I’ve dreaded having “the talk” with Ellen since the day she was born. How will I tell her the truth without taking away her innocence, without filling her with doubt and cynicism? How can I spare her the grief that often accompanies truth?
How will I ever be able to tell her about Santa? (Just in case you thought “the talk” referred to the sex and babies thing – that is something that we actually looked forward to, and, so far, it’s unfolding pretty well).
A few weeks ago Ellen and I were lying in bed and talking about friends. We were sharing the same pillow and both staring straight up at the ceiling when she turned toward me and blurted, “Are you the tooth fairy?”
I froze. Total paralysis set in.
“Mom, I really need to know. I really need you to tell me the truth. Hanna’s mom told her that she’s the tooth fairy. Please tell me. I don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t know.”
I shot straight up. “Ellen, do you hear your dad calling me?”
She scrunched her face up. “I don’t hear anything at all.”
I jumped out of bed and told her I’d be right back. As I was racing out of the room, Ellen called after me, “Come back! Are you trying to avoid me?”
I didn’t break stride. I walked ran into Steve’s study. “It’s here! It’s time! She wants to know! I think this is it!”
I wish I could say that Steve looked alarmed, but this is not an entirely unique scenerio in our house. He simply shuffled his feet to turn his leather work chair in my direction, raised his head and said, “Time for what, baby?”
I quickly recapped my conversation with Ellen. Steve drew a long breath and shook his head. I was overcome with a sense of dread. “Brené, it’s time. We always said we’d tell her the truth when she sincerely asked.”
My mind was flooded with tiny clips of her asking the same question, but rather than really wanting to know, it was obvious that she was desperate for us to defend her beliefs.
This was different and Steve and I both knew it.
I slowly returned to the room and crawled back into bed with Ellen. Within seconds we were both lying on our sides, propped up on our elbows, with our faces inches away from one another. I quietly said, “I wanted to talk to your dad about our conversation. It means a lot to both of us.” Her eyes filled with tears and she sunk down. “You are the tooth fairy, aren’t you?”
“Yes, your dad and I are the tooth fairy.” She rolled off of her elbow and put her face directly into the pillow. A few seconds later, she lifted her head enough to grab a breath and held it over the pillow as she whispered, “Is Santa Claus real? Are parents Santa too?”
I felt deeply conflicted. To simply tell Ellen that we’re Santa would be as dishonest as telling her that Santa is real. For me, it was so much more complicated than that. Yes, we’re Santa, yet Steve and I are believers. We were both raised by parents who believed in magic and made plenty of it when we were growing up. We are goofy, big-hearted, unapologetic believers.
I looked into Ellen’s eyes and instantly realized that there was no reason to make it less complicated than it is. “Elle, your dad and I are Santa, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no magic in Christmas. We believe in magic. We believe in Christmas spirit. We believe in things we can’t see.”
An ounce of hope returned to her face.
I told her about the special kind of magic that fills the hearts of parents and inspires them to write swirly notes in gold pen and sign the Tooth Fairy’s name. I told her about the magic that compels us to decorate the house before the Thanksgiving plates are washed and to stuff stockings and build bikes at 3am. I told her about the magic of thousands of twinkle lights and decorating trees and singing songs. We talked about the magic of celebrating five Christmases in five days (she has four sets of grandparents).
By this time we were both sitting criss-cross-apple-sauce with our knees touching and our hands in a messy stack. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “But why? Why do parents do all of this?”
I smiled, “So you can believe in magic. So you can believe in things you can’t see. So, you can pass along the magic in your life.”
“But why tell me now, Mom?”
I said the first thing that came to my mind, “Because your heart is full of magic now. You’re ready.” I told her that parents who want to pass down magic are the best judge of when their kids are ready, and that’s why we let parents have this conversation.
Ellen cried small, quiet tears. “I believe in magic. I really do. My heart is full and I’m ready. This is so hard, but I believe.”
This morning we had an amazing conversation about God, faith, and magic. Before I could even get my head around the fact that we were actually talking about these things, she said, “Magic is harder to see and believe in than God. We can see God because God is love.” This time I was fighting back tears.
All of our efforts to avoid passing down the confusing Charlton Heston and George Burns images of God were working. Every week the children's sermon at our church is a different version of "God is love" - nothing more complicated, nothing more simple. She's listening.
We decided that faith might be believing in God and love even when it is hard – even when bad things are happening and it’s hard to see and feel God and love.”
Ellen said, “Then faith and magic are different.”
“Yes, I think you’re right. I think they are very different.”
Then, in all of her 9-year old wisdom, Ellen said, “It’s trickier with Christmas and Easter because you’ve got Santa, the Easter Bunny and Jesus.”
I chuckled. “Yes, it’s trickier when there’s overlap.”
Ellen replied, “The tooth fairly is easier. That’s pure magic. Unless, of course, you knock your tooth out eating a communion wafer.”
Our family wishes you magic this holiday season!