When my daughter was a baby, I’d imagine her future questions, combinations of innocence and humanitarianism. Why are some people mean? Why are some people hungry? Why do some people have so much and others so little? Why don’t people just share? Why does Honey Boo Boo get a show?
We’re in the 'why' phase now and my daughter’s not a humanitarian. She’s just two. And this is what the two-year-old part of that developmental stage looks like:
“It’s time to go to bed.”
“Because it’s night time.”
“Because the sun has gone down and the moon is in the sky.”
“Because the earth spins as it revolves around the sun and there are certain times of the day when we face away from the sun. That’s when we go to sleep.”
“I really don’t know, baby.”
“Why you don’t know?! Why you don’t know?! WHY YOU DON’T…”
“If you keep banging your head on the floor, you’ll get a concussion.”
“Because it’s hard wood.”
I am still looking forward to the day that she will ask the kinds of questions that made Atticus Finch defend Tom Robinson—the questions politicians use to appeal to their constituents’ ethics. “When my children ask ___________, what should I tell them?”
In this moment, I’m fielding questions about birds (why they fly away?), Gargamel (why he mean?), dinner (why this don’t taste good?), and my mood swings (why you making that face?). Occasionally, I get called out and have to examine my own mindless participation in cultural norms. The other night, I was helping my daughter out of the bathtub when she reached for my razor (I’ve since put it away) and almost shaved her hairless legs. I grabbed it just in time and said, “This is just for Mommy. This is not for you.”
“Because you don’t have to shave your legs, but Mommy does.”
“Because in many parts of America, it isn’t socially acceptable for women to have visible body hair.”
“Because it is considered a masculine secondary trait.”
“Because we think we need categories to function.”
“Because we all drank the kool-aid.”
Talking over my daughter’s head is only fun after 6 p.m. I spend the rest of my day trying to give her answers she can use or the answer that most annoys her: “I don’t know.” It’s my favorite answer. I imagine that if I reveal my fallible humanity in her early years, she’ll have less to blame me for when she’s a young adult. “I did my best. I told you I didn’t know,” I will say, letting her accusations roll of my back like water off of a duck (for reasons I don’t fully know).I hope I will never say, “Because I said so.” I hope I will model a god she can believe in.
Lately, I’ve been having trouble believing in a loving divinity. I blame the parent paradigm of Judeo-Christian religions, specifically the traditions to which I’ve been exposed. The god of Job is a real jerk of a parent. When Job is having the worst day of his life (a culmination of the death of his family, loss of his wealth and a disease that frightens all of his friends away) and dares to ask why, the invisible parent says the equivalent of “Because I said so.” Job is made to feel disrespectful for asking at all. It turns out it was all a bet– just a parent making a friendly wager with the devil about a son’s faithfulness. Move on. Nothing to see here.
My father would never have treated me like that, which is why I think it is so unfair that we buried him months ago. Since then, I’ve asked some fairly narcissistic, toddler-style questions: “Why cancer? Why my father? Why now?”
I’m old enough to know that life isn’t fair, and that suffering is unavoidable and rampant. But when I remember my own father’s heart beating in my ear and the weight of his arms when he held me to his chest, I cannot lay my head upon the invisible chest of a divine parent who says “Because I said so.”
Parenting in the pattern of my father has helped me to imagine a divine being who loves her creations even when she cannot fully protect them: a parent whose power and knowledge only reach so far. When it hurts less, I hope to be able to trust her even when her answer is “I don’t know.” I hope that her arms, like my father’s, like my own, will still be open. And I hope that she will have some juice to give me at the end of all my whys.
Asha French is a writer and mother living in Atlanta.