Popping the question

When he was four, he wanted to know if my mother was dead.  I told him she was.

When he was four and two months, he wanted to know what she died of.  I told him that she got sick and her lungs stopped working.

When he was four and two months and one day, he wanted to know how old I had been.  I told him two.

When he was five, he wanted to know about my father.  I told him he lived far away.  But then he wanted to know about my stepmother, and eventually, after the questions became more and more probing, I told him the truth.  She wasn’t very nice to me.

“Why wasn’t she nice to you?”

“I guess she didn’t like me very much.”

“But why didn’t she like you very much?”

“I don’t know, sweetie.  I don’t know why someone wouldn’t like a child.”

He wants to know more about what she did, I think.  He doesn’t have the words to ask because he doesn’t even know the word “abuse.”  It is all so vague for him, and it’s hard for me to figure out what’s going on in that little head.

I sure as hell don’t want to tell him more than he’s asking.  He’s not asking to know that she beat me.  He shouldn’t even know that she hit me.  He’ll have sixty or seventy years of his life to understand the specifics of what happened to me as a kid; right now, it’s not necessary for him to know I slept naked on the hallway floor and ate my own vomit.

But I also don’t want to tell him less than he’s asking.  Kids left to figure shit out for themselves can imagine some pretty horrible stuff, although I guess he can’t imagine much that’s worse than what actually happened to me.  So, I wait for the questions and field them as they come.

Except when I don’t know the answer.

Because there is one question I’ve struggled with for years.  The same question that grown men ask me every single time they hear my story.  The question Zachary asked me the other day.

“Why didn’t your father help you?”

Why didn’t my father help me?  Why, indeed.  There are a couple of ways to go about answering this one, but “because he’s a narcissistic asshole” doesn’t really answer the question.  Plus, then I’d have to define narcissistic and asshole.

Instead, I went with, “I don’t really know.  I think maybe he just didn’t care that much.”

This threw Zach for a loop.  Having no experience with stepmothers, he can accept that some are bad.  But he has experiences with fathers.  In his experience, fathers care very much.

My husband thinks I answered wrong.  And maybe I did.  Unfortunately, my husband does not have any suggestions for better answers.  I think that’s because there aren’t any better answers.

How do I answer a four-year-old who wants to know why the woman on the cover of Time magazine has her nose cut off?  I mean, other than to wonder why the hell the grocery store put the magazine at precisely four-year-old height.    How do I answer when my children want to know about war and genocide and mental illness and homelessness?  I answer as honestly as I can, trying to help them understand there are injustices in the world that they can help to right.

But, when my almost-six-year-old wants to know why a father stands by and allows his children to brutalized, why my father did that, well, I just don’t know what to say.

25 responses to “Popping the question

  1. I am wrestling with similar questions right now and have been for a while. A large part of me doesn’t want my kids to know why we don’t see my parents because quite honestly, I know what it was like to grow up with a parent was abused at different points in her life. I never stopped longing to ease her pain, fix her past, or compensate in some way for everything that happened to her. I don’t want to be that person to my children. I try hard to live beyond my past and not allow my life or my kids’ lives to be defined by it in any way. But of course, that’s impossible. The fact is that terrible things did happen, they did destroy my family, and in large measure, it was silence that perpetuated much of it. I don’t want to keep secrets. Like you, I don’t want to leave them wondering. I’ve provided simple but honest explanations. I know it’s not enough. There seems to be a fine line between not enough and too much, though. I haven’t found my footing there yet.

  2. I think you answered him in the best way you possibly could. He is so lucky to have two parents that love him, but not everyone is that lucky. I think you are pretty amazing for not only giving your child perspective, but being able to share your stories with us. And, believe me, there are many more than 12 of us who read you every day!

  3. Kari and I are going through parenting classes (required!) as part of our adoption process. One thing we talk about a lot in there is trying to imagine what the REAL question is. Guessing what a six-year old is thinking is tricky business, but I would imagine one of the things going through his mind might very well be “wait…could that ever happen to me?” A natural enough thought as that idea of “mother” and “father” breaks down. I would begin by reassuring him that his father WOULD help before explaining that not all fathers do.

    At the end of the day, a lot of parenting is about making the best guesses you can. Trust yourself. You know what the wrong answers are, and you’re not going to give him those. I think you’re worrying now about which of the right answers to give.

  4. With the level of consideration you give to the question and the asker, and the care you give to not bias your answers, I don’t think anyone can come up with a better answer. As you say, over time, more will be revealed.

    I really like Devon’s suggestion of including reassurance in the response.

  5. I like Devon’s answer too. I’m just looking to you and the others here and learning. Glad I don’t have to answer these questions…yet.

  6. Devon hit it beautifully. I don’t know if you think it would help to use a phrase like, “I don’t think he/she/they knew how to love people properly”? And then follow up with how strong your own family is, including how he knows how to love.

