“The Talk”

Update / Correction: I have changed this post slightly from when I first posted it in 2013. I have replaced previous instances of the word “breed/breeding” with “mate/mating,” which is more accurate. Otherwise, the piece is just as originally posted.

Several years ago, a friend of mine spent the summer in South Africa.  She stayed with a family in a small town where, as in so many other small towns all over the world, the houses each consisted of one large common room.  After a couple of weeks of sleeping in a room with several other people, she summoned the courage to ask a young unmarried woman about her age, “When do your parents get any… umm… privacy?”  The young woman laughed, “You mean sex, right?  They are modest, of course, but they don’t really get true privacy the way wealthy people do in some other places.  I understand that there are children who have to be told about sex!  Not here.  No matter our parents’ best efforts, most of us have seen them having sex by the time we are 5 or 6.  It is no big deal.”

No big deal! Contrast that with the Kia ad that premiered during this year’s Super Bowl, in which a dad and mom anxiously avoid their child’s question about where babies come from, making up a ridiculous fairy tale, and then drowning out his rejoinder with the car stereo.

About a year ago, my husband and I took the baby monitor out of my daughter’s room, but she still wakes up in the middle of the night about 1/3 of the time, so we leave the door to our bedroom a little bit open, so that we can hear her if she calls.  But she doesn’t always call out, especially in the morning — sometimes she comes to our room instead.  In the past, I had considered the monitor and our doorknob’s creaky turning to be our early warning systems.  Instead, over the past months, I have been trying to work out what we are going to tell her if she walks into the room when we are having sex.

I had been a bit anxious about it, honestly.  More than once I have paused to check the clock and done some calculations about when she would likely wake up that morning before deciding whether I was comfortable having sex right then.  But in the past few days I came up with something to say that has me almost hoping that she does walk in on us one morning in the next year or so.  Remembering my friend’s story – that for many children all over the world, having seen their parents have sex is “no big deal,” I wondered about the difference between that attitude and the conviction of my friends when I was a child and teenager that the mere thought of their parents’ having had sex was “gross!” In movies and on television, I have “walked in on” countless young, beautifully airbrushed couples having sex – but rarely married couples, and never  in real life.

But back to what I would say to my six year old, if she were to walk in on my husband and I having sex in the next several months, and were to ask what we were doing:

1) We’re mating…  This might sound like a weird thing to say, but I would be beginning here by placing what she had seen in the context of what vocabulary she already has.  My daughter LOVES animals, and has been checking lots of books about animals out of the library – and a word that comes up a lot is “mate.”  She doesn’t know what mating entails precisely, but she knows that it is something that two animals do together in order to make a baby (or lots of babies).  So by saying, “We’re mating,” she knows right away that what she saw is related to how humans make babies, without me having to go into a lot of age-inappropriate detail.

2) … but unlike most other animals, humans don’t mate just to make babies.  This is important for three reasons.  The first is because it is true, and I want her to learn what other things sex is for from me, not her peers.  The second is because it is the necessary thing to say before telling her anything else sex is for.  And the third is because, as a family that has been trying to adopt for a few years, my daughter is aware that, “Mommy can’t grow any more babies in her belly.” So if Mommy and Daddy are mating (doing something that makes babies), then already that raises several questions in her head.

3) When humans mate, we call it “sex.” And couples have sex to strengthen the bond between them.  This is the critical part right here.  Too often, “the talk” includes (or even begins with) “when two people love each other very much.”  This can be very confusing.  Love can mean a lot of different things to different people.  Talking about love – about what comes before sex – tends to endorse anything that might happen when swept up in an emotional moment.  Instead, I feel like it is important to frame sex in terms of strengthening of a bond between two people – the results of sex.  Unlike “making a baby,” which only results from sex sometimes, “strengthening the bond” happens every time.  It can strengthen that bond in good or bad ways, it can strengthen that bond with a person who is good for you or bad for you, but it makes the bond stronger each time.  My daughter already knows (from us telling her, and from her observing us) that Mommy and Daddy love each other very much, that we respect one another and trust one another, so there is really no need, if she walks in on Mommy and Daddy having sex, to tell her that it has something to do with love.  But as parents of her friends divorce, I imagine the idea of sex as strengthening commitment will be reassuring to her.

Naturally, this version of “The Talk” leaves a lot out.  After all, I have thought about it with my six year old in mind.  For instance, now is not the time to get into “there are many ways to have sex, but only vaginal intercourse between a man and a woman can result in a baby, unless you take advantage of in vitro fertilization, which is a way of making a baby without sex at all,” or “There are ways to avoid having a baby when you are having sex, and some of them work better than others, and some don’t work at all, for instance…”  These matters can be addressed later, in bits and pieces, as she gets older and as she has more and more questions.  Actually answering those questions honestly (instead of trying to distract her from her questions by singing her favorite song, like the parents in the Kia commercial) will tell her that I am open to this conversation, and that will encourage her to continue asking me questions when they arise, instead of asking someone else.

