Much of the time, in my experience anyway, parenting involves a great deal of acting. Take Santa, for instance. Many of us do a phenomenal job pretending that a jolly, old, chubby, bearded man comes into our houses one night every year and brings gifts for all our children. We wrap the “Santa” presents in different paper than all the others. We leave footprints in the snow, telling our little ones that Santa made them. Some of us even prepare reindeer food and sprinkle it outside on our driveways so the animals can have a snack during the nightly deliveries.
Several of us have one of those elves that hides all over our houses and creepily (I think it’s kind of creepy, anyway), watches our kids making sure they are behaving during the holiday time. When my two boys were younger, there were many nights when I would be lying in bed, just about to fall asleep, only to jolt awake and jump out from underneath my warm, fuzzy blankets because I had forgotten to hide that damn elf. Our elf was named Diego, and when my youngest son found out there was no Santa, albeit, the elf was also a fraud, he promptly chopped off Diego’s head and threw him in the garbage can. But that’s a story for another day…
My son wasn’t happy about the whole Santa betrayal. He asked me, “Mom, how could you lie to me all those years?” I explained to him that we all do it, it’s fun, and it wasn’t really lying, it was acting.
“In order to make the holidays more fun for you, I decided to act like Santa and be Santa. I mean, it WAS fun, right?” I was slightly annoyed that he was questioning my wanting to create a magical and meaningful childhood for him and his brother. I assured the little scrooge that I was only acting to make his life more exciting.
He couldn’t disagree. It was fun for all of us, and I’d do it again if I had another little one. Some of the best, most fun Christmas mornings we ever had were the ones when my boys thought Santa had brought them the most perfect gifts, made by his elves, just for them.
Now that my sons have grown into the tween/teen stage, my oldest will start high school next year, and my youngest will be in seventh grade, I have to act for different reasons. Most of the time, the acting isn’t as much fun.
When my oldest came home from sixth grade one day, he quietly asked me if we could “talk.” He looked a little confused, and a bit upset, so of course, I met him in the kitchen, prepared an after school snack, and while his little brother finished his homework in another room, my oldest and I started a conversation.
“Mom,” he whispered, “What is herpes?”
The acting began immediately, and I quickly put on my “mask of calmness.” I must wear this pretend mask whenever I’m confronted with something horrible my children have had to deal with at school, or a word they’ve heard from some dopey kid on the playground, or whenever one of my kids would see a Viagra commercial on television and ask what a twelve-hour erection is.
Mask in place, the pretend calm covering my body, I took a deep breath and answered him. I told him the truth. I asked him where he heard the word, and he told me that a couple kids at school were telling each other they had herpes.
I acted like it was no big deal. I acted like my stomach wasn’t rolling, my head wasn’t spinning, I pretended my deodorant was not failing me at the moment.
You see, I’ve told both my boys that if they see or hear something that makes them uncomfortable, they can always come to me and ask me about it. I promised them I would not “freak out” (because, honestly, I’m one of the biggest “freaker outers” on the planet), and I would tell them the truth about whatever it was they needed to know. I have always believed that the truth is the best way to handle things with children (age appropriate, of course). After all, I’d much rather my boys hear about these touchy subjects from me than from some kid at school.
When my boys were very small, they knew I worked for an organization that “helped people who were sad.” That’s really all I told them. I had started a chapter of a nonprofit that raised funds to help people with mental illness and to help prevent suicide after I lost my father to mental illness. My boys were smart, they’d heard me talk with people on the telephone, they probably heard conversations I’d had with my boss, and they were present at many fundraising walks. I wasn’t surprised that one day when we were riding in the car, my oldest son asked me how Grandpa Rick died.
“Mom, did Grandpa Rick die by a gun?” My son asked.
Mask on, acting begins.
“Yes he did.” I took a deep breath and thought, “here we go…”
“Did he have that gun in his hand?” My boy’s green eyes were wide as he looked directly at me, waiting for my answer.
I had known that time was going to come. I knew one day I’d have to tell my sons how my dad died, but I wasn’t sure I’d prepared enough. I didn’t know for sure if the truth was the best way to go, or if I should have just lied and said he’d had a heart attack. But deep down I knew that my boys deserved the truth. They needed to know what happened, and it would have to be me who told them.
More good times. More acting. More pretend calm.
“He did. He did have a gun in his hand.” I was wearing the mask, so my face was solemn and unflinching. I was doing my best acting job- not falling apart, not holding back too much, but keeping enough inside as to not scare my precious, little, innocent babies to death.
“He wasn’t being very careful that day, was he?” My son shook his head.
“No he wasn’t.” I answered.
My youngest son then started singing a song about macaroni and cheese, the older joined in, and the conversation, for the moment, was over.
I knew then, as I watched my oldest boy in the rearview mirror, that he knew exactly what had happened when my father died. He knew my dad did it to himself. He had figured it out, although he’d never been told, and he was satisfied with the minimal answers I had just given him. I knew I’d have to share more as my sons would grow, but at that moment, my acting had worked, everything I told them was enough, and the mask I wore protected my sons from seeing the pain and grief I still wore on my face and felt in my heart since the day my dad died.
As the middle school years have progressed, I’ve had to do quite a bit of acting. The mask of calmness is tattered and torn. My boys have come to me on numerous occasions, and I’ve had to define words such as rape, masturbation, and a few vulgar terms that even I didn’t understand, so I referred the children to my husband. Lucky him.
My boys and I frequently talk about drugs and drinking alcohol, and how I’m not the type of parent who thinks it’s “normal” for kids to experiment with these things. They know the rules and they are aware of the consequences if they decide to try. We talk about sex (or as I call it the “life ruiner”), and we discuss why it’s best to wait until the time is right, the woman is ready, and protection is discussed and used. I tell them that it’s best to wait until after they’re married and ready to possibly have children. I remind them quite often, and this is where the “life ruiner” term comes in, that having a baby too early in life can make things so hard and can possibly stop them from reaching their goals.
Throughout all these conversations, I have acted. I have become this sort of understanding, patient, accepting, non-freaker-outer-type mother who remains calm, cool, and collected when my youngest son asks me why Caitlyn Jenner wanted to go from a man to a woman. I’m already a pretty liberal and accepting person, I think, but sometimes these subjects are more than difficult to explain to a child.
There is one thing I know for sure. I’m glad my boys feel comfortable enough to come to me when they have questions. I love that my oldest asks me to meet him in the kitchen at night while he has his bedtime snack just so he can talk with me about his day. I love that my youngest trusts me enough to tell me when a child at school does or says something that bothers him.
Most of the time, our talks are full of laughter and love, and I don’t have to use the mask of calmness. It may sound strange, me acting when my kids confront me with difficult subjects, but I truly do feel that if I were to cry, yell, or panic during these important moments, my boys would shut down and they may not come back to me again for the answers they need. They might feel badly about upsetting me, and then our nightly talks could end.
I cherish these moments with my sons, and I wouldn’t change them for anything. As they continue to get older, I realize the subjects we discuss will be more serious and probably require me to use my greatest of acting abilities. I can’t say I’m completely prepared, but the mask is nearby, and I’m I’m ready for what’s to come. I think…