This morning my four year old got unexpectedly quite philosophical with me. Mostly on the topic of life and death. I should really start by saying that all of this sat in the context of it being Southern-Hemisphere Halloween tomorrow. And while- as a family- we don’t especially subscribe to any one religious approach and I’m personally fairly agnostic and eclectic with my spiritual beliefs (and also married to a man who isn’t really into any of it). We do however celebrate the seasons and the natural change that occurs and rotates each year. As a woman, women’s-worker and a mother to girls- the cyclical nature of the year fascinates and makes so much sense to me. The pattern of birth, death and rebirth and the recognition/ celebration of this in nature is just womancraft at its finest to me. It’s also important to me that my girls have a sense of safety around the idea of change, growth, moving on and the finite nature of just about all things in the world.
(Seriously, this child has actually sent me off on a spiritual journey before 10am)
So anyway… we celebrate Halloween. In April.
We carve pumpkins, make spiced treats, have a bonfire if it’s not pouring with rain, dress up and light candles for those dearly departed ones in our lives. Side note- she would also like to paint her face like a pumpkin this year. I am not allowed to help. Sooo we’ll see how that goes.
But suffice to say, this fact led to a conversation about death.
It began with her wanting to talk about how much she misses my parents’ old dog (who died when she was two?! Children are incredible…) and how lovely that dog was and everything she remembered about her.
Can we light a candle for her tomorrow Mummy?
Why do animals grow up quicker than people Mum?
So… but then… what happens after you die…?
And look, to be honest- I think considering the fact that it was 9.23am, her sister was up from 2-3am (needing to go to the potty/ getting another drink/ wanting a cuddle) and I had yet to have coffee, or even toast come to think of it! I thought I handled these rather increasingly towering questions rather well.
It may be because I really enjoy philosophical conversations actually. Or it may be that given how long I’ve worked with kids, this is actually not the first time I’ve been asked questions in this vein and needed to frame my answers at an age-appropriate level. Although I have to say that it’s the first time I haven’t been able to round off the conversation with something like, “but… lots of people have different views and you should talk to your family about what their beliefs and values are…” Because this time it was ALL ON ME TO KNOW THAT!
Nonetheless, we talked a bit about some theories on the afterlife and how no one really knows for sure but that the important thing was that we keep the people in our lives in our hearts and memories after they have passed. That everyone dies and that is part of life.
Then she wanted to talk about who had already died.
And THEN the cogs started to turn and she said, “but it’s OK because I have lots of time still.”
AND THEN the cogs turned a little more rapidly and it was, “But you don’t have as much time as me Mum… and I don’t want you to die…”
I’m sure many a parent (and/ or human) reading this will be in some way reliving this experience and see where this is going. And as her big brown eyes welled up with fat little tears and I reassured her that I would always be with her, even when she couldn’t see me- oh man – it was like looking at myself. A teeny tiny version of myself. Or perhaps a reflection of four-year-old me.
But there was a difference.
I mean apart from the fact that she is obviously not me.
It took me a while but a bit later, as I gave her a big cuddle and told her that it was OK to be sad about this stuff- that literally EVERYONE is sad about this stuff- I realised what the difference was.
When it comes to feelings and what’s going on in her head- the child has no shame- particularly in front of me. She just unpacks it all, plops it on the floor in front of me and knows that I’ll help her carry it. She has that trust. Holy moley.
Now, I could get into the societal and historical reasons as to why that was not me at four or five. But let me just skip that and assure you that it was not. From those early primary school years, I remember the distinct feelings of shame and of secrecy going on within me. I remember trusted adults directly asking me to share what was going on inside me when I was sad, scared or anxious and being inadvertently thrown into a quandary of wanting to get that crap out in the open but also assuming that I was a freak who was literally the first person to have that thought or feeling. I can still feel the words in my chest, bouncing around with nowhere to go as my throat closed off to them. And I can see where I kept that pattern of squashing my own (what I perceived to be) negative or inconvenient feelings right down for the next 25ish years. Leaving out of course the explosion of anxiety, depression, self-harm and melodrama of my early teens of course.
And yeah, OK, that’s all a bit miserable for me right? My childhood was by no means the happiest time of my life and many of my childhood memories and warped by a total blueprint for guilt and misery.
But beyond that, these little experiences with my daughters have taught me something bigger than that. These kids are seriously my greatest spiritual and emotional teachers in that way. Five or six years ago that’s not what I expected parenthood to be, but it absolutely is. That fact just blows my mind. It makes my heart just swell and sing with how much I love and adore them and how intensely proud I feel of who they are and what that’s made me.
It comes down to this- all those lousy experiences, all the shit I threw and had thrown at me as a kid, and all the subsequent work I had to do in tying up those loose ends (even before my babies were born)- has turned me into exactly what I need to be to be their mother. To be who I WANT to be as their mother. Could I have seen who she needed me to be this morning if I had never felt alone in that same feeling, with no one to share it with myself? Fuck off. Of course not. And so that experience was priceless.
So I don’t really mourn my childhood anymore.
I just notice how the crappiness I experienced at that time has given me the gifts I need to raise some truly awesome people.
And yep, my house is still trashed.
And I absolutely appreciate that I am going to in some way, shape or form give my own kids a complex. Some scar they have to heal in their adulthood to launch into their next spiritual plane. But I’d like to think that I’ll still be there to hold space for them when that shit gets real as well. Or at least to have given them some tools to cope with it.
And I have to say that frankly, I was so overwhelmed with relief that I was the person she wanted to open up to today. That she brought her four-year old existential quandaries to me. I know we’re likely to revisit this conversation (and others like it) many, many times in the future. And that suits me just fine.
Now if I can just cross my fingers and keep that going for the issues that turn up in ten years- since the internet is also readily available for these big questions- I’ll be golden.