“The Talk” is not one conversation, but a commitment to years of conversations.  In a sense, I already began talking with her about sex when I talked to her about marriage more than a year ago. “One day, when you are older, you may find someone who you like so much, and who likes you so much, that you want to see them every day, and help one another do everything, and be family with one another…” Liking one another, commitment, helping, family…  again, I didn’t use the word “love” because it didn’t seem to be the most helpful word in the situation.

Love is great and important!  My daughter and I use the word love a lot!  But because there are so many different ways to love people, I didn’t want that to be the only word that comes to mind when thinking about marriage.  Our culture will guarantee that it is the first word she thinks of – I can give her other words as well.  And by giving her these other words when she thinks about marriage, she will think of these words too when she thinks about sex.  As long as the first context she has for thinking about having sex is marriage, and not the sex she will see portrayed in movies and on TV time and again as she grows up — the sex that is simply scratching the inexplicable itch of desire.

Most of us will inexplicably desire many people in our lives who would be poor partners – to whom we know we would prefer not to be strongly bonded.  Respect and mutual support and commitment and enjoying one another’s company and desire? That’s what I want for my daughter.  My hope is that she is given unmistakable clarity in finding such a partner.  But because we are all fallible, because it is so easy to be deceived by our desires, shame is not on my agenda for my ongoing conversations about sex with my daughter.  If she is to flourish as an adult in a sexual relationship, if she is to continually strengthen the bond between herself and another person, I don’t want to do anything to impede her freedom to sever a bond that is better broken.  Especially if the sex was nonconsensual, for instance as Elizabeth Smart spoke about at Johns Hopkins when sharing her experience when she was abducted from her home.  But even if the mistake is hers – even if she chooses to have sex with the wrong person – telling her that she is now something like a “chewed up wad of gum” that no one will want is not simply hateful and contrary to the demands of Love, but also a way of preventing her from being equipped to form a life-giving relationship later.

So I am going to stop eyeing the clock in the morning, and not worry so much about our creaky bed frame.  If our daughter sees my husband and I having sex, it is no big deal.  It might even be a good thing.

Becoming a (paid) writer

This week, I have signed two different contracts: one to write 13 weeks of adult Sunday school lessons, and another to write a number of sermon series helps.  And about a week before that, I received news that a book that I contributed an essay to is going to be coming out in October.

I am no longer a person who sits at her kitchen table and writes stuff – I am now a person who is paid to sit at her kitchen table and write stuff.  Wow.  I am a writer, y’all!  Wow wow wow.

While I agree with Anne Lamott that “if you write, you are a writer,” it helps for someone to like your stuff enough to read it.  And it helps, too, if they like it well enough to pay to read it.

I started blogging because I needed a creative and intellectual outlet for my preacher turned stay-at-home mom self. I didn’t really have any thoughts of becoming a writer per se – I intended to get my PhD, or return to the parish.  I knew that some people who blog had gotten publishing deals that way, but I also was aware that those people were generally more disciplined bloggers than I had been – they wrote at regular intervals, or had a gimmick or at least a theme that they hewed to closely.  They had not simply written about whatever occurred to them whenever it was convenient to do so.

On the other hand, I had known people who had tried to take the “conventional” route to becoming a writer – sending one unsolicited manuscript after another to publisher after publisher, collecting a hundred or more rejections on their way to (maybe) getting something published. Did I have the discipline for that? The conviction?

I spent a lot of time thinking about “what next?” but “become a writer” didn’t even make the list most of the time.

Then, a little more than a year ago, I stopped trying to look ahead and instead took a look around. I was doing or had done everything that my five year old self had wanted to do or be as a grown up. (Admittedly with the single exception of being married to Greg Brady, which could never happen, given that he was a fictional character.  And in any case, my husband is way cooler than Greg Brady.) I had been a pastor, I was a mom, I was married, I could cook and sew and drive a car. I could eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted without anyone telling me any different. Life was good.

Context matters.  “What’s next?” became a different question when it arose out of contentment with where I was rather than out of anxiety about not being where I “ought” to have been.

“Life is good – what next?”  Write.  I wanted to write.

Now, it is only fair to mention here that I was scared to say so. I am an American, and Americans are supposed to produce stuff.  Graduate school produces a degree, and a job produces money, but writing might only produce a bunch of ugly drafts that nobody wants to see.  I was scared to tell my husband what I wanted, even though he is super supportive, and even though we didn’t need for me to make money.  And that’s the other thing to mention:  if you need to make money (and most people do, given that money is good for buying things like food and electricity and a place to stay and so on) then writing is not a particularly reliable way to do it.  Certainly not at first.  Writing is for people who are well off enough to not have to work, or who are young and don’t have children and could always crash on a friend’s sofa if it came to it. And writing is for other people too, but only squeezed in those hours when they are not doing their paying job(s). I owe it to my less-well-bankrolled writer friends to fess up to this.  It was scary for me to admit that I wanted to write, and I didn’t even have my own or anyone else’s ability to live comfortably riding on the enterprise.

