My four-year-old has recently entered an intensive question-asking phase. He peppers them throughout the day, but the drive from his brother’s school drop off to his own has become his most focused effort. The questions start innocuously enough, often sparked by whatever he observes out the car window.
“Mommy what does that sign say?”
“Mommy why is there traffic?"
“Mommy can we drive through that carwash?”
“Mommy why is that dog barking?”
But then he follows a stream-of-consciousness approach that gets a little trickier.
“Mommy who makes trees?”
“Mommy what is wood made out of?”
“Mommy who invented school?"
“Mommy what is a thought?”
And when he runs out of inspiration, he just gets nasty.
“How do you know?”
“Who told you?”
And the perennial favorite, on repeat when the going really gets tough: “Why?”
I do my best. I give the answers I know, explained in terms I hope make sense. This is good! I think to myself. I’m raising a kid who’s curious about the world! My creativity and vocabulary begin to dwindle after about the 87th question, though.
“That sign says ‘Open House.’”
“There’s traffic because so many people are driving to work and to school just like us.”
“No time for a carwash right now, buddy.”
“Trees are part of God’s artwork on the planet. They just grow.”
"Wood is made out of trees. Nice try.”
“I don’t know who invented school. Someone who wanted kids to be smart.”
“What is a thought? I mean, it’s a thought.”
I grow impatient. Frustrated. I suspect he is simply testing me, seeing what it will take to stump me or find an error in my logic. I get short, and lazy, eventually giving an answer so curt he gives up on me, or straight up declaring I will not be answering any more questions. The ensuing silence is a relief for my ears and my brain, but like so many respites of motherhood, it comes with a side of guilt.
He is curious, and I am squashing it. He’s wondering about the world around him, how things came to be and how they work and who they matter to and why (why, why, why). It’s the work of childhood, to figure these things out. It’s the work of parenting, to facilitate the learning and to answer the questions. But some days the work is too much for me. Too much noise, too much interruption, too much mental gymnastics and mining for vocabulary. Some days he is just too curious.
A funny thing happens after he goes to bed, though. When the house is finally calm and maybe, if we’re having a productive day, the toys are put away and the dinner dishes are cleared, and my husband and I can finally sit down for an uninterrupted conversation, it’s not always quiet I crave. Our conversations are often trite by this point in the day, both of us tired from the demands of fulfilling careers and two young kids and the myriad extracurricular activities all four of us have committed to for one reason or another.
“How was your day?”
“Eh. Fine. Busy. How about you?”
If I’m going for brownie points I’ll ask about specific projects or clients I know he’s been stressed about. If he’s feeling amorous he might do the same. Usually, though, the litany of to-do list items and concerns about whichever kid got a letter from the teacher that week seem to crowd out the questions about the good stuff. And once the to-dos have been delegated and the latest parenting strategy has been agreed upon and the mail has been sorted and the dishwasher has actually been started, there’s barely enough energy left to agree on what show to have Netflix beam into our tired eyes.
And sometimes I just feel invisible.
The questions asked of me all day are the bizarre musings of a four-year-old and the responsible data gathering of my partner in family management. These inquiries are punctuated by work emails with questions about deadlines and invoices and source citations. Even though I have the answers to most of the questions hurled at me all day, and they are nearly all asked with the best of intentions, they are not the questions I want to answer. This is not the curiosity I crave.
I want to talk about the book I swear I’m going to write one of these days. I want to talk about how the explosion of spring colors on the trail where I run has me thinking about impermanent art and trust and how everything is always on time. I want to talk about how I feel deeply empowered by my burgeoning yoga practice while simultaneously feeling completely embarrassed by what a white-woman-cliché that is, and how I don’t really know how to reconcile that. I want to talk about my kids, but less about what activities they’re up to and more about my concerns that everything they see in the world around them seems to conflict with so much of what I want them to believe. I want to talk about why we recently changed churches, and how my faith is growing and changing in ways I would have never imagined a few years ago.
In a life where so much of my time and energy is focused on the work of raising kids, sometimes I just want to talk about myself; to remember that I’m still here, not only as a mother and a worker and a wife, but also simply as myself. The six-year-old tomboy who grew into a sassy teenager and then an overly-responsible 20-something and then changed her mind and quit her job and got a tattoo in her thirties.
I want to stay curious about myself, about who I am and not just the duties I devote so much of my time to. I want to be curious as an act of stewardship, declaring that I value this life of mine enough to show up for it and make it interesting. I want to be curious as an act of service, knowing the more I understand myself the more I can use my strengths in ways that matter and resonate. I want to stay curious to stay connected, because when I am connected I cannot be invisible.
I want to be as curious as my four-year-old. Sometimes about trees and dogs and traffic, but about more than that, too. After he is in bed, when the house is quiet and the to-do list is or is not done, I want to be curious enough to ask my husband about more than just how his day was. And when he inevitably asks about mine, I want to have more to say than simply, “fine.”
I know there is a lesson here as I walk this tightrope of too many questions from my kids and not enough questions — or not the right questions — from my husband and myself. Maybe it’s a lesson about selflessness and making peace with a season of life that demands some of my interests be put on hold. Maybe it’s a lesson about self-care and practicing the discipline of putting myself first more often. Maybe it’s a lesson about marriage, or parenting, or faith, or all three, as lessons often go. I’m not sure yet what I’m learning here.
But I know there is a lesson to be learned. My son is teaching me with every question he asks, as is my husband. I am learning with each answer I give, each question I ask in turn, and how intently I listen to the responses given. I know to learn the lesson well I have to keep paying attention and keep asking questions of myself and others. I know the only way to cultivate the curiosity I crave is to keep showing up, curious.