  7. Waiting for that one question. It’s bound to come some day. Hope I do as well as you have when I answer it.

  8. So many times I find I have to be content with not knowing the right answer for them, and trusting that some day they’ll understand the reasons. Until then, lots of “I don’t know”s and hugs.

  9. Cheeky Monkey

    Oh, man, I don’t know how you answer that question. I would probably bungle it–too much information, too much vitriol, too much threatening to punch the guy in the face. See, Devon probably has it figured, but the harder part, in a way, is dealing with what the question does to *you.*

  10. I have always thought that people who abuse children and/or allow it to happen are broken people, they have to have some sort of mental issue whether diagnosed or not…because to me the normal reaction to seeing a child being abused is absolute horror, and you do something about it….period, end of story. Normal healthy HUMAN BEINGS do NOT tolerate and/or cause abuse! Because I truly believe that, I suppose I would answer the question in that way…. but I think Devon is also right, perhaps he is really wanting reassurances.

  11. I actually don’t think they want reassurances. It is so out of the realm of their experience. My children, now turning 9 and 12, are so sure of our love because that is their experience. It is precisely because of that that they find it so difficult to understand how parents can be abusive, how people can be cruel.

  12. I still don’t know the answer. Parenting is hard. We dance as gracefully as we can.

  13. That is difficult and heartbreaking. I think you gave him the best answers you could for now.

  14. I can offer no guidance, other than I know you will find your way.

  15. You just about stopped my heart with this post.

  16. I don’t either. I have no answers. For you for your son, nor any for my girls.

    I think we tell them the truth, that we really truly don’t know and have no way to explain to them something that we don’t understand. That I understand that they want to know why, but sometimes, there just isn’t any answer that makes sense. I tell my kids, I can’t always explain to you something that someone else did, just the things that I do. It’s a hard one, because as parents we want to explain to them…but you can’t explain something that you don’t understand yourself.

    I always reassure mine that I am the mother I am, because of my upbringing. That I will always protect them. I think that is what they need to hear at the ages they are. That the way I choose to be, that the way any of us are as adults is a choice. I choose to make my kids my priority. I choose everyday to love them, to care for them, to make sure they turn out to be great adults. I choose before they were born to do 100% better than my parents. Am I going to be able to do that? No, probably not. But I know my kids are living a completely different life than I did.

    I also hope everyday that the damage I am inadvertently doing to them is minimal. It’s my greatest hope in life.

    And hugs darling.

  17. Hmmm. Does this one apply? “Because sometimes it’s easier for grown-ups to not believe a child then it is to believe that another grown-up can do horrible things.”

    What a smart, sensitive kid.

    Also? I’m wondering. While some details have no need for him knowing, maybe it is okay to share some? I’m just wondering if his imagination about what happened to you may be harder for him to handle than whatever truth you tell him. I’m certainly no expert here, just thinking about how sensitive and thoughtful he is. Awesome kid.

  18. i’ve fielded this — well, not this, not exactly — from my kids with respect to their grandmother, my mother, along the lines of, “why was she so mean, to you, to us, to everyone?”

    what i’ve done is turn the question on its head. reply, “she never felt loved, and she didn’t know how to love.” and add, “isn’t that sad? that someone can feel so empty inside that he/she can’t love?”

    because i think that if they feel pity for her, they can move away from feeling hurt by her. pitying her reduces her power.

    i agree with devon. when kids ask questions like this, they’re really seeking reassurance — that such a thing could never happen to them, that they will be loved “in spite of.” because kids are by nature self-referential.

  19. You could tell him that he is very lucky to have a father who will protect him always. That although most fathers he knows are like that too, not all fathers are good ones. He can always count on his Dad to love and care for him because you chose a husband who would treat your children only kindly. Just my suggestion.

  20. I don’t think you answered that wrong. I don’t know, however, if there is a “right” answer to that question. If you were able to come up with a “right” answer it would almost seem to imply that there was some reason or logic behind your father’s actions (or inaction.) What happened to you makes no sense . It hurts my head trying to figure it out. I can only imagine how it must be for son to try to wrap his brain around it. You’ll never be able to give a good explanation for it because there is no *good* explanation. I think you’re doing the right thing by answering him honestly and not overwhelming him with too much graphic detail.

    As always, you amaze me in so many ways.

  21. There really is nothing good to say, I think you are right about that. Because child abuse is something that is baffling to me as an adult, too.

    It is so hard to walk the line between ‘enough’ information and ‘too much’ information. In fact, I think it’s impossible to get it right all the time. I try to trust that as long as I try my sincere best, that it will be OK.

  22. I imagine that your Zach is afraid and desperate for a concrete answer so he can know what not to do. “I don’t know,” rings true to me, but I’m sure it’s unsatisfying for him – and you.

  23. There’s no “right” answer to a question that should never have to be asked.

  24. This is so hard. Sigh.

  25. I really value your question Emily, and I am trying to formulate an answer. I’ll give it a little more time and thought before I put it up here.