forever, as I remember standing next to my mother’s bedside as she drew me an ill-advised diagram that included misshapen fallopian tubes. I wracked my brain to remember when this blessed event occurred—I decided I was eight years old, and we were right on time. Shortly after said diagram had been hastily scrawled, I was presented with the requisite copy of What’s Happening To Me? (Did all children of the 1980s own this book? Please say yes.)

Puberty was not kind to me.

WTF 80s outfit

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I started with the basics: It’s called puberty, it will start happening in probably a few years (oh gawd), and it happens so that your body can change into a grownup body, and also to prepare your body to make babies, even though you shouldn’t do so for a very, very long time. I included all the entry level details: the growing of aforementioned hair in various places, breast development (I know it’s wrong, but I almost always say “boobs” instead of breasts. I can’t help it.), periods starting, and boys’ voices changing.

We’d had several earlier conversations about menstruation, prompted by a casual inquiry in the shower as to why my “vagina had a tail.” When we discussed it again on our ever-so-long car ride home that day, I assured her that she wouldn’t have to use tampons, but could use pads for as long as she wanted. (Privately, I vowed to myself that she would never, ever experience the confusion her mother had about removing the applicator prior to, um, leaving the restroom.)

She asked if it hurt, and I said that the bleeding didn’t hurt, but that she would probably have cramps, for which she could take Advil and use a heating pad. She wanted to know if the cramps would stop after the first time, to which I sadly replied, “no.” I declined to include the aspect of PMS—it’s cruel to inform a child in the same day that not only will they sprout “fur” one day but that, for decades of their life, they will monthly become stabby, consider harming their partners, and cry at commercials. Baby steps, people.

My only misstep was one rather unfortunate utterance after my daughter asked me how I knew that boys got hair above their penises. Practically in slow motion, I replied, to my eternal regret, “Mommy knows a lot about penises.” (((GONG)))

I told her that it was too bad that kids get self-conscious during puberty, because everyone goes through it. I recommended a healthy dose of empathy as her male classmates’ voices began to crack—after all, girls didn’t appreciate having their brand new bra straps snapped, either. I added that some girls feel uncomfortable if they are the first to go through it, and others feel uncomfortable that they are the last. I channeled Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret as I detailed the period watch she will inevitably experience. She assured me that she hoped to be the very last girl to get her period, to which I quietly smiled. I knew better. (Who remembers this little gem: “We must, we must, we must increase our bust!”?)

The most important thing, in my opinion, was that I didn’t laugh and I wasn’t uncomfortable at all. Maybe there’s something to this driving in the car thing—everyone can have their own space and avoid prolonged eye contact. I patted myself on the back for the fact that, although we may have been in our minivan heading home from the mall, I upheld the integrity of the sacred first puberty talk.

I feel I should leave you with some actual helpful tips. So here’s a cheat sheet for you, for the day YOU have to have the dreaded puberty talk. You’re welcome.

Tips for Talking to Kids About Puberty

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