"Mama, can I ask you a question?" My 8-year-old was in the back seat of the car, and I was spun around in the passenger seat, looking into her eyes. Her face and body language were totally open.
My husband had gone into a convenience store to pay for gas, an act that's been a small point of contention in our 16-year relationship. Convinced that analog is the wave of the future, Sam rejects the modern convenience of paying at the pump, making the process of filling the tank five times longer than it needs to be.
On this day, though, I was happy for the extra time, and not just because of Xanax. In those extended minutes, my child had presented me with an elusive opening, and just before her inquiry, she and I had been talking about her birth mother.
The conversation was short, but it was deep and—most notably—initiated by her, a most infrequent occurrence. So, when she asked this particular question in the middle of our chat, my inner dialogue was this: Grrrrrr. Because 98 percent of the time, this line of inquiry is usually a diversionary tactic, and I was pretty confident—given the topic of the moment—that this was a diversionary tactic. I anticipated it would go something like this: "Do all dogs do the butt scoot across grass?"
Inquiring minds want to know.
Also, self-preservation can take many forms. Since my goal as a mother is to build connection with my child, I braced myself for the coming detour and plowed ahead with the same response I always give.
"Of course, my love. You may ask me anything, anytime, ever."
I meant this as I said it and hoped for any kind of question that would let me know that, yes, she trusts me; she knows we are in this together, and that I have her back. Throw me a sign, child! I thought to myself, knowing this kind of validation is excruciatingly rare.
As parents everywhere know, communication with a child about any topic is a tricky proposition. Their attention spans are shorter than Prince without his heels, and most of what we adults want to impart takes longer to convey and is drier than Jim Lehrer's voice. Just try reminiscing about the glory of The Go-Go's as your third grader sings "Vacation."
This leaves us in the tight-ropey position—especially when trying to tackle bigger issues—of having to recognize opportunities to impart wisdom, and then giving our best age-appropriate elevator pitch before Look, mama! The moon is following us! Author and noted child-attachment expert Holly Van Gulden calls this "dropping pebbles"—giving little tidbits of information that go in and make ripples—and it turns out to be far more effective than the yammer-on-long-after-the-child-has-left-the-room approach practiced in the past by yours truly.
I would go one step further to say that, as the white parent of an adopted black child, my Bigger Issues territory has somewhat greater acreage and more rugged terrain than most people's. This is not to say I deserve an award, but rather to highlight that parents with children born to them don't have to answer certain difficult and, at times, unanswerable questions whose answers beget more questions that beget more answers that beget more questions that tend to be triggering. "Why did she let me go?" is not a one-off.
Of course, there's a threshold for any such conversation, and because my kid alternately changes the subject when she's happy, or goes dark when she's hurting, it can be really tough knowing whether any of the pebbles (or my grand mal lectures) are going in. Word to Ruby's future life partner: The girl isn't likely to be the we-need-to-talk kind of problem solver, so much as the I-need-to-be-alone kind. She may actually be the stomp-down-the-hall-and-slam-the-door kind, but we won't know that until the teen years. I'll get back to you.
So, I just do my best. I listen and talk, sometimes getting it right, sometimes not. Mostly, I try to pay attention and be patient. And that's what I was doing there in the car with Ruby waiting to ask her question, me waiting to hear it.
"Of course, my love," I said. "You may ask me anything, anytime, ever."
"How old were you when you got hair on your vagina?"
She wasn't self-conscious or embarrassed or skeeved-out. She used the appropriate terminology and was as relaxed as if we were talking about dog-butt-scooting. She came to me, just like I've taught her. Mostly, she was just open and comfortable, moving with command from one really big topic to another.
My internal dialogue was this: Ohmygod.
But since my goal as a mother is to build connection with my child, I didn't flinch or make a big deal, even though my heart was bursting with the trumpets and fireworks that come during a Parenting Victory Celebration. Instead, I calmly talked to my child.
"I don't know exactly—11 or 12, I think. Why do you ask?"
"Because my friend [Polly] has hairs and she's only nine. When will I get them?"
And so we had a short, honest conversation about growing up and the coming changes and how she still has a little time, but that it's coming and I'll help her learn along the way. It was a conversation I never had with my mother but which completely underscores the kind of mother I strive to be.
For all of the moments I've second-guessed myself, and for all the times failure has felt so devastating and permanent, this moment at the gas station, in the car, just felt like a win. Like a really, really big win.