“Mom, why are there so many people in New Jersey who speak Spanish? Why do so many of them have black hair or white hair?”
My 6 year old asks this after an exhausting 4.5 hour drive in torrential downpours. I have a mild headache. I have to pee. My youngest won’t stop asking if we’re there yet. I need food and a nap. My parents, who we’re visiting, are asking a hundred and one questions when all I’m trying to tell them is I’m almost there.
A few minutes later, having moved only a few feet in traffic, she ponders out loud, “Why do some people have dots on their heads?”
Nothing has changed from moments before but my mom radar alerts me this is one of those moments when I need to step up to the plate. While I’m experiencing frustration and exhaustion, my daughter’s having a moment full of wonder and curiosity. Her questions require me to set aside my own needs and focus on acknowledging and nurturing her hunger to understand the world around her.
I tackle the first question. I explain how many people have immigrated here from other countries, some of those being Spanish speaking. I define what it means to immigrate. I ask her to tell me why someone might choose New Jersey or any place for that matter . We brainstorm answers – family, work, dreams, opportunity, just because. I explain how communities form, like drawn to like, feels like home.
She reminds me, “And the dots on the head?”
I begin to dig a hole bigger than I can climb out of. My initial response, “Many people wear them because it’s meaningful in their religion.” Which turns into, “What’s religion?”
Religion, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christmas, Jesus, death, reincarnation, heaven, God, good people, kindness – I hear these words shooting out of my mouth and confuse myself as much as I do her. The voices in my throbbing head issue reminders about raising daughters who embrace and advocate for all the world’s people. My common sense nags me to be careful not to incorrectly describe the tenants of each religion. My memory is thumbing through the files of my freshman religions of the world notes. I’m getting caught up in my head and the question and my answer are getting a bit blurry.
I stop talking. I breathe and think of the best analogy. I tell her religion helps people see the world in a unique way. Religion is like binoculars that let you see in specific colors. Red binoculars let you see in red. Blue ones, in blue, etc. Even though they each look at the same thing the view is different. And while each is different, they’re all rooted in inspiring people to do good in the world. Completely oversimplified but my daughter is satisfied for the moment.
We agree to Google more later and make a trip to the library. I may not have nailed any nails on the head with my answers but I gave her food for thought. I reminded her I will always listen to her and do my best to help her figure out the answers. I will always be her ally in making sense of this world.
Her inquisitiveness reminded me of my daughters’ deep inner life. The inner life my little women, and all children, are constantly cultivating while riding in the back seat, holding my hand walking down the street, staring into space when I’m rushing to check off my to do list. Every seemingly mundane detail in a day is up for grabs for my young curators. And I am guilty of sometimes forgetting to pause and slow down to honor my daughters’ very important work of discovering. It’s easy to let the important questions slip through the cracks when they fall so easily disguised with the other whiny questions of the day.
As a child myself, I remember more clearly than I recall what I ate yesterday, the swirling and sweeping intensity of my own inner world taking shape. Light bulb moments, frantic curiosity, all consuming fascination, bursting emotions, a world within a world. In those moments, I recall reaching out to the grown-ups in my life and being most often met with a friendly, unintentional brush off or a half listening reply. Sure there were also plenty of times my grown-ups took the time to answer me in earnest but those other moments held a valuable lesson as well. It was those interactions that solidified for me the huge divide between children and adults. I could see and they could not. And here I am, working hard everyday for vision that once came so easily.
Now as a mom I see each of my daughters piecing together their own world within a world. I want nothing more than for my girls to have a rich inner life from which to draw self-knowledge, self-love and that unshakeable thirst for life that makes the journey always so fascinating and worthwhile. So they’re questioning and probing and silence, all of it, is a gift to me, reassurance, comfort.
So, when a question has a different tone or when their eyes more than their voices ask the question or the silence or stare into space weighs heavier than usual, I step up to the plate. Despite my grumpy mood or explosive migraine or agenda for the day, their wonder trumps all. It doesn’t mean I’m Fred Rogers with each and every single one of their questions. I am human after all. But when the wind changes direction, I try damn hard to notice. I step up to the plate with the best I’ve got. And more than just a Q & A tennis match, I give them my inner life. I let them witness self-care. I verbalize (age appropriately) the things with which I struggle. I verbalize the things that make my spirit soar. I draw attention to the intangible riches in life, how to find them, share them, celebrate them. I pour into them words to fill them up, to set their souls a flight.
And as time goes on, I hope they’ll find in me a kindred spirit. Find someone to sit and ponder life with, ask the big questions with, sit in silence with, celebrate life with. Heck, in building an inner life and in all things, I hope they find in me someone who knew them once and still, who nurtured them and their wonder and, who after all this time, will always be willing to.
So much of parenthood is a surprise that shouldn’t be surprise, a reminder of our own journey. I’d almost forgotten about those backseat meaning of life questions I used to ask. But they remind me and I’m grateful for that. I’d love to know two things – First, do you remember your own inner life taking shape? And then, how do you nurture your own child’s inner life?