Another ordinary day. Another two-hour trip in the car. Time to play Stump Your Mother.
“Mom? Where did the first babies come from, I mean, before anybody was here?” Her voice is faint amid the roar of the traffic. Did she just ask what I think she asked? Did my 4-year-old daughter just pose the metaphysical question between exits 8 and 7A on the NJ Turnpike.?
“Are you asking where did we come from, like how the first people got here?”
“Yes!” her eyes are round and eager, waiting for my response.
What I wish I had said: “What do you think?” A golden opportunity to hear her unbiased, relatively clean-slate thoughts, gone.
What I did say: “Big bang…blah, blah, blah…matter and energy expanding….blah, blah, blah…gravity...blah blah blah…formation of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans…blah, blah, blah….single-celled organisms…blah, blah, blah…evolution….”
I bumbled and fumbled my way through our prevailing scientific theory, speaking over her head, saying too much, doing my best to satiate her curiosity. She was rapt, despite my convoluted tale. And each bit of explanation begat several more questions:
“Why aren’t there any more dinosaurs?”
“When was I a monkey?”
I finally said, “maybe we should go look for a book about this at the library.”
Saved by the library.
Or so I thought. Turns out there aren’t a lot of books on how it all began at least not picture books. Much of what I found was far too sophisticated for a four-and-three quarters-year-old.
Of course, the next day she asked again.
“Mommy, please tell me the story about the big bang and how our planet was born.”
This time, I decided to put another spin on it. “In the beginning, all matter—everything that exists was one. I like to think of this as God.”
“What’s God?” I asked for this one.
“Hmmmm. Well, I think God is the perfect in every living thing. In me. In you. In that tree over there.” I pointed out the window. “When the Big Bang happened and matter started expanding in all directions, God—the perfect—was in everything.”
“Oh,” she smiles and looks deeply satisfied with this. I continue, repeating a somewhat simplified version of my earlier attempt to answer her question.
I also suggested that she ask her father.
Saturday morning, after breakfast, Sophie does just that: “Daddy,” she says as I’m clearing the plates and he’s doing a crossword. “Tell me the story of how the world and people began.”
I forgot to warn Kevin.
I smiled at him bemused. “I’ve taken a shot at it. Twice,” I told him. “Your turn.”
He recovered rather quickly, as Kevin relishes these meaty questions. He began with the Big Bang and Sophie interrupted him.
“What about God?” she asked him.
“God?” He looked at me for help. But, Sophie was already there. “In the beginning there was just God. God was everything.”
“Okay,” Kevin ran with it, “In the beginning there was just God. Then, all matter began expanding from this one tiny point to form the universe….” I felt grateful that Kevin did not dispute this. He went on to give a detailed explanation that was pitched directly at her level of understanding, complete with multimedia and little details that I, who had actually studied biology at one point, did not know. He provided a rationale for the saltiness of our blood. He called up pictures of Homo Erectus on his iPad. Sophie was fascinated. And even if she wasn’t getting it entirely, her curiosity was stoked.
Sunday, after bagels she asked, “Daddy, can I see Homo Erectus again?”
I was back at the sink, scraping bits of lox off of plates. “Look, Mommy,” Sophie insisted, thrusting the iPad in front of me. “This is Homo Erectus. They came before us.” She turned back to her father. “Were the Indians here with Homo Erectus?”
Is there any way to be prepared for the difficult questions? They come without warning, inexplicably out of nothing, like our own existence. My responses feel thin—a little of what I believe, a little of what I want her to believe. A lot of uncertainty. I feel her great trust, her absolute belief in whatever it is that I have to offer. I am aware of my awesome responsibility. These early conversations, I know, will shape her beliefs and biases for the rest of her life.