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I'm the pudding in the proof
The other week, while stopped at a red light on the way home from swim class, I asked Noli if there was any special song she wanted to listen to. She immediately requested “blame it on my juice.” (We’ve been listening to a lot of Lizzo lately.) It was a hot day and the car was stuffy, so as the spangly, opening guitar chords began filling the car, I rolled down all of the windows.
"If I'm shinin, everybody gonna shine. I was born like this, don't even gotta try."
I could hear her little voice singing along in the back seat, mingling with the breeze blowing through the car, into my ears, straight to my heart. I imagined the lyrics and ideas (body positivity! shine theory!) twinkling and twirling in her mind like the leaves on the branches above us. It was one of those miraculous rare moments when I knew, as it was all happening, that I was happy.
Then I started tuning into the lyrics again and freaking out.
I sometimes picture Noli's mind as a little river or stream—a constant current of words, sensations, sounds, ideas, and questions (so many questions)—flowing along to some unknown private place. There's no shortage of things bobbing and churning in that stream but I'm certain that I'm not meant to see them all, only what I can spot from the bank, or what she chooses to show me. She's almost five. Up until fairly recently, most things I glimpsed, whether we talked about them or not, kept floating downstream, never to be seen or heard from again. But more and more, ideas and phrases get caught in an eddy, swirling and sticking around for a while, questions popping up here and there—in the dark at the last possible moment when I am tucking her into bed or when she's staring out the window in the backseat of the car.
I don't have any particular parenting philosophy, though I'm determined to talk to my kids about the stuff that a lot of adults seem to find hard to talk about—race, class, misogyny, sex, bodies, etc. Obviously when you have girls or kids of color (even if they can pass for white, which I sometimes fear Noli can) you need to figure out how to discuss some of this earlier. When Noli asks me about something I try to remember that while, yes, the issue may be complicated, she's a kid and for now my answer only needs to be comprehensible to a four-year-old. We'll keep talking about it, her brain will develop more, she'll have new questions, and our conversations will become more complex. Now is the easy part.
A couple of months ago while watching "Beat Bobby Flay" (no judgments please), it came up that one of the contestants had spent time in prison. "Whoa that guy has been to jail how can that be???," exclaimed Noli. I took a deep breath and settled on some version of, "We all make mistakes. But if you make a mistake, even if you hurt someone, I think you should still have a chance to make it better and do other things in the world. What do you think?" In the moment it worked well enough and I was proud of myself for resisting the urge to bring up prison abolition (though I did allow myself to plant the seed that perhaps chef Fernando, because he has brown skin, might not have actually done anything bad). All in good time!!
Anyway, as "Juice" played, then "Soulmate" (my personal favorite), then "Jerome," I kept a running mental list of potentially problematic or complicated words Noli might repeat or ask questions about, and what I would say if she did. I felt I should be one step ahead. My thinking process went roughly like this:
n-word: explain that this is a word black people like Lizzo can say, but we (and other non-black people) cannot; idea of "reclaiming" prob beyond her so just emphasize we cannot say it—very hurtful
f-word: a word for grown-ups, not kids; has worked for other swear words; still young enough she won't question this rule; if she says it don't overreact
gemini: probably won't ask, but could talk about people born at different months/times of the year and basics of astrological sings
threesome: "party" with three people?; revisit/expand when we talk more in-depth about sex
Noli's been listening to r&b, hip hop, and pop her whole life and, while I am fully aware of the messed up gender stuff and explicit content in a lot of this music, I can tell that her enjoyment is mostly of 〰️the vibe〰️. She likes to move and groove. (It's true that a couple of years ago, when I was going through a Jeremih phase, she would occasionally croon "panties by my nightstand" to herself, but thankfully that didn't last very long.) These days one of my favorite things that she does is go around the house chanting, "Who run the world? Girls! Especially Mama!!" But it has crossed my mind that maybe I wouldn't have to think about this stuff if I was really into, like, Bon Iver or Sufjan Stevens??
Lately I've been alarmed by how much time I spend worrying that I have an outsized influence on Noli. What she thinks and likes, and then I realize that that's basically the job description of parenting? It all feels like an overwhelming amount of responsibility and, as I often say to Will, who the hell put me in charge?
As anticipated, my private front seat thoughts were interrupted by a voice from the backseat. I braced myself.
"Mama, I have a question: Why does she say 'love isn't easy'? That's so silly!!"
I could tell you about all the ways I fumbled and botched the answer to this, how I was caught completely off-guard by this child, this person who sometimes kisses our front door before leaving in the morning because she appreciates it so much. But I'm going to let now be the easy part, and let her have the last word.