I never saw it coming. Then again, I didn't grow up with pets.
I bought Ethan, now 7 years old, and Estee, now 5, a guinea pig when their dad deployed last summer, and this month we acquired a second guinea pig, a surprise birthday gift from a family friend.
One of the neighbors, a slightly older boy named Sam, was playing at our house when the new rodent made her debut. I wasn't in the room at the time, but found out later that he proclaimed that guinea pig babies would be in our future; to help matters along, he instructed the kids to place the female in the same cage as the male.
Ethan was puzzled by this announcement. Because of my husband's frequent and lengthy absences, many milestone father-son moments — like the sex talk — seem to pass us by or occur late. This is common for many military families, and not just regarding the birds and the bees. One friend hired a baseball coach for her son, because her husband was away for so long she worried that the little boy would fall behind his pals who practice with their dads for weekly games. One Army officer returned from back-to-back deployments to discover that his young son delicately wipes his penis after going to the bathroom due to diligent potty training by mom and older sisters.
I hadn't given any thought to the sex talk. I assumed it would happen at some convenient, appropriate time in the future, long after my husband returned. Ethan had been perfectly happy with my explanation that a Mommy and Daddy's "magic hug" results in a newborn. I lifted the "magic hug" from a child-rearing book, and it seemed fine until the instant Sam moved us closer to the facts of life.
"Mom, Sam told me a horrible lie," Ethan said, angrily, after his buddy walked out the door.
"What was it?" I asked.
Ethan hesitated, looked momentarily sheepish, but barreled ahead.
"It's a big one. He said that the boy guinea pig puts his penis in the girl guinea pig's vagina to make babies. Can you believe he would say that?"
I looked at both kids. I suddenly realized that I had read about the "magic hug" when the kids were only 4 and 2. Scott and I hadn't had any discussion since then about how to explain reproduction, and when he deployed last summer for 12 months in Iraq, it was the last thing on my mind.
Ethan and Estee just stared at me, waiting. The room was quiet. I knew it was an important moment; I just had no idea what to say. I took a deep breath.
"Yep, he's right," I nodded. "That's how babies get made, all babies, animals and humans." I muddled through an abbreviated explanation about sperm and eggs, matter-of-fact and forthright. I don't have a problem with the truth; I just didn't know I'd be sharing it, by myself, on that particular Sunday.
Estee resumed playing with her toys. She seemed completely uninterested. But Ethan was stunned, speechless. He asked me to repeat it, so I did.
"You and Dad had to do that two times?" he yelled.
"That's how babies get made," I repeated, trying to shift the conversation from the specific to the general.
"Aren't you embarrassed?" he asked.
"When a man and a woman love each other, it's what they do, and there's nothing to be embarrassed about," I said. He calmed down. The conversation smoothed out. I was starting to feel like SuperSingleMom, able to leap unexpected questions in a single explanation. After all, I had tackled the topic of gay relationships the previous week, prompted by front-page photos in the Washington Post of men kissing men. (D.C. recently legalized same-sex marriage.) That went well, too.
"Mom, can I do it to you?" Ethan suddenly asked.
"No!" I said, horrified.
"Can I do it to Estee?"
"But I love you."
The ground beneath my feet seemed to shift again. I decided to take a hard-line approach. "Only a Mommy and a Daddy can do it when they're married, because they love each other."
Now Estee looked up, interested. "Can you do it if you hate the person?" she wanted to know.
It was my turn to be speechless. The Earthquake of Sexual Misunderstanding, sure to crater my children's emotional terra firma forever, seemed just seconds away. And I was on my own.
But there's one thing I have experience doing myself: talking about deployment with the children. And as it happens, talking to your kids about sex is a lot like talking to them about deployment. What you say matters less, almost, than how you say it. As long as the children sense that you're not overly emotional, or stressed out, or angry, they'll probably do all right. I spent many years trying to figure this out. Finally, I began to see that Ethan and Estee take their cues from me during Scott's absences. If I cry, they cry; the moment they tap into my weakness, they fall apart.
So, with this in mind, I straightened up and resumed the conversation. Reducing the discussion to clinical terms and details soon caused the kids to lose interest. We soon moved on to another topic.
It struck me as funny, and appropriate, that preparing for deployment readied me for one of the most unexpected things I had to do alone because of that deployment. It was very military spouse-ish, very you're-stronger-than-you-think-you-are. I don't have many moments like that. Usually, I'm counting my failures and cursing my inadequacies, begging for mercy.
This time, I found myself pleading for only one thing: birthday or not, no more pets.
Alison Buckholtz is the author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War.