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Katie asked me this doozy of a question this morning as she sat at the kitchen table eating breakfast while I packed her lunch for school.
I took a deep breath and replied, "Do you want to know the truth or do you want to know the story?"
I don't even know what that means. It was a stalling tactic that failed. When she was younger I could offer Katie two choices and she'd always pick the latter, I suppose because her little brain couldn't pay attention to that much information at once so she'd just repeat the last thing she heard.
Katie's not a parrot, though. She's a six-year-old human, and apparently six-year-old humans are prone to contemplating reality. She's recently become fascinated with nonfiction books, for example. I brought home You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey a couple months ago. Katie noticed the call number on the spine had numbers on it instead of the usual "E Picture" or "E Reader" or "E Fiction" designation. She asked me what the numbers mean and I explained to her the difference between fiction and nonfiction books. Now nonfiction is her thing, and she's quick to bring it up.
Katie: "Mom, did you know cats don't have collar bones?"
Me: "No, I did not. Where did you learn that?"
Katie: "In my nonfiction book!"
Even though she's going through a reality phase, our little girl has always displayed an active imagination. She has two "pretend sisters" Bacca and Stella Sarah. Her favorite game is "Pretend" as in,
In the car on the way to school: "Mom, let's pretend I'm eighteen years old and I have a job and I'm on my way to work but I don't have a car yet so this is my taxi and you're the taxi driver."
At the grocery store: "Mom, let's pretend I'm a dwarf grown up and I'm shopping and these are the groceries I'm going to buy for my own house and you're my assistant."
At the community center pool: "Mom, let's pretend we're mermaids and this is our ocean home and you're the big sister mermaid who is a teenager and I'm the little sister mermaid who is like ten years old and our parents are at home because you're old enough to babysit me."
Vivid details, explanations. It's fun to play along.
But now that she wants details about real life, details that will lop off a smidgen of her innocence, I wanna call a time out. When she asked me if the Easter Bunny is real and then, after I tried to stall, she said she wants to know the truth, I said, "Oh, Honey, I think I'm going to cry."
"Why are you going to cry?" She looked worried.
I had already outed myself as The Tooth Fairy last fall when, one night as she left a tooth under the pillow, Katie asked me flat out, "Mom, is The Tooth Fairy real?" I wasn't going to lie to her. I told Will when I was pregnant that, although I agreed to play along in these cultural fantasies he wanted to instill in our child, I would never out-and-out lie to her. If she ever asked me, I'd tell the truth, without hesitation. But that was six years ago and playing along with the whole EasterBunnyToothFairySantaClaus game has been fun and sweetly satisfying.
I didn't want to worry her, so I answered Katie's question as best I knew how: "Because my big girl is growing up so fast. And I'm happy and sad about it at the same time."
I set the mayonnaise knife down and walked over to the table and crouched down in front of her. Katie's face was now above mine and she lifted her finger to wipe a tiny tear trailing down my cheek.
"It's OK, Mama. I know that," she reassured me.
"So you want to know the truth about the Easter Bunny?" I sighed.
"Well, do you think a rabbit lays eggs and leaves them all over our front yard for us to find--the same eggs we colored ourselves?"
She laughed. "No."
"Well, do you think a rabbit can open our front door and bring a basketful of candy into our house for you to enjoy?"
She laughed harder. "No!"
"Well, Sweetie, The Easter Bunny is a made up character in a story, just like The Tooth Fairy. It's a story we like to share in our culture. But it's not true. It's fiction. But it's still fun to love made up characters in made up stories, isn't it?" My words were probably as bright and cheery as those little Paas Eye Dying Kit tablets are, just before you add the vinegar. My words were bordering on that vinegary Easter egg smell.
"Yes, it's still fun," Katie agreed. "I still like the Tooth Fairy even though I knowed it's you and Daddy. So who is the Easter Bunny? Who brings me chocolates and candies?"
I winked, "Me and Daddy."
Her face opened up and she said, "Ooooooooh!" It's starting to make sense.
Then, without warning, she hit me with this zinger:
"What about Santa Claus? Is Santa real?"
It wasn't the first time she asked me. Although technically I still have never lied to her about the issue. The last time Katie asked me if Santa is real, over a year ago, I got out of answering her by accidentally stepping on one of her favorite movies. It was a Freudian Trip. Literally. She asked me if Santa is real right as I was standing to get a drink of water and I tripped over some junk on the floor and stepped smack on the video. She was so upset at what I'd done, even though it was obviously (although perhaps subconsciously not) an accident, after she stopped crying and calmed down, she'd forgotten what we had been talking about before.
I didn't get out of it this time.
"Oh, Sweetie," I sighed. She wiped another tear from my eye, which prompted me to say, "What did I do to deserve such a sweet girl as you?" I was stalling again, but it's true what I said.
"But what about Santa, Mama? Who brings presents at Christmas?" She was looking me straight in the eye and I couldn't lie to her.
"Mommy and Daddy," I said and burst out a choked-up teary laugh. "Mommy and Daddy give those presents to you at Christmas, Sweetie."
"I kinda knowed it because I wondered how Santa got my American Girl doll," she admitted.
"Yeah, Daddy actually brought home your American Girl doll, Sweetie." I smiled and we hugged. Then I remembered what time it was. I stood up and returned to making her lunch.
"Hey, Sweetie, you know some of your classmates probably don't know the truth about The Easter Bunny and The Tooth Fairy and Santa and stuff. So you might not want to mention it to them until they bring it up so they don't get disappointed," I advised.
I found out about Santa the hard way. We had just moved to our new house. I was six, too. Like Katie, I was in first grade. I was playing with a girl named Rachel who lived down the street. During our introductions, you know, hey you wanna play what's your name how old are you do you like to roller skate, she asked me, "Hey, do you still believe in Santa Claus?"
No one had ever asked me such a thing. I had never thought about Santa Claus as a belief or a nonbelief. "Yes," I said timidly, not really knowing what to say.
Rachel was not at a loss for words. Bossypants came right out and said it: "You dummy! Santa is not real! Santa is a big made up story your parents told you when you were a BAAAAAABY."
Rachel is also the girl who broke our shower curtain rod by playing "Jungle" in our bathroom and the girl who got chased out of our house one day when my dad found her playing with his hearing aid when he got up from his nap. I was glad when Rachel and her family moved away the next year.
But I'm not six anymore. I'm a mother standing in her kitchen making her six year old's lunch and sending her off to school and helping her figure out ways to make the inevitable disappointments in life manageable. The best way I know how is to talk openly about them.
"Are you disappointed to know the truth, Sweetie?" I gently nudged her with my question, hoping she'd freely tell me how she feels, remembering how utterly betrayed I felt when I found out all the big people in my life had been lying to me about Santa the whole time.
"No, not at all," Katie said from the kitchen table. "Now I know the truth: Santa makes the toys and Mommy and Daddy give them to me!"
I smiled and said nothing and went back to packing her lunch.