It was a last-minute decision to cut out the full-color photos of Lennart Nilson’s beautiful book, A Child is Born, and slip them into page protectors for my Sunday morning class. Dismembering a bound book felt uncomfortable, and this particular one had sentimental value. I’d purchased it in 2004 for my older children to help prepare them for the home birth of their sister, Ahna.
I made peace with my decision to crop the book when I considered my K-1 OWL (Our Whole Lives) students comprehending vocabulary like umbilical cord and fetus with pictures of the real thing.
The photos were compelling and engaged even the most distracted young ones.
“Why does the baby look so smushed?”
“How did they get pictures of the fetus? It looks like a chicken.”
“How does a hamburger go through that cord?”
“What is the umbilical cord plugged into?”
The fruit-like quality of a plump placenta, the red sea plant lining of a uterus, the spongy plumbing of an umbilical cord, and the impossible backbone of a weeks-old fetus are single images that inspired many questions. Taking apart a book helped some young ones put complex realities of bodies and babies together.
Snapshot One: Ahna and Finn
After church my daughter, Ahna (7), and her good friend, Finn, asked if they could look at the A Child is Born book in the backseat. They studied some of the fetus photos and then Ahna cocked her head.
“Do babies ever die inside their moms?”
“They do,” I said, at a stoplight, “it’s called a miscarriage.”
“Oh,” my daughter said quietly.
“That happened to my mom,” Finn said, “three times.”
“It did?” Both my daughters said in unison. They looked at me wide-eyed. I nodded slightly and thought of his mother’s grief and grace.
“Why?” Ahna asked.
“Sometimes babies aren’t growing right or they aren’t healthy,” he said.
“Was your mom sad?” asked Ahna. He nodded and they all sat quietly.
Their conversations continued as I marveled at a second-grade boy and a first-grade girl discussing miscarriage, different positions in labor, the pain of labor and how same-sex couples needed to find other ways to start families. Thanks to the photos of a beautiful book and a unique sexuality education program, they shared their questions and thoughts with each other. Like it was a perfectly normal thing to talk about on a Sunday afternoon.
Snapshot Two: Hayden
Tuesday I got this email from Hayden’s mom:
Hayden has been enjoying his time in OWL as it supports his curiosity. This last class invited many questions and conversation about bodies and birth. He’s very clear that after seeing pictures of a fetus in the womb, he’d also like to see female genitalia — all the parts — and he would like to get a look at mine! We aren’t a shy family about bodies, but this is beyond my comfort. I suggested we look at drawings but he was firm that he wanted the real thing. I want to affirm his curiosity as well as set boundaries and share about privacy. Any ideas?
Here was my response:
My own daughter found the pictures compelling too and they inspired many questions. Knowing Hayden, it doesn’t surprise me that the line drawings and cartoons don’t meet his need for accurate information. Here’s a link to some of Lennart Nilson’s work: http://www.lennartnilsson.com/child_is_born.html.
I suppose you could say something along the lines of, “I don’t mind if you see my body on the outside, but my genitals are special to me and I keep them private. It’s really normal for you to be curious about parts that you don’t have so maybe we can find some photographs. It’s all so interesting, isn’t it?”
Let me know how it goes.
Snapshot Three: Jackson
Friday I saw Jackson’s mom, Cheri, at the store.
“I’m so glad I ran into you. I have to tell you what Jackson said after OWL class,” Cheri leaned in while Jackson and Ahna were examining the Easter display.
“He started with ‘So I saw some pictures today of a fetus. And what I want to know… does a man really put his penis inside the vagina to have the sperm meet the egg and make a fetus?’ And while he’s asking me he’s got one eye closed like Popeye so I’m trying so hard not to laugh. So I say, ‘Yes, Jackson, that’s pretty much how it works.’ He pauses and looks at me with his one eye and then he says, as if he’s reading the script of a movie, ‘I’m going to want a cookie now.'”
We laughed and the kids squinted at us, “What are you talking about?”
“What lucky moms we are to have thinking kids like you,” Cheri responded.
When I was the age of Ahna, Hayden and Jackson, my father was a photographer and frame shop owner. Although I would whine “Again?” when my dad’s shutter clicked, I liked how I could take in the details of a still image at my own pace. Perhaps Ahna’s wondering about the miscarriage, Hayden’s fascination with female plumbing, and Jackson’s need to know, “Is it true?” came from the ability to absorb some of the complexity of our bodies, our babies, our births, through a picture.