The Why Season
Explaining love, death and everything else to a three-year-old.
Parenting a three-year-old is an invitation to live in a world where meaning has no basement. In the existential spaces of the brain in its fourth year, every explanation can be countered with another question.
Consider a recent conversation between me and my oldest daughter, Libby.
She approaches me as I am puttering around the kitchen, cleaning up from breakfast.
“Mom, can I lick your phone?” she asks, curious and without a hint of irony.
“No,” I respond.
I reply, “Because it’s not very good for the phone, or for you for that matter.”
My attention has now turned entirely from the dishes to a deep-dive of questions I have truly never before investigated. “Because you could break the phone, and it’s got germs on it.”
“What are germs?”
I grope for an answer. “Little bad things that make you sick.”
Libby is horrified. “Like monsters?”
“No, baby, not like monsters. Like…” I search my brain for a way to explain infectious disease in preschooler-ese. “Like poison dirt.” This, I realize immediately, is hopelessly inept as well as inaccurately terrifying, but she gives me a pass.
“Okay,” she shrugs, and sashays out of the kitchen, leaving the phone — for today at least — un-licked.
Later that afternoon, I am at the park with Libby and her little sister Maris, when I notice something has gone awry.
“Libby, put your pants back on,” I say, as calmly as I can.
“Why?” comes the not-at-all-surprising response.
“Because it’s not okay to show your vagina to the whole world.”
“Because vaginas are private things.”
“They just are,” I say, again acutely aware of the inadequacy of this response, and yet overcome with a visceral wash of relief when she tugs her clothes back on and heads for the swings.
Too often these days I find myself in a position such as this, wondering how exactly I got here and where here is: am I trying to teach my child sex-ed or modesty? How far do I take this? At what point does impatience outweigh duty? Endless query is taking a toll on my overtired brain cells, as well becoming inordinately time consuming.
Nevertheless, I know that her questions can’t be ignored. Teaching this child to live successfully in the world is my job, no matter how difficult it may be. I am the obvious person to educate her about the ins and outs of the paltry (what not to lick) to the paramount (vagina management).
The parameters of my parenting responsibilities are heavy on my mind as I anticipate Wunk Day, as it is known in our household: the day our first baby was born and died. Wunk is shorthand for wunka wunka: the sound of his fetal heartbeat right up until the end. But the weird word isn’t the problem. How will I explain to this inquisitive child that she had a brother who met his demise before she was born and is buried in the ground on the other side of town?
She’s been to his grave before. Every year since she was born, in fact. But it is this year — the year of reason — when I think she’ll get it. I don’t want to overdo it, but I am committed to telling her the truth. And, I am obsessing about it. What details are important? What can she handle? What will she ask? How will I answer?
The night before Wunk Day, my husband circumvents my over-thinking by simply telling Libby during bedtime stories that tomorrow we’ll be going to visit her brother at the cemetery, on his birthday.
She’s curious, he reports back to me. Nothing more.
Still, I worry. Libby has a little sister now; she knows “baby.” She’s experienced the leave-taking of her first goldfish; she knows “death.” But I am sure she has no ideas of “cemetery.”
This is confirmed the next morning as we select objects to leave at the grave. Libby chooses a shell and a rock and announces, “I can’t wait to go the party!”
“But we’re not going to a party, sweetheart,” I begin tentatively. “We’re going to the cemetery.”
I remember my vow for honesty and dive in. “Before you were born, there was another baby, and today is his birthday. The cemetery is where he lives. Well, not lives exactly, but it’s where he stays.” I stop short in this murky territory.
“But will we get cake?” I smile, confused — then realize: Birthday. She’s got this much figured out — birthdays come with cake.
“No, baby. It’s not a party, it’s just a saying hi. It’s a thing we do as a family every year.” She seems satisfied with this, so we all four pile in the car.
At the cemetery she grabs a fistful of flowers, leaps from the car and says, “I am going to give these to what’s-his-name. Where is he?”
I simply lead her to the grave and read his name from the stone marker: W.W. Findling. She places her mementos on the flat surface and states matter-of-factly, “He’s not here because he died.”
She runs around looking at the other baby graves: at the flowers and bears and whirligigs that adorn them. She is happy and playful. Her delightfully oblivious little sister, age one plus a few months, waddles around after her. My husband and I exchange bittersweet smiles. I give up explaining, at least for today. She gets the gist of it, and the rest is too sad.
The next day, our return to the land of existential investigation feels like a relief. Libby seems to have forgotten about the confusing matter of her dead brother, coming back to that which has greater impact on her daily life.
“Libby, don’t shake that tree.”
“Because trees are our friends.”
“Because they give us shade, and help us breathe.”
“They…umm…take bad air and turn it into good air.”
And so our inquiring life continues, beginning with an explanation of photosynthesis.
Mother’s Day falls just six days after Wunk Day. Libby’s little sister wakes us all at dawn. I don’t mind. I take both daughters into my bed, wrap my arms around their small bodies. “All of my babies, right here with me,” I murmur.
We are peaceful for a moment, and then Libby asks doubtfully, “But what about the other one?”
I look at my beautiful, curious child and realize that with all of the explaining I’ve done lately, there is something I missed.
“No, he’s not here, you are right. But you are enough. You and Maris are absolutely enough.”
I give her a hug and remember that as much as I am her teacher, she is also mine. Today, she has taught me that as a mother, you don’t have to have answers for everything. You only have to explain what matters most.