simple when it’s anything but
The question caught me off guard, though it’s not like I wasn’t expecting it, at some point.
I imagine it will be asked again, another time, maybe in a different way, with more understanding.
I’m not entirely sure whether I inadvertently led her into it, or merely created the opportunity and space for it to be asked.
Birthdays are a huge topic in our house right now. Jaye knows the month in which everyone was born — not just our birthdays but nearly all of her cousins and grandparents, as well as Kaye and her family and some close friends. It’s partly how she learned her months, remembering whose birthday is when. She loves singing “happy birthday” and the other day we called our niece to do just that. Then yesterday we got a stream of real-time photo texts of our twin baby nieces opening our presents and eating cake for their first birthday. Today we’ll call to sing to them too. This weekend we will bake cake and cupcakes for Baby Z’s first birthday on Sunday, and Monday we’ll celebrate with a family birthday brunch. So we are talking a lot about birthdays. But I digress, a bit.
Over dinner last night I was talking with Jaye about how Baby Z will get a chance to eat her first cake (her very own with fresh whipped cream frosting to do with what she wishes), just like Jaye did on her first birthday (she loves to watch the video). We were saying how this will be her very first birthday, since her birth day — i.e., the day she was born.
“Did we have cake on Z’s birth day, Mama?”
“No, sweetie. Nobody ate cake. Remember? Mama was in the hospital and Z didn’t even know how to eat yet!” [NOTE: it was completely beside the point that newborn babies do not eat cake...]
“Why she didn’t know how to eat yet?”
“Well, remember all those days we visited Z in the hospital after she was born? She was so tiny and the doctors and nurses had to help her learn to eat. Remember when Mama was teaching Z how to eat?”
“Yah, I remember that,” she said.
“When you were born, you already knew how to eat! But remember Z came so early that she didn’t know and had to learn.”
This led to a discussion about how babies grow. We talked about how when babies come early they don’t have the chance to learn all the things they need to do once they are born, like breathing and eating, and how sometimes they need help. We talked about how Jaye was born exactly when she was supposed to be, and how she already knew how to do those things.
At that moment I realized Jaye had just heard something that was inconsistent with her reality, though not untrue. Jaye knows I am her Mama. She knows she grew in Kaye’s belly. We’ve described Kaye as her “birth mama,” though she doesn’t really understand what that means. Here she was listening intently to us talk about babies growing in their mama’s bellies. Yet Jaye doesn’t associate Kaye with “Mama.”
I saw an opening and stumbled through it.
“When you grew in Kaye’s belly and you were ready to be born, Mama and Dada were there to meet you,” I explained. She has heard this part of her story and seen the pictures so many times, I wanted it to feel normal, even though she was coming at it from an unfamiliar angle. So I told her again (as this is part of her story) how hungry she was and how we fed her, and how, unlike her little sister, she knew just what to do.
I watched her little face, alternating between looking over at me and down at her plate. I could see she was listening — she hears everything, whether directed at her or not — she was paying close attention, her mind ever churning as she grazed her fork through uneaten greens.
Here I was calling it out. This distinction that, for the purpose of my love and attention, makes no difference at all, but may some day mean far more to her than I can ever imagine.
And there it was (wait for it)…
“Why I not grow in Mama’s belly?”
“That is a very good question, baby,” I said. And she waited for an answer.
I knew it might not make sense. I knew what she was asking. I knew what she was not asking. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that children ask what they need to know. They only ask what they are ready to hear. She wasn’t asking why I was her Mama. She wasn’t asking why Kaye was not her Mama. She was asking why, if babies grow inside their mamas, she didn’t grow inside my belly.
Complicating my answer was the baby sitting in the high chair to my side. I knew I had to take Baby Z into account, even though the question was not about her. Or was it? Was she also thinking ‘how come I didn’t grow in Mama’s belly too?’
I knew I had to keep it simple. At just three years old, she is not yet old enough to understand, despite her intelligence and curiosity. By all accounts she is not quite ready for a full discourse on adoption. So it had to be simple, even though it’s anything but.
Once when we were watching “Rio” (one of four movies she has seen), Jaye asked why the “good” guys wanted the last remaining male and female blue birds to get together. We explained it was so they could be together and have baby birds. “How they have babies?” she asked. Um, wasn’t quite expecting that. Mac looked over at me, clearly caught off guard and struggling to find an age-appropriate reply. Inside I chuckled at the typical response about when a man and a woman love each other, but thought better of it (besides, we know it doesn’t always work that way). Quick thinking Mac jumped in. “They lay eggs!” he said, matter of fact. Right, yes, eggs. Of course. “Yes!” I added, “just like chickens!” But I digress, again.
The question again, posed by my incredibly intelligent, clever and compassionate three year old daughter: “Why I not grow in Mama’s belly?”
“Well honey, Mama wasn’t able to grow a baby in her belly when we were waiting for you.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“I don’t know, sweetie. I just couldn’t.”
And we left it at that. I could have gone on, but I didn’t. In the next instant, Jaye was talking about the cucumbers on her plate. The moment had passed.
Honestly I don’t know whether I led her into that discussion by bringing up Kaye, or whether I was merely trying to create the space and opportunity to talk about something that came up in conversation. It’s a tough balance.
I know I could have answered in so many other ways, but I didn’t. Still, I imagine any answer will only lead to more questions. They usually do.