Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Safe Sex

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During the mad rush to get my five-year-old to school this morning, I ducked my head into the bathroom and commanded for the fourth time, "Please brush your teeth!"

"Mommy, what's this?" my daughter, Mae, asked.

She was holding her little closed fist out to me, with a Trojan condom in it. It was still smartly packaged in gold, glittering in the morning light like a party favor she'd taken home from a friend's birthday.


"Nothing!" I snatched the rubber from her. "We're late for school!"

"But I want to open it," she said.

White toothpaste encircled her lips. Her hair was up in two pigtails.

She seemed pure and innocent.

"No!" I said. "C'mon, let's go!"

Normally, my sex supplies -- condoms, birth-control pills, vibrator -- are secretly stashed on the highest shelf in our bathroom, above the deodorant, aloe vera, and Band-Aids. Normally, they are kept behind a closed door. But last night, this wayward condom must have jumped off and landed on the floor.

I wish I could say that I stood still at this very moment and thought, Who cares if we're five minutes late for kindergarten? This is an once-in-a-lifetime chance!
I wish I could say that I took this as the perfect opportunity to pause and give my daughter a lesson on safe sex. I wish I could say that I was the kind of mother who has no qualms about showing her child what a condom is.

But this morning, I said none of these things.

Instead, I grabbed her jacket, dashed down the stairs, and reminded her, "It's pizza day!"

There, that was easy. We've moved on from safe sex to pizza.

More importantly, the condom was back up high in its place and forgotten.

Still, after kissing Mae goodbye at school, my conscience started speaking to me, as it often does.

She's just curious, that's all.

I remembered the look of disappointment that spread across her face as I seized the evidence from her. Why did I react so crossly, as if she'd done something wrong? She's only five years old, for heaven's sake! That wasn't right. Oh, my baby, I'm sorry.

Haven't I always vowed to teach her that no subject is off-limits with me, that she can talk to me about anything? We live in Berkeley, California, for heaven's sake! I grew up in the suburbs with a Catholic mother who never uttered the word "sex," and the last thing I want is for Mae to feel condemned. Don't I want her to be educated and informed? Yes, she should go into this world knowing how to take care of her body.

What was I so afraid of?

Mae knows exactly what a penis and vagina are. In fact, one of her favorite kid's books is "Mommy Laid an Egg, Or, Where Do Babies Come From? by Babette Cole, an ironic story about a sophisticated brother and sister who must explain reproduction to their nervous, afraid parents. She laughs when the parents try to explain that babies are made out of gingerbread or squeezed from tube.

An avid illustrator herself, Mae loves it when the children grab a paper and pen to set the record straight. The book has created a stir among some parents -- it has been banned from many libraries -- who claim, for instance, that drawings of sexual intercourse "on a skateboard and suspended in the air by helium balloons" are "lewd" and "inaccurate."

I've read this book to her over and over. So, why can't I just sit down and tell her what a rubber is? Am I that uptight? What am I so afraid of?

It's this: What if my daughter asks me if I have sex? What would I
say to her?

Yes, Mommy has sex when you're not here. Didn't you wonder why you sometimes go to a friend's house for a sleepover? Sometimes I even have sex when you're fast asleep in your big-girl bed in the next room. I sometimes worry that you'll wake up when you hear the bed squeaking. I can make an awful racket! I'm glad that you're finally a deep sleeper.


That night, Mae and I are back in the bathroom, and we're both brushing our teeth before bed. She's wearing her Disney princess nightgown and Dora slippers. She looks so wholesome.

But I can't stand it anymore. I open the cupboard, reach up, and pull the condom down from its spot on the shelf. I hadn't realized that it's an "extra-large" one, a freebie I grabbed after a recent doctor's appointment.

This is going to be worse than I'd imagined. I take a deep breath.

"Remember this?" I ask.

She nods her head.

"I'm sorry about this morning, when you asked me what this was, and I didn't explain it. I'm going to tell you now, okay?"

She puts her toothbrush down on the counter. Her face is eager and open.

I bend down so that we're face-to-face. I begin by reminding her how babies are made, like in her favorite book, "Mommy Laid an Egg."

And as I talk, I rip open the package. Her eyes are glued to it.

"This is called a condom," I say, pulling out the enormous item.

She reaches out and touches the latex.

"Remember that a man has little seeds inside him that come out? Well, this traps the seeds so they can't get into a woman's body and make a baby."

She pulls hard on the latex. "They get stuck in here?"

"That's right, honey." She lets go, and it snaps in the air.

"But, Mommy, why don't you want to have another baby?"

"Another baby?"

"Yes, I want a baby sister."

Whew, this is going to be a breeze.

I list all the reasons I'm not going to have another baby right now, like the fact that we live in a one-bedroom apartment, which is too small for another baby, and the fact that babies cost a lot of money. I skirt over my relationship status right now: I don't really have a man around here on a permanent basis.

"Most of all," I say. "I'm so happy with you right now, my big girl."

Then she dashes out the door to choose her bedtime story from the shelf. I grab a wad of toilet paper and wrap it around the wasted condom. Well, it wasn't exactly wasted. It did go to a good cause, right?

Alone in the bathroom, I make a silent prayer to myself: Please, Mae, don't tell your friends or your kindergarten teacher about this. Please.

Tucked under her covers, Mae seems satisfied. I'm relieved that she wants me to read a cute picture book about a mischievous kitten.

We've both had enough of all that sober sex-talk.

However, after tiptoeing out of her room, I remember that the bathroom is not my only spot where I stash sex supplies. Under my bed for the past couple of weeks, I've been collecting free samples of all-natural lubricants for a stylish product inventory article I'm writing for Tango magazine. I've received about 20 different varieties in the mail: all chemical-free, every flavor on the chart, from cinnamon to berry.

Unfortunately, Mae had intercepted the postman earlier this week. "Is it for me?" she asked, jumping up and down as he handed me a plain-brown package. "Is it? Is it?"

"Uh -- "

"What is it, Mommy?"

I let her open the box, explaining that there are some "special lotions" inside. She squeezed some of the strawberry-mango "O'My" out of the bottle and rubbed it on her forearm.

"It smells good," she said. "But it's sticky."

Oh, no. I'm not yet ready to explain the word "lubricate" to her.

Rachel Sarah lives and writes in the Bay Area. Her first book, Single Mom Seeking: Play Dates, Blind Dates, and Other Dispatches from the Dating World (Avalon/Seal Press) was published in 2007. She is also the author of the Literary Mama column, Single Mom Seeking. Rachel has written for Family Circle, Parenting, Tango, Bay Area Parent, Ms., Hip Mama, and American Baby. A journalist for the past decade, Rachel is also the single mom columnist for For more information, please contact Rachel through her website.

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