“Mommy, can I ask you a question?” my 6-year-old daughter, Maya, pipes up from the back seat after a delightfully long silence on the way back from a recent camping trip.
I check to make sure her 3-year-old brother is still napping (he is) and watch through the rearview mirror as my daughter marks her place in the book she was reading, the latest in the Junie B Jones series. I sense a Big Question is on the way.
That line from Ed Sheeran’s song, “Castle on the Hill” suddenly feels enormous and weighty and replays in my mind:“…And I’m on my way, I still remember/ These old country lanes/ When we did not know the answers.”
Oh, how I long for the days when I didn’t need to know all the answers!
In the mirror, I see her tiny freckled nose scrunched up in obvious concern. “If something happened to you and Daddy, where would me and Benny go?”
“What made you think of that?” I ask cautiously, gripping the steering wheel a smidge tighter. One of my best friends, Rachel, died suddenly two years ago during a routine medical procedure. Maya had worried then about what would happen to her son–and I told her he would still live with Rachel’s husband, the little boy’s daddy. Since Rachel’s death, Maya has been preoccupied with death and dying. The questions come fast and furious – and I often feel like ill-equipped to handle them.
Her gaze turns pensive. “I was just wondering. So where would we go, Mommy?”
“Well, we hope that something would never happen to Mommy and Daddy at the same time. But if something did happen, you’d stay with Gamama and Pop,” I tell her, referring to my parents who live in New Jersey, trying to put the unthinkable into age-appropriate terms.
“OK, but how would they get here? How fast could they get here? Would they drive? That would take way too long!”
“Oh honey, they’d be here right away! They’d get on an airplane and come straight to Michigan.”
“But how would they know something happened to you and Daddy?” she persisted.
Let’s be honest: No parent wants to think about these things, period, but we all need to have a plan in place. It wasn’t the most romantic thing my husband and I have done in our 11 years of marriage, but writing up our wills after our second child was born was part of being responsible parents.
Though my daughter’s question was a good one, I was not ready to discuss wills and guardianship with a 6-year-old. Telling her she’d be with her grandparents was the best I could do. So I effectively changed the topic, telling her I needed to pull over for a bathroom break, and pulling off the highway at the next exit.
Fortunately Maya didn’t bring it up again once we got back into the car, but our chat was emblematic of how motherhood can render us completely inept. Our kids have a gentle way of reminding us that we, like a young Ed Sheeran, simply don’t have all the answers.
While I don’t believe in shielding my kids from the sad and scary realities of life, I don’t want them to live in fear of the unknown, either. And that’s why I’ve found motherhood to be a delicate balance between giving our kids age-appropriate answers and information — especially around issues of life and death — and glossing over some of the stuff that’s still too complicated for them to grasp.
Exhibit A: My house fire. I toe the line with this one constantly. I have a stuffed blue octopus named Octy that still–at 38–is my most prized (non-human) possession. My kids know why he is so special; they know my dad rescued Octy when my house caught fire when I was 8 years old.
They rehash what happened, repeat back to me my own version of the tragedy–from my dad opening the door yelling “FIRE!” to Octy going for several spins in my best friend’s washing machine. But then they start asking questions.
“What happened to all your toys, Mommy?” We lost them, sweetie. But we got new ones. And remember, Pop rescued Octy—he was my most-special lovey.
“Where did you live, Mommy?” We lived in a condo while our house was being fixed for us. And Gamama and Pop still live in that same house – it just looks a lot different than before the fire.
“Could our house catch fire?” Well, it could but that’s why we try to do things to make sure that doesn’t happen. That’s why Mommy always asks Daddy to check if her curling iron is off, why we blow out candles, why we don’t leave the stove on after we’re done cooking, why we turn off things when we aren’t using them. But sometimes accidents happen, like what happened to Mommy’s house. But hopefully we’ll never have a fire.
It’s that last question that sticks in my mind because I can’t promise her with 100% certainty that we won’t have a house fire. It’s the same with all her big questions about sickness, death and dying, and heaven: I’m winging those answers as I go.
“Will I get a disease like Rachel, Mommy?” Oh honey, I hope not! All we can do is take care of our bodies by eating good things and exercising, and hope we don’t get a disease. But we can’t always control that.
“Can I see Rachel again?” No, sadly we can’t see her again. But we can look at pictures of her, and Mommy can tell you stories and we can laugh about funny memories. And if you want to feel close to her, you can hug your pink puppy from her, or wear your sparkly pink purse she gave you.”
“Look, Mommy, a cemetery—is that where Rachel is?” (She asks this one every time we pass a cemetery.) No, that’s not where she is. She’s somewhere else.
“Moana’s grandma came back as a stingray, Mommy. What did Rachel come back as? I’m going to come back as a ladybug when I die.” This one slayed me.
All I can turn to to answer these tough questions is my lived experience, intuition, Jewish faith, and the advice I’ve gotten from friends, families, and parenting blogs and websites. That said, I pray I’m not screwing her up by being as honest as possible, by not sugarcoating things like death and tragedy and devastation.
This past week, my daughter, seeing the TV coverage of Hurricane Harvey, worried if a flood could happen here, in Michigan, and my husband and I were honest: Floods can happen anywhere. We just have to be as prepared as possible and stay safe with Mommy and Daddy.
Ultimately, motherhood’s toughest questions and its toughest moments are the ones that make us stronger and better mamas, giving us the confidence to tackle the next big thing our kids are sure to throw our way—be it bullying, body image, fitting in, drinking, drugs, sex, etc. I believe that trusting ourselves to know what each of our children can handle—while forgiving ourselves for inevitable missteps along the way—is one of our most important jobs as mothers.
This post is part of a series supported by MJHS Health System and UJA-Federation of New York
to raise awareness and facilitate conversations about end of life care in a Jewish context.
To learn more about the role of hospice and its value to patients and families click here.