But my husband was all for it, and so I came up with a plan: I would give it a year and see what happened.  The year would start with my daughter entering kindergarten, in September 2012 – which would give me a lot more time for uninterrupted reading and thinking and writing and editing.  I would consider myself a writer starting in September, and I would see how it felt and if anything came out of it.

Great plan, but things started happening long before September rolled around.  On 22 May 2012 I wrote an entry entitled The Six Essentials for Preaching to Children, and it went viral – or as viral as these things go when you are writing something that is really only of interest to Protestant worship leaders.  Within less than 24 hours, it had caught the eye of Jessica Kelley, the editor of Ministry Matters, who asked if she could blend that entry with another entry of mine into one article, and publish it on her site. Sure, I said, as long as she linked to my blog, and she did.

That was pretty exciting, but then she invited me to write more for their website.  So I did. And then, when talking to her about a book idea about sermon helps, she asked if I would be interested in writing an article for the Circuit Rider sermon series issue (Feb/March/April 2013).  Yes I was interested! And so I got my first paying gig.

This gave me confidence enough to query after other opportunities, which led to a bunch of rejections that hurt my confidence a little, but not enough to keep me from trying again and again.  And the trying again led to me landing a contract to write for a popular Sunday school series, and also to me writing an essay for the book I mentioned above (Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith, White Cloud Press, October 2013.)

But the Circuit Rider job led to still another job – this time another job that came to me, much as the Ministry Matters work had come to me.  The Circuit Rider is a publication of the United Methodist church with a wide professional readership – it is sent to the pastors and former pastors and employees of boards and agencies and so on… and one of these readers was looking through the sermon series issue hoping to find a writer who could write sermon series helps while still having respect for the liturgical year. And she found me. After a couple of months of talking with one another, I am on board to start contributing sermon series helps in the next couple of weeks!!

As time goes on, I will share more about each of the three upcoming projects: the Sunday school lessons, the sermons series helps, and the book of essays.  But for now, I am feeling really grateful for having the opportunity to give writing a go.  And I am looking around me, thinking that I have done or been everything my 17 year old self wanted to be and do, including being a writer and being married to Brian McGiverin.  Admittedly with the exception of being a singer-songwriter, and knowing how to play the guitar.  But there is still time. 🙂

Falling out

Yesterday morning, Mark sent me the following tweet: “You and I are gonna fall out ;)” in response to me upping the ante in a playful argument: “John and Charles Wesley – heretics or no?”

First, I had to look up “fall out” to make sure that it meant the same thing in the UK that it does here in the US, and it does.  Falling out, for those of you who are lucky enough never to have had use for the expression, means no longer being on speaking terms with someone after a particularly serious disagreement.  For those of you unfamiliar with emoticons, ” ;)” indicated that he was teasing.

Too often, falling out of step with one another leads us to fall out altogether – but there are other possibilities.  It is especially exciting for me when I discover the places where I am out of step with new friends – it is a sign that the connections we have made are becoming strong enough to risk essential differences.

Later in the day, I found myself in a more serious conversation with Mark about the purpose of legal marriage, which led to me considering the purpose of the nation state, and also to realizing how many conversations of late were drawing my attention to my increasing lack of political ideology (mistrust of political ideology?), in favor of an ad hoc questioning of particular policies from the perspective of who gets hurt and who benefits.  Throughout the exchange of tweets, I noticed that we were falling in and out of step with one another.  In the process, I was being stretched to look at the issue of marriage from a different perspective than I had in a long time – I was paying attention to my feet, and the way they were moving.

Soldiers, when they march, move in lockstep – artificially changing their gait so that they move in perfect concert with one another.  It is good for discipline, and for traveling as a group over long distances – but when they get to a bridge, they have to fall out of step.  The artificial consistency of their steps, vehemently beating out a perfect rhythm, can create a dangerous wave motion, destroying the bridge as they cross it.

I won’t deny that there is such a thing as real consensus – that consensus is not always imposed through tyranny or feigned by the non-confrontational.  However, in my own life experience, building bridges that last requires that those who cross those bridges be comfortable falling out of step with one another.  Else they may find themselves falling off the bridge altogether.

So to Mark – and to Will and to Peach and to Scott and to Maddy and to the many others with whom I have found myself comfortably out of step from time to time – I thank God for you!  May we continue to fall out – and back in – as we run with patience the race that is set before us!