When my kids were younger, like say age 2 and 3, and I needed a break from the craziness at home, I used to buckle them into their carseats and go for rides in my Ford Flex. I cranked the music up, not really riding to anywhere in particular, just trying to get them to fall asleep so I could have a few minutes of quiet to think. I know that sounds terrible. Judge me if you want to, it was a coping mechanism for days when I was too tired or overwhelmed to listen to them have tantrums because they were too tired to play, but refused to go to sleep. They usually feel asleep in 5 minutes flat, and then I had the rest of the drive to soak in the music and enjoy my sanity before coming home and laying them down to rest. The back seat was a refuge.
Now, the back seat is something completely different. Benjamin Button and Mary Ann get in the car, request a song or two, and off we go. But usually, instead of me using this time to think, it winds up being their time to think. And then the interrogation begins. There’s something about the back seat that gives them courage. They don’t have to look me in the eye, so they’re not intimidated, and there’s the background hum of the Jeep wheels and music, it must make them feel safe. It does not make me feel safe. It makes me feel like the person on CSI New Orleans who is handcuffed to the table in the interrogation room. I have nowhere to go, they can usually see my facial expressions in the rearview mirror, and I am forced to either lie or find nice ways to put hard answers to even harder questions.
Some of my favorite recent back seat questions have been, “Why did *wouldn’t you like to know* get divorced?” And, “Why don’t girls have willies?” Or how about, “How did you make Mary Ann?” And then there’s the always popular, “Mom, what’s a whore?” You can’t make this stuff up. Being in the back seat of my Jeep makes my children suddenly want to know the answers to every question I never wanted them to ask. It’s like they have a shared super power of zeroing in on the one thing I don’t want to talk about, and making me talk about it.
The other day Benjamin Button pulls a tooth. He is so excited. I say, “Awesome! Now the tooth fairy can come tonight!” He glances over at Mary Ann for a minute, and then he says, “Mom, everyone knows the tooth fairy isn’t real. It’s the parents that give the money. So really you could just hand me my twenty bucks.” Now was one of the times I felt the interrogation was coming. Benjamin hadn’t been in the car when Mary Ann and I discussed the Easter Bunny, so as far as I knew, he was still enjoying his childhood. “Who told you that?” I ask him. “I just figured it out on my own,” he says, “The Easter bunny too. Everyone knows it’s the parents who give the candy.”
At this point my mouth drops. “Who told you that?” I ask again. “I’m not stupid mom,” he says. While my mind is racing and I’m trying to figure out how to get out of this one, he goes a step farther, “Santa too.”
Well this is just too much for me. As I’ve said before, my children have been through a lot of loss in their short lives, and if I can prolong the magic of any childhood belief for any length of time, you can bet I’m going to try to do it. But this catches me completely off guard. I am totally unprepared. “WHO TOLD YOU THAT?” I’m practically gasping. I can’t believe that within the span of just a couple of months my kids have both given up believing in what little magic they had left. “I just figured it out,” he says. Which I don’t believe for a second.
Now it’s time to strategize. Do I deny? Plead the fifth? Try to apologize for bold-face lying to my children for years? I have no idea what to do. “I’m not stupid mom,” he says again, “There’s no way that one man can be everywhere all at once.” I decide to accept defeat. “All you need to know is that all these things mean your dad and I love you and wanted you to have something to look forward to.” He thinks this over and says, “Eh, it’s ok. I still get presents.”
I’m fighting tears at this point. “So he’s not real then, like really he’s not,” Benjamin says. I admit that no, it hasn’t been Santa leaving the gifts, it has been me and Other Half. “Well, that explains why the cookies are always gone but half the milk is still there, Dad hates milk.” Still fighting tears I say, “Really buddy, you’re not in trouble. I just want to know who told you?”
“You did.” He says. I am appalled. “No I didn’t.”
“Yeah, I was just guessing. But now you told me.” I don’t know whether to be impressed by his interrogation skills or angry at myself for falling for them. For just this one more Christmas the magic could’ve been real if I hadn’t been so gullible. I say to him, “I just wanted you to enjoy being a kid and be able to believe in magic for a little while.”
Then Mary Ann pipes up. “Face it mom, our childhoods have been over for a while now.” At this, it’s all I can do not to burst into tears, because of course she’s right. Try was we might to protect our children from the cruel realities of life, we can only do so much. I can’t control when death or pain will come. I can only let them know they are loved in spite of these things. I take a deep breath and stare straight ahead.
“Who’s gonna tell Uncle Jesse he’s not real?” Mary Ann asks. “Not it!” Benjamin immediately squeaks out. Uncle Jesse loves Christmas. He always has 9 (no exaggeration) Christmas trees, and there are hundreds of Santas in his house from Thanksgiving until New Years. Every year, Santa comes to his house in December to hear what the kids want for Christmas and have pictures made. We decide to make the call right then, and Mary Ann breaks the news to him. He admits to them that he already knows. “Well, I guess you could only be fooled so long,” he says. “I mean, you can’t see the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy or Santa so you have to wonder if they’re real.”
Then, for reasons I still don’t understand, he says, “Of course I guess you could think the same thing about Jesus.” Mary Ann’s panic stricken gaze immediately finds my own shocked one. “Mom? Do you have something else we need to talk about?”
“OK Uncle Jesse, we gotta go, love you,” I say. In the background I hear Joey call out, “Bet it’s a little less now!” In that very moment, Joey might have been right. I spent the next ten minutes of my life trying to undo the damage.
If you ever have my kids riding in your back seat, don’t let your guard down for even a second. They can smell fear, and their interrogation skills rival the FBI. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.