I no longer have a baby: I have a child. How do I know? She has started to ask the tough questions. I officially entered a new zone of parenthood the moment I heard the words, “Mama, are we all going to die someday?”

I’m a fairly relaxed mom. But my closer-to-three-than-four-year-old asking me about death threw me into a tizzy. Had I exposed her to a concept that she was developmentally unprepared for? Was this the gateway to a scar for life?

It was evening, and we were in the throes of the bedtime routine. My three-year-old was innocuously brushing her teeth when she delivered the sentence. My heart began to thunder in my chest. I’d recently read Charlotte’s Web to her, and she’d been sad when Charlotte the spider had died. And earlier that week I had shown her the movie Babe, having read on a mommy blog somewhere that it was a good choice for preschoolers. Somehow it neglected to mention the mauling death of a sheep by wild dogs.

MothershipI’m a fairly relaxed mom. But my closer-to-three-than-four-year-old asking me about death threw me into a tizzy. Had I exposed her to a concept that she was developmentally unprepared for? Was this the gateway to a scar for life?

As her mouth foamed with toothpaste, I felt my own go dry under the pressure of providing an appropriate answer, which turned out to be, “Not for a long, long, long time,” delivered in the light yet overly animated tone of a children’s performer.

Her response: “But when do we die?”

Eek! A minefield littered with dangerous phrases like “sometimes people get sick” (could give her a fear every time she gets a cold) and “people fall asleep and don’t wake up” (could make her think that death was a possibility every time she went to bed) lay before me. I hesitated for just a moment, but then charged forward. “When we’re done with our lives!” I blurted out, my voice still at an unnaturally high pitch.

Then: “But I don’t want to die! I’m afraid to die!”

Inside me, an operatic voice crescendoed. I felt like Sigourney Weaver in Alien, anxiously clutching my flamethrower, as I faced this mother of all mothers’ fears. How could my baby be worrying about something like this?

I said, “Oh, sweetie, you don’t have to worry about that. You won’t die until you are a really old, old, old lady.”

“But I don’t want to die when I’m an old lady!”

I stuttered something along the lines of death not coming to her until she was ready. Even though she seemed okay with my answer and went to sleep immediately, all evening I felt like Sigourney, running down metal corridors, dirt smudged all over my face, while a disembodied woman’s voice chanted, “Zone Five will detonate in thirty-two seconds…”

As we talked, [my mother] said, “I always heard that you should answer each question from a child honestly, but provide no additional information. That way you know you are delivering only what they are ready to hear.”

In going over the night’s events with my husband, a glass of wine clutched in my hand, I found myself talking about my mother and her notion that no topic was too intimidating to be discussed in my youth. I called her up immediately and thanked her for this; it felt great to be able to acknowledge her for this tremendous gift.

As we talked, she said, “I always heard that you should answer each question from a child honestly, but provide no additional information. That way you know you are delivering only what they are ready to hear.” Then she shared the disappointment she’d felt when, at five years old, I had asked her point-blank whether Santa Claus was real (some older kids had clued me in). We laughed as she brought up how shocked she had been when my sister began to ask probing questions about sex when she was in the second grade. True to her philosophy, my mother answered each question, offering no more, thinking they would segue off the topic. But my sister relentlessly pursued it, until the final question: “Well, if it feels so good, why doesn’t everybody do it all the time?” My mother answered, “Because…people get tired!”

That’s when the Rewire Me moment hit: maybe my Alien metaphor wasn’t too far off the mark. The place where I have been (nurturing a baby, taking care of her basic needs, helping her meet developmental milestones) has detonated; I am in a new zone. Going forward, my job as a parent will be to steward my child through the gradual learning about all that is complicated and horrible about the world in an unflinching, loving, and brave way. I may never be able to blast her fears into space through the airlock, but I should never underestimate the power of communication as a tool to combat them.

Read about Wendy Herlich.

2 Comments

  • Allen Ames
    Posted May 9, 2013 11:18 am 0Likes

    Beautifully and succinctly written! Another step is to answer a question with another question until you are really sure what is being asked and, maybe, even pull the answer out of the child. Ask your parents about “The Inquiry Method”. If you are not afraid, you should not be a parent!

  • Sarah Arbess
    Posted May 9, 2013 8:41 pm 0Likes

    excellent. I can really relate, only my kids are 15 and 16 and it only gets tougher.

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