St. Patrick’s Day is a religious holiday commemorating the arrival of Christianity in Ireland and a catch-all celebration of Irish culture. In our pre-kids, city days this meant a dyed river, crowds and subsequent cursing over parking, and witnessing morning-after men and women stumble home still wearing green. Now, our suburban family holiday is filled with crafts covered in green glitter (my car looks like I gave a lift to an Irish stripper) and my kids’ excited talk of the leprechauns’ yearly visit to our home--our excuse to trash their rooms like they do our whole house then blame it on imaginary creatures. Finally, parenting gets fun.
I stoke the leprechaun fire when I visit my daughter’s classroom right before St. Pat’s. Each parent (read: mom) is invited/expected to visit the class as “chef of the day” during the year. It’s an opportunity to observe your child in her natural school habitat and for her to thrill at the novelty of having you sit in a tiny tiny chair while trying to corral her schoolmates into participating in a food-prep activity.
I lead the class in making rainbow cupcakes--basically cupcakes hopped up on food dye--with green frosting and a chocolate-gold coin on top. Thus creating the rainbow and the imaginary pot of gold at the end of it. The kids are eager to help. They want to measure, pour, stir, and sit next to me; in fact, an argument breaks out on that last point, the same as unfurls everyday in my house at mealtime. My husband and his siblings used to fight so much over sitting next to their mom at dinner that finally his dad outlawed anyone sitting there; his mom sat luxuriously alone at one side of the table while the three kids crammed onto the other, with dad at the head. Apparently, in the case of my daughter’s class, any mom will do. They clammer.
I discover that the two most coveted jobs are turning the mixer on and off and adding the color to the cupcake batter. I witness some leprechaun-like mischievousness when one boy adds more than the prescribed eight drops of food coloring. Then the next boy adds even more. By the time we’re at the last boy and the last bowl, he’s glancing at his friends and smirking as he squeezes the entire tube into the bowl, turning the batter and his hands and his shirt blue. It doesn’t take much to thrill kids; bright colors and frosting are winners--add a gold coin you’ve got yourself a trifecta.
At home, our kids eagerly await their leprechaun visit with a mix of fear (from my five-year-old) and skepticism (from my eight-year old). Several months ago my older child pressed me for the umpteenth time on the improbable existence of Santa and the Tooth Fairy. His logic was hard to deny. He raised valid points about Santa fitting into the chimney and the unlikelihood of someone actually wanting our discarded teeth, much less paying for them. The cincher in his argument was a comment about the creepiness of the fat man and the fairy sneaking into our homes in the middle of the night unwitnessed and undetected by our senses or alarm system. Creepy, indeed.
After the latest interrogation, my husband chastised me for continuing the ruse. He said, “our son is asking you, point-blank, if we are Santa and the Tooth Fairy and you refuse to level with him--it seems wrong.”
I am forced to ask myself, where is the line between whimsy and lying? It lies somewhere between encouraging make-believe and willfully discouraging our children’s inquiries about these improbable characters by stacking detail upon false detail. That’s right, darling, Santa not only fits down the chimney but magically goes back up it; the Tooth Fairy is a miniature sprite but somehow manages to tote a sack of heavy coins around with her.
I remember the year I discovered that Santa and my parents were the same. I was nine when I spied my Christmas gifts in the closet a week early. I closed the door and walked quietly away. Cue Christmas morning and my surprise to find the same gifts under the tree with tags marked “from Santa.” I kept mum, mainly to keep the present pipeline a-flowing. But I it gave me the feeling that my parents were in on something that I was left out of. I didn’t, however, feel robbed of my sense of wonder, which is the argument I use now to fend off my husband’s urgings to tell our son the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
This push-and-pull plays out daily in our house. My husband tries to speed up our kids growth, while I sneak my foot onto the brake. He encourages the kids to cross the street alone as I follow them to the door reminding them to look both ways then watch them longingly from the window. He makes them get their own drinks while I ask them if they want ice with that. With only my husband as a parent, the kids would be grilling their own dinner and juggling fireballs. With just me, they’d be fat little tyrants. It takes both of us to bring a measured approach to our parenting. This is why I give serious consideration to his suggestion to confirm our son’s suspicions.
It forces me to confront why it’s so important to me to uphold our children’s magical thinking. Why do I need them to keep believing in these adult-constructed fairy tales? Upon examination, I think the answer lies more in my own needs than theirs. Motherhood is a that job that’s ever-devolving--with a mother earning less and less authority as the years pass. At the start, the job is critical to the operation, by the end it’s mostly advisory in nature. Thankfully, there’s no pink slip but the position does get seriously downgraded. As long as the children are still young, and by proxy, innocent, I am still integral.
Ultimately it is my one of my own parenting principles that convinces me to confess to my son. I have always encouraged my children’s intellectual curiosity. I patiently answer questions and levy my own to stimulate thinking. I listen. I explain. I don’t rely on, “because I said so.” I offer a full briefing then rebuttal, often leaving myself exhausted from the sheer quantity of interaction I have with my kids. And now I have a child coming to me with legitimate, well thought-out questions and I am basically saying, “believe what is unbelievable because I said so.”
So I sit my son down, away from the prying ears of his blissfully-unaware sister, and tell him that, yes, Dad and I are Santa. “I knew it!,” he exclaims. “I mean the writing on the gifts is always the same as yours.” He hesitates, “And the Tooth Fairy?” Yep, us too. I sense a little deflation in his demeanor now.
“So you guys come in while I’m sleeping and leave me money?” Yes. He seems unconvinced. “Then where are all my teeth?” I instruct him to check my jewelry box. “There are more here than I’ve lost,” he says, cradling the teeth. I remind him that his sister has lost two (though I only have one of them because she was too afraid of the fairy to leave the second). “Which are which?” he wants to know. I admit that I’m not sure. This is a dramatic departure from his Tooth Fairy book that depicts her carefully labeling a box for each child--walls and walls of boxes surround her--before lovingly placing their teeth in. I only have two children worth of teeth to track and I’ve muddled it already. My son is clearly disappointed.
He sits back on the bed with me, his palm still full of tiny teeth, and announces, “But I still believe in leprechauns.” He looks at me expectantly, daring me to respond. It’s a make or break moment. I smile and say, “Me too.” He lights up.
With this being all he has left in the department of holiday fantasy, I’ve gotta make it good. On St. Patricks Day, my husband and I compare notes with another couple. In the past, our leprechaun has made a mess in the kids’ rooms and left a trail of hand-cut-out shamrocks on the floor. Our friends’ visitor takes it up a notch, spilling Lucky Charms cereal on the table and peeing green into the toilets; theirs is a Chris Farley version of a naughty gnome--eating and drinking his way through their home. I ask if he also leaves lines of green coke on the table.
Our PG-rated leprechaun adds gold chocolates and 3-D glittered shamrocks to his repertoire this year. He gets more creative, hanging stuffed animals from lamps and fans and twining toy snakes around bedposts. The kids are thrilled, running around the next morning with chocolate mustaches before breakfast and excitedly showing each other their overturned rooms.
I realize that their inquiries--their desire to make sense of the world--are not going to stop. Instead, the frequency and difficulty of their questions will increase. At each juncture, it will be up to us to figure out the way to answer truthfully without dashing their hopes or revealing more than they can handle. The adolescence train just keeps rolling along, picking up speed; next stop: the sex talk.