Parenting As Narrating
Every day parents must decide how to tell the story of life to their children.
Are those for Gabe?” Owen asks. He is four, tall, freckled, inquisitive, looking over my shoulder at the computer screen. He sees me perusing car seats, and is curious if they are for his little brother. I stumble around internally, searching my brain for the right mixture of words. “No. You know how our family has everything we need, and even so many things we want? Not all families have that. Mommy gets to help those families get what they need.”
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
He is perplexed but accepts the answer, and I am simultaneously saddened and relieved. He knows now that not all families are able to buy what they need. He has some sort of idea, now, that when Mommy is receiving UPS packages, they are filled with items that others in the community have helped pay for, so that a foster family has a stroller, or a family at risk for children being removed has enough mattresses. He knows, now, that these things do not appear magically, or without effort.
I should feel good about this teachable moment. Maybe I do, a little bit. Mostly, I feel sad, I feel the loss of his innocence. I feel the weight of narrating the story of life to my child, and the fact that the story is often tragic.
For every child loved, a child broken, bagged, sunk in a lake.
We pull into the pharmacy parking lot, our white minivan looping around to the drive-thru lane.
“Why are we here, Mom? Is someone sick?”
“No, I just take some medicine every day.”
Again, the internal stumbling, the search for an answer. “Well, before you were born, I got really sick. The doctors had to take something out of my body, and this medicine helps me since I don’t have that part anymore.”
“Oh. What was the sickness called?”
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine.
“Cancer, buddy. It was called ‘cancer.’”
“Is cancer like . . . a big germ?”
I take the out he’s offering to me. I say that yes, it’s like a big germ, which I suppose is not a horrible way for a preschooler to understand a tumor. He is satisfied and we turn up the Hamilton soundtrack. It has been just long enough for me to taste the comfort of the familiar when he says, “These songs are all about Alexander Hamilton. Is Alexander Hamilton still alive?”
“No, buddy, he’s not. He died a long time ago.”
“Oh. Did he die from cancer?”
Life is at least fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative estimate.
“What did he die from?”
My fingers are wrapped tightly around the steering wheel. The intersection is crowded and confused by construction; it is hot; it is lunchtime; a nearly-five-year-old is asking me about death from the backseat while his two-year-old brother looks at books. I am entirely unsure what to do, and inexplicably decide to go for it.
“He was killed by someone else, babe.”
“Like the song ‘Aaron Burr, Sir’? ‘Aaron Burr, Sir’ killed Alexander Hamilton? Why?”
“They were both here when America was just beginning, and they had different ideas about how it should work. And sometimes when people disagree and they can’t figure out how to work together, they let themselves stay angry, and their anger grows in their hearts. And sometimes when people are so full of sin and anger, they do horrible things, like kill other people.”
For every stranger, there is one who would break you.
“How did he kill him?”
No, I think. Not this question. Just the evening before I had recorded a podcast episode about Philando Castile and Charleena Lyles, had talked about the ways that I am starting to talk about race with my children, frame the story in a way their white skin won’t by default. I do not want to talk about the reality of bullets, of bodies falling to the ground. In spite of my resistance, or because of the drive to overcome it, I tell him the truth.
“He shot him with a gun.”
“But guns aren’t real! The bullets just bounce off!”
“Some guns are real, buddy.”
He is singing another song now. The moment has passed, at least for him.
Every day, sometimes every hour, parents must decide how to tell the story of life to their children, how much fact and how much vagueness, how much detail and how much hope that they will be satisfied with a simple answer. Children watch the ways of life unfold and tell us what they see, ask for what it means. We build a world with our words, our responses, our perspectives, setting the plot points, establishing the timeline.
We wonder if we should tell a cautionary tale or a fairy tale with an ever happy ending, if we should point them to the rainbow and guide them to the pot of gold at the end each time, or if some stories are merely storms. And all we can do is remind ourselves that while we are the narrators, we are characters too, and we can hold an umbrella over our children’s heads even as the rains fall, even as they are not entirely kept from the chaos.
As a white, middle-class mom, I have a great deal of choice in how I narrate the story of life for my children, at least when it comes to issues of race and economics. I can tell my boys that police officers are always safe, and it will probably be true for them. I can tell them that their immediate and extended family represents a range of higher education degrees, flourishing careers, and peaceful homes. And, sometimes, I do.
There are moments when joy is the true heart of the story their life is telling, and when it is my delight to narrate it with cheer. Some days are truly wonderful, some friendships truly harmonious, some experiences truly enthralling. Though they cannot be every minute of the day, I want these moments for my children. I cherish them.
I am trying to sell them the world.
But when the shadowy side of reality looms over them, when we drive past the hospital where Owen knows his great-grandfather died, when a child on the playground stares at Gabriel’s leg braces, when a friend moves away, I make space in the story for sadness, show them that the pages can absorb their tears, their questions, their pain. I let myself stumble for the words, show them that perfect responses are not the goal, are not reality.
And when the moment is right, I remind them of the Creator, of the One who made a perfect world and will restore it one day. I tell them about the new heavens and the new earth, and that belief in Jesus means we can be part of God’s family right now, eagerly awaiting when all things are made new. I reflect on the fact that one day I will stop narrating the story for them, and it will play out perfectly in the kingdom to come. I tell them, in as age-appropriate language as I can find, that this means our lives here and now, in all their beauty and brutality, that they can be good because God created these lives for us, and he is good, and he is with us.
This place could be beautiful, right?
You could make this place beautiful.
Cover image by London Scout.