An extract from A COTSWOLD FAMILY LIFE, a memoir from bestselling novelist Clare Mackintosh, charting the ups and downs of family life in the countryside. Published in hardback on 28th February 2019.
I have never lied to my children about the big things in life: birth, death, the birds and the bees. As a result, they are terrifyingly matter-of-fact about them. A favourite game when they were younger involved one child lying underneath a rug in the playroom, while the other two knelt solemnly on either side.
‘What are you playing?’ an unwitting visitor once asked them.
‘Graveyards,’ came the cheery response. ‘Get out now, George, it’s my turn in the coffin.’
I’ve always worked on the basis that if they’re old enough to ask about something they’re old enough to know, and so when Josh asked how babies got out of their mummies’ tummies (a far easier question to answer than how they got in there) I told him. His eyes widened, and he giggled a bit, but he seemed to take it on the chin and didn’t have nightmares that night. I mentioned that it might be wise not to talk about it with the other three- and four-year-olds at pre-school, whose parents might not yet have told them the gory details of childbirth, and he promised he wouldn’t.
Josh was true to his word, although I should have perhaps included adults in my warning, because it was in the supermarket a few weeks later that he decided to impart his knowledge.
‘I came out of Mummy’s vagina,’ he said to the checkout girl conversationally. She blanched a little. Everything suddenly went rather quiet. The man in the queue behind us coughed.
Clearly not content with the reaction of his audience, Josh decided to add a little more detail to the picture. ‘It stretched THIS BIG!’ he said, holding out his arms as wide as he could. I grew rather hot and pretended to be fascinated by the contents of my purse.
Perhaps Josh picked up on my distress. Perhaps he is a natural gentleman. Perhaps he caught the alarmed expression of the man behind us, who wasn’t quite sure where to put his courgette. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, he clearly felt it necessary to redress the balance and defend my honour, because he leaned forward to his now-enraptured audience.
‘Don’t worry,’ he stage-whispered, ‘it stretched back.’
Controversially among my peers, we have always opted for accurate gynaecological terms in our house. A penis is a penis, after all, not a todger, a winkie or a John Thomas. And a vagina is a vagina, not a twinkle, a Mary or a front bottom. While I confess to flirting with some alternatives to penis (I find willies fairly acceptable) I have failed to identify a female version that doesn’t make me cringe. I’m not sitting in a doctor’s surgery discussing frou-frous and minkys, and surely keeping tuppence in your pants is just asking for trouble. I didn’t want to ruin bedtime stories by labelling them fairies, and there was a whole range of words to which I wouldn’t even give house room: I don’t mean to be a snob, but no daughter of mine was ever going to have a fanny …
Last week one of the children (I shall preserve their anonymity on this occasion, for reasons which will become clear) returned from school a little downcast, having been told off for using the word penis.
‘We have to say privates instead,’ the others said, confirming a school rule which appeared to ban the use of body-part terminology.
‘How ridiculous!’ I exploded. ‘There is absolutely nothing rude about the correct use of an anatomical term, and to consider it so is symptomatic of a sexually repressed nation. I will not have my children criticised simply for being articulate and mature.’ I finally took a breath and began composing a letter of complaint in my head. ‘Why were you talking about penises, anyway?’ I said, wanting to get my facts straight before I started writing. ‘What was it you said?’
There was a long pause and an exchange of looks, and I felt a familiar sense of misgiving.
‘“You penis head”,’ came the response.
‘Ah,’ I said, mentally screwing up my letter. ‘Yes, that is rather rude.’
A COTSWOLD FAMILY LIFE is available for pre-order from Amazon, Waterstones and independent retailers. Signed copies are available here.