Only about twenty percent of what I tell my children is true. There are the deliberate whoppers like Santa and his ilk. There’s the crucial yet empty promise that I can keep them safe. I also tell persuasive, exclamation-mark lies – if you keep practicing gymnastics you’ll be in the Olympics someday! Then there are all of the things I just get wrong as I try to answer their endless questions. Space shuttle launch procedure, plot points in great works of literature, dinosaur minutia, how combustion engines work, the names and backstories of all of the Marvel superheroes, why it snowed in the morning but melted before school let out, whether or not an alligator is a good pet. I find myself giving astonishingly confident answers about dozens of disparate subjects. Before children, no one considered me an expert on anything.
But here I am driving home, kids sucking down raisins in the backseat, suddenly put on the spot about the intricacies of our governmental system. As I turn into our neighborhood I tell them we live in a democracy. Well, a democratic republic. There’s the electoral college, which is bad, and then gerrymandering, disenfranchisement… please don’t throw your snack at your sibling. I just cleaned the car.
I am chopping the garlic for dinner when my son asks, if wet hay is so flammable, why doesn’t it catch on fire when it rains? I imagine a field of hay bent under a torrential rain bursting into ragged towers of flame. The hiss, the smoke. I say I think it happens once you’ve cut the hay. Or maybe only when it’s baled? In any event, damp hay in a dry barn can combust. But how long do you have to dry it once it’s cut, he asks. Several days in the hot sun, I guess, assuming a low dew point. What’s a dew point, he asks, and I distract him by telling him to look for a cucumber in the fridge. There is no cucumber, but he doesn’t know that.
I suppose I could Google, but I’ve made a commitment to using my phone less in front of the kids. Technically, my husband Dylan is the one who made the commitment, but we’re always a united team with no light between us because That is How Parenting Works. It’s probably for the best; I could spend all day fact checking myself. I drain the pasta and admit I don’t know when my daughter asks if clams feel pain.
Dylan comes in, smelling of late-winter air. The kids set the table, wash their hands, and demand their father’s attention with a whole new set of questions. With patient authority Dylan dishes out the linguine with clam sauce while explaining how Bernoulli’s principle keeps a plane aloft. I don’t know how much he’s fudging, but I’m impressed by his confidence either way. His eyes briefly flash with bullshit as he mentions static pressure and he smiles at me. Our daughter pokes at her pasta, frowning. Is she thinking what I am, that her father is a financial planner who’s afraid of heights? Or is she still worrying about the clams?
Dylan tells our son that he needs to drink his milk because calcium is good for bones. I wonder if the hormones in modern milk that can trigger precocious puberty outweigh the benefits of the calcium. What about the calcium found in spinach? Or sardines? Should they be drinking spinach and sardine smoothies instead? I snort-laugh at the thought and everyone looks at me for a moment, wide brown eyes all alike, before carrying on. My daughter asks why her math teacher wears such ugly sweaters, and I take a huge bite of pasta. Let Dylan handle that one. He gives me a fake-glare, and I press his foot with mine under the table until he smiles.
As I load the dishwasher, I tell my son he needs to take a shower. He starts to whine, so Dylan steps in to say that if he doesn’t shower, he’ll be the “laughingstock” of fourth grade. Will he, though? We live in the kind of town where children hold gluten-free cookie fundraisers to save the endangered okapi. Is there a growing awareness of natural body odors in the 10-year-old set? A preference for healthy sweat over the soaps with microplastics that poison the food web? Is “laughingstock” a term we should be using? Is it one of those words that’s secretly racist?
There is only one sentence I know is not a lie and I say it as we hug and kiss the kids goodnight. Like all of childhood, this is only a phase. Soon they won’t believe anything we say, even the bits that are true.
SARAH STARR MURPHY — Sarah is a writer and teacher in rural Connecticut. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in december, Qu Literary Magazine, X-RAY, and other wonderful places. She’s a senior editor for The Forge Literary Magazine and eternally at work on a novel.
Art by KAITLIN NOEL HANRAHAN — Kaitlin is a little quirky, a little weird, the designated bad girl of the group, an IBS warrior, a sinner, and allergic to apples. Follow her on Twitter @coldslaw99.