People say that it's hard to parent a four-year-old because of the incessant, hammering "Why?" I have discovered that "Why" is small potatoes, simply the warm-up for the next round of juvenile interrogation. My daughter started talking at thirteen months, which is well within the norm. That was the last conversationally average thing she did for the next five years.
Mom, can I show you how I leap? Can I do this, where I stand like this, and then do like this with my arms, and then leap onto the couch like this? Can I do it if I move the coffee table here? Can I take the cushions off the couch? Why not?
Did you know I can do a flip in gymnastics? Can I do flips at home? Can we get a high bar? Can we get a balance beam and put it out in the back yard and get mats and put them under it and I can bring them all inside if it rains? Why not?
Can we do paper dolls tonight? Can we watch Wallace & Gromit? Can we watch 101 Dalmations? Do you know how many dogs there are in 101 Dalmations? Did you know I can count to two hundred? Did you know Peter can count to twenty? Do you want to hear me count to a thousand? Why not?
You know how I always wanted to know what was inside the fireplace? Can I take this nail and scratch right here and take the brick out and see what's inside? Can I take it out and then we can glue it back? What's under it? What does the floor look like under it? Can I just look at it? Why not?
What are we having for dinner? Do I have to have the meat part? Can I have some outside the bun? Can I have cheese outside the bun? Can you cut it with that little flower cutter thing and make flowers? Do I have to have French fries? Can I have those curly chips instead? Did you know I can feel the curly chips through the bag? Do you want to feel the curly chips? Can I open it? When is it going to be time to eat? Can I have noodles like we had yesterday? Why not?
Is he going to throw up? How come he does that? Do I have to watch? Are you going to clean that little bit up? Does he have to eat the part he threw up on? Are you going to make him more dinner? Do I have to eat the rest of my dinner? Can I have a treat? Can I have two treats? Why not?
Are we going to take baths tonight? Can we take a bath together if we don't splash? Can I have a pink towel instead of a green one? Do I have to get my hair wet? Can I wash Peter's hair? Why does he have a bottom like that? Is his going to be like mine when he's six? Why not?
Do we have to go to bed tonight? Can we watch Beauty and the Beast? Can we sleep outside? If we bring lots of blankets, can we sleep outside then? If we wear all our clothes can we then? What if we wear all the clothes in the house? What if we wear all the clothes in the world? Can I go to other people's house and get all their clothes and then can we sleep outside? Why not?
"Why not" turns out to be a much more difficult question to answer. Sometimes it's pretty straightforward. Because you would break your arms and legs if you did that. Because it's forty degrees outside. Because I don't even want to think about the damage your brother would do with a brick.
Other times, though, the answer is shorter, but much more complicated. It usually comes out as a matter of principle: "Because I'm your mother and I said so, and that's a good enough reason when you're six years old." But the real answer maybe isn't so nice. Because it makes a mess. Because I'm too tired. Because I just don't want to. The other answers make me smile, and I know that I'm making the right choice as a parent when I tell my daughter that no, she may not attempt to sell small wadded-up pieces of craft paper to the neighbors to make money. These answers, though, the "no" and "no" and "no again" that spring from selfishness and exhaustion and preoccupation with the thousand urgent and mundane details of life, these answers raise questions that echo in my head long after hers are forgotten.
Am I just saying no because I'm worn out? Will the memories it makes be worth the hassle of cleaning it up? Do the dishes really matter that much? But if I don't do them, will it make me too cranky to enjoy playing with her? Will she only remember me never saying yes, always tired and busy and selfish, or is she even that aware of me as a person?
Am I too tired? Am I too busy? Am I too selfish?
Am I a good mother?
Her questions are hard. Mine are harder. Even if I had all the answers I couldn't write a book and become rich and famous, because every mother has her own questions, her own set of inadequacies and hidden weaknesses.
I don't know what my daughter will remember. She'll probably remember that I made her a paper doll tonight and that I wouldn't let her eat the whole bowl of cookie dough. She probably won't remember that I was so tired I wanted to go straight to bed and let her stay up until midnight watching movies because it was easier.
Whatever else she remembers or forgets, I hope she always knows that I love her. I won't worry so much about being a "good" mother if that's one question she always has the answer to.