When I was at school, my mum told me that I could tell her anything and ask her anything. Pretty progressive for a mum in the 80s eh? She may have slightly regretted this when I came home from school one day and asked her to explain a joke about women and fridges, that I’d heard in the playground but didn’t understand. I won’t tell it here in all its misogynistic glory, but true to her word she explained it, truthfully and simply. And I was so horrified at the thought that I might one day fart, out of my vagina, in front of a man, that I swore there and then never to have sex. I obviously changed my mind about that one or this blog wouldn’t exist….
Two things stick with me from that childhood moment: how very honest she was, and was she embarrassed? To this day I’ve never asked her if she felt awkward (maybe she’ll read this and tell me. I won’t ask, I’m still in shock). But what else stayed with me, was the importance of being honest with children about their bodies. So when Mr Baffled and I had our little Button-Pusher, we decided to be completely cool unembarrassed parents, and call a vulva a vulva, and a penis a penis.
Now don’t get me wrong, it did feel a bit weird saying it to my tiny baby: let’s wash your arms, your toes, your tummy, your vulva. And for the life of me I don’t know why, but I did feel, I guess, embarrassed . But I eventually got over myself. And now, I don’t give it a second thought.
Until a few months ago, when I was worried that B-P might have a UTI. She had cried out, seemingly in pain, as she sat on the loo. I asked her if it hurt to wee and she replied, “my vulva hurts”. I asked her the question in a few different ways, trying to establish exactly what and where was hurting, and though she repeatedly answered in the same way, she was also clutching her tummy, and as she’s only 3 years old, I wasn’t 100% sure.
Seeking some advice, and reluctant to race unnecessarily to the GP, I called NHS 111, and explained what had happened to the (female) call handler. She paused. A little too long a pause, which was punctuated with sounds like “wha’?” and “d’you mean, errm” which led me to wonder if she was struggling to understand what I’d said. I don’t know this of course, I don’t know what she was thinking and I didn’t ask, but it certainly seemed like she was unsure. After establishing that we were talking about a possible urinary infection, she recommended that I call our GP.
I love our GP, she’s fantastic. I love the whole practice, and the reception team are great. But whomever I spoke to that day also questioned my use of the term ‘vulva’ and asked, “do you mean vagina?” A little more explanation and a urine sample later, and we’d (no pun intended) concluded that my little Button-Pusher did not have a UTI. An unexplained moment in a 3 year old’s life: perhaps it was tummy ache? Who knows? But I came away wondering why two people, two women, working within the medical profession, seemed unsure of a simple and correct anatomical term. I know that the two people in question are probably not trained nurses or doctors, but they are female.
It also made me wonder about my own anatomical knowledge and I had to concede that, despite a GCSE in biology, and perhaps due to the more commonly used word ‘vagina’, I think I may have been really quite old when I fully understood the two terms and correctly used them. So I’m not writing this to make fun of the two women in question, far from it: when it comes to knowledge, we don’t know until we know. But to know, to learn to use correctly and to feel comfortable using any anatomical term, someone has to tell us, right? The best someone for that job is probably a parent, and if the terms are used without embarrassment, and from day one, there perhaps won’t be any confusion for future generations.
If I’m chatting amongst friends , I’m sure we’ll all still call it lady bits / foof / hooha/ nu nu / whatever term you’ve grown up using. But if I’m talking to my daughter (age appropriately), I want her know that boys have a penis, girls have a vagina, which is the inside bit, and that the word vulva describes the outer bit (or, female external genitals, to be a little more anatomically correct, aka what it says if you Google it), so should she have to talk to a doctor about something, she can. And if other parents have done the same, then she’ll be understood by whomever she’s talking to.
I don’t know why it’s so embarrassing using words like this when we talk to our kids (or each other!), but when I think back I’m so grateful that my mum said “ask me anything”. I want to say the same thing to my daughter, and I hope that I’ll put any awkwardness or embarrassment aside and answer her questions truthfully. And if she wants to know anything too embarrassing, I can always tell her to ask her father. Or her grandmother!
If you’re still wondering about whether you could use the word vulva, please do read this article here which tells the heartbreaking story of a young girl who’d been taught to use the word ‘cookie’, and when she tried to tell a teacher that someone wanted her cookie, the teacher told told her to share. And there’s also this amazing post by blogger Becoming SuperMommy, We Don’t Touch Our Vulvas at the Table, which talks about how positively talking to our children about their bodily parts can help prepare them for adulthood, and grow up unashamed of their bodies.