One day, while trying unsuccessfully to pee alone, my daughter, two at the time, asked me what a tampon was.
She was holding it out to me having discovered it in its box hidden under the sink and was quite naturally puzzling out its function. My reply: “It’s a stick.”
It actually took me days to realize what an idiotic answer this was. There I was uniquely positioned, literally and figuratively, to share with my daughter something completely normal about my body and hers to-be, and instead my instinctual response was to muddle things.
Rather than simply answer her question with, “It’s a tampon,” my brain froze.
I couldn’t explain it. I thought I was cool. Well, if not cool, at least comfortable with basic functions of the female body. I’d been a member of NOW in college, I marched in Take Back the Night marches, I had a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves all ready for my kids on my bookshelf. I’d always thought I would be that mom her kids could ask anything. But the minute things got beyond the conversational level of naming objects “cat,” “dog,” “plane,” and “fire truck” with my young daughter, I fell apart. Why did this happen? Was I carrying some secret shame about my own womanhood? Hidden from myself, buried deep, was there some stash of insecurity about having a period? I didn’t know, and frankly I didn’t have time to figure it out because I had a two-year old.
Fast forward a year, and it happened again. This time, Nell asked me, “Am I pretty, Mama?” The answer here is obvious. With her big doe eyes, honey hair, and perfect bow lips, of course she’s pretty. Every mother thinks her kid is beautiful, right? Easy peasy. Except it wasn’t. My brain froze, and though I have no actual memory of what I said, I’m pretty sure I mumbled something about how every person is beautiful in his or her own unique way and that what matters is our inside.
I was so flummoxed by this question and all its implications, I even bought it up at a parent teacher conference with her pre-school teacher. “What should I answer to questions like this,” I asked. “Should I be concerned about her growing self-image? What does it mean that she’s asking questions about her appearance at age three?!”
Fortunately for me, Nell’s teacher was a professional early childhood educator of some twenty years. She told me, “At this age, being pretty is just like being fast. There’s nothing more to it than that. You just tell her, ‘Yes,’ and then you move on. She’s not thinking all of the things you are.”
I’m nothing if not consistent though. Brain freeze struck again last fall while school shopping. Nell, now 9, had picked out an orange sweater dress to try on. It looked cute on the hanger and it was in her size, but when she pulled it on, it clung close to her body, revealing her rounded little belly. She and I both studied the dress, and she remarked, “My belly sticks out.”
My brain freaked out. AGAIN, I mumbled something ridiculous as I helped her out of the dress: “Your metabolism is great! You’re healthy! You don’t have to worry about your body until you’re in your 30’s!”
What the hell has happened to my rational thought process? Even my husband agreed that this had been an epic mom fail on my part. “Her belly pokes out sometimes. So does everybody’s. Whatever,” he said. “Why’d you make it a big deal at all?”
Why did I make it a big deal…? For the record, we’ve had great talks already about sex. We’ve read books, we’ve had plenty of conversations, we’ve even chatted about the crazy things she might find on the Internet (For the record, you probably should have that conversation sooner than you think. Also, for the record, this was her first encounter with nudity on the Internet watched at a friend’s house. Meh.). It isn’t sex that’s causing my mental shut down, like you would expect. It’s something else that causes my brain to freeze when my daughter needs me at my most coherent.
Let us pause to consider actual brain freeze as opposed to mental brain freeze. On NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me!, Chicago pediatrician Dr. Peter Lechman describes brain freeze as follows:
The roof of your mouth gets cold, which causes immediate constriction of the blood vessels. As soon as those blood vessels constrict, your body reacts by trying to dilate them very quickly in order to get more warm blood to the area and heat it up. Pain receptors in the roof of your mouth send a message up to your brain telling you you’ve got something bad going on in the roof of your mouth. And it causes you to experience an intense headache in your forehead.
This describes my own condition as well. Nell asks a question, my brain gets cold, blood vessels constrict, or some brain neurons flee (I am not a brain doctor), and my brain reacts by trying to warm things up quickly with words and such. These words are the wrong words, they are the something bad going on, and I get an intense mom pang/ headache. This pang (pain!), if I can use Dr Lechman’s wisdom, is not my brain tellin me something is wrong. This pang I feel is my brain overreacting.
Yeah. I get that. I am overreacting to my daughter’s questions and answering them stupidly. She has no baggage yet. There were no culturally created notions of how to be a woman at two or about beauty when she was three in her head. While she was certainly exposed to images of women and girls in the media, books, and limited tv we’d shown her, there was just no way she could have the weight of ideal female beauty on her shoulders. My inarticulate response though, my inability to answer questions simply could easily add a weight to those slim shoulders, and I freaked out.
But sometimes a tampon is just a tampon, right? I know this. So when these moments happen again, and they will, I’m going to try to take a breath and attempt to redirect those brain neurons back to where they need to go. When Nell needs her mom to answer a simple question about becoming a woman, I’m going to try to stay engaged in the moment and not in the thousands of moments from my own life that really aren’t all that relevant. When she needs her mom to show her how to be normal in this crazy, sexist world in her own wonderful body, I am going to try to tell my brain to chill the heck out when it attempts to check out.