Dear reader, do you have small children? Do you have a baby who cries all the time, or a toddler who hangs from your leg by the hour? Do you dream of the day they will discover a little independence? Of a future in which they can – unimaginable luxury – read to themselves their favourite book, rather than ask you to do it for the 71st time that day?
Don’t be afraid, dear reader. I am not going to tell you that it all gets even harder, or that you will look back on these days as the easiest and happiest of your life in comparison with what comes next. Every stage of parenthood comes with its own challenges and joys. And children who can read are, undoubtedly, a joy.
Let me tell you a tale.
Imagine, if you will, that you wake with a cold. A cold which has transformed the inside of your head into a Tolkien-esque landscape of grey and murky green. A cold which scrapes in your throat and crackles in your ears and fills your nose with a smell as of drains.
And this is not just any day. It is a day which you are going to spend with all three of your children, rather than the more usual one, due to a strike by their teachers which you hope you’d support even if it caused you much more serious inconvenience than the unscheduled company of your children.
You know it is going to be a long day. You drag yourself downstairs, eyes barely open, and make your way blearily towards the kettle. Your way is blocked by a sweet-faced boy in convict-striped pyjamas, clutching a book. You drop an absent-minded kiss on his head.
You don’t make it to the kettle.
“Mummy? What is copulation?”
You are suddenly markedly more awake. Your brain, which has up till now has been focused on remembering to breathe through your mouth, begins to whir. Copulation? COPULATION? It’s still in the hour of six. You can’t do this. Can you? Must you? Has he misunderstood? Has he misread? Could he be thinking, perhaps, of the process by which policeman are formed? A Brazilian word for sporting disaster? Then you notice, with a sinking heart, the title of the book which he is holding. The Usborne Illustrated Guide to Human Biology. 50p, apparently, at some garden party or school fair or second hand bookshop you have no memory of visiting but for which you find you have not curses strong enough.
It isn’t that you didn’t think that this day would eventually come. It isn’t that he doesn’t already know the basics of seeds and eggs and a hazy, though sound, understanding of birth which would beat that of several of the fathers on One Born Every Minute. The current Year 6s have just had The Talk, and you knew that you’d have to discuss it at some point before he got there (in three sodding years time, your poor brain screams). It’s just that you had visions of being prepared. You had visions of it happening on a winter’s night, curtains shut, cosy and confidential. You had visions, let’s be honest, of lovingly closing the bedroom door and leaving your husband in there to get on with it.
You look, together, at the pages. They are admirably detailed. More admirably than the Biology textbooks at your convent school from which your teachers had removed the relevant pages. Admirably enough, in fact, that there is no question of falling back on reference to birds, or bees. Or special kisses.
You keep a straight face and you move briskly through the illustrations, elaborating no more than you must, till your youngest, blessedly, comes in to ask for his breakfast. And in between buttering bread and pouring milk, the book makes its way somehow to the very back of the very highest cupboard.
You think you’ve survived.
A quiet voice, by your elbow, as you make coffee. “Mummy, what is a eunuch?”
A puzzled query, in the garden, as your neighbours enjoy the sun. “Mummy, what is puberty?”
An absorbed murmur from the kitchen table. “Mummy, what are sperm-a-ta-zoa?”
You answer, calmly, biting down the hysteria which is starting to build as you wonder if you’re secretly being filmed. The questions keep coming, though, their target narrowing, till you find yourself talking about castration in more detail than you ever believed likely or, indeed, feasible – certainly as far as conversation with an eight year old is concerned.
You may wonder if I had failed to hide the book well enough. Where else would these words, this fascination, be coming from? Dear reader, you would have – as had I – forgotten that this eight year old’s room is crammed with books. That he has a particular taste for the gorier of Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories. And that he has a large, (perhaps unfortunately so), dictionary within easy reach. Did you know that there were nine possible definitions of “sex”? Well, did you?
I didn’t expect, when I woke this morning, that by bedtime one of my children would be able to give an account of where babies came from. Or that I could talk, lucidly and at length, about gangrene and the multiple options for the chopping off of dangly bits (thanks, TD). Am I still glad that my children are keen readers? Yes, of course. Will I pay a little more attention to the books that make their way into the house. Perhaps.
But I will relish, for as long as I possibly can, the ability to crop and skip when reading to my youngest. And I will no longer complain when asked to reread his favouritest book of all. For the 71st time that day.