Explaining the World to a Four-Year-Old: “Because you’re My Mummy!”

This afternoon, my little boy was sitting eating his dinner (hotdogs – because my husband is cooking our Friday curry, which leaves M with a night off from my trying to get him to eat grown-up food) when he embarked on one of those conversations that equally makes my toes curl and my heart fill with love and wonder.

Before I tell the story, it is important to note that as a child I was terrified of death: of my dying and/or of anyone I knew dying. I had OCD then too and could not let go of the thought and would worry about it endlessly. My mother is an atheist but I was raised with a vague understanding of religion from attending a Church of England primary school. This mix of atheism and school-indoctrination led to some amusing incidents in my childhood, including the time my littlest brother, when asked why he had hit someone at school, confidently announced “Jesus told me to do it.” Or when, in a teenage rage, I accidentally sparked a parental dispute when I responded to some perfectly reasonable request of my step-dad’s with “for God’s sake!” and “Jesus Christ!” and got a “we-don’t-take-God’s-name-in-vain-in-this-house” lecture (he in turn got a “we-are-not-a-religious-household” lecture from my mother and I must add that he didn’t seem to have the same problem with the Lord’s name when people cut him off while driving). Needless to say, I grew up as an outsider to religion. At times I felt a bit like Peter Pan: nose pressed to the glass watching those people who were safe and secure in their faith and who knew exactly what death meant and where they were going when they died. I, meanwhile, used to cry myself to sleep worrying about the idea that when I died the world would go on and on and on forever and ever and ever without me. I started this when I was about M’s age and continued to fear dying well into adulthood.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not crazy about the concept even now. But I have had therapy, and I have read some Buddhist quotes, and I certainly understand enough about the world to know not to let my neurotic agnosticism negatively impact my child’s growing awareness of life, the universe, and everything. So, I grit my teeth and put on my best fake-cheery demeanor whenever he decides to broach the subject of death and dying.

My mum’s cat died when M was three and I wouldn’t let her tell him about it. My plan was to just not mention it and then if/when he asked about the cat to tell him that the cat didn’t live there any more as if he had just packed his bags and moved down the road one morning. My mum was rather incredulous at this idea but agreed to keep quiet (I imagine to avoid one of my “he’s-my-child-and-I-make-the-rules” lectures). But then my step-dad’s elderly father passed away from cancer a few months later and I couldn’t side-step that one. M already knew that he had a Grandpa (my husband’s late father) that he had never met and we had managed to show him photos and introduce him to the concept of a Grandpa who was not around and who he could never meet without an in-depth discussion of death. But when we had to explain why his great-grandfather would not be at Sunday dinner any more, I braced myself for the questions. And come they did, not all at once, but there have been a trickle of questions – and some interesting theories – about death since then (including that only men die – presumably because the people (and cats) that he knows who have died have all been male).

My largely off-the-cuff strategy has been to answer his questions and to not lie to him, but to try to avoid making him scared, the way I was. I want him to accept death without fearing it and so far it seems to have worked. But I still dislike the topic and wince at some of the things he comes out with because I just don’t want to think about it. It is hard enough to try to live life in the moment (something I have been trying hard to do of late) without worrying a) what we are doing here, b) how long we will be here for, and c) where we are going.

So I wasn’t thrilled when M embarked on another figuring-it-out exploration of death at the dinner table. Out of nowhere he announced:

“The soil is made up of people who have died.”

“Yes,” I replied, “but not only… it’s also made up of plants and trees and stuff that have decomposed – things do go back to the soil yes.”

“Mmmm… yes. I want to be buried in a graveyard.”

“[I take a deep breath to compose myself] Well,not yet. You won’t die for a very long time, until you’re an old man.”

“Yes, like Daddy. He’ll die. But not you.”

“Why not me?”

“Because you’re my mummy!”

He said this last part with a big smile on his face, as if I was very silly for asking why not me, and seemingly confident in the fact that his mummy (the only mummy) would always, always be here.

I said “that’s true, give me a cuddle.”

He gave me a cuddle and said “it is really true?” I said “what do you think?” He said “hmmm… Great-Grandma is an old lady.” I said “yes that’s true.” I left it there. I don’t want his brain to move past the certainty that his mummy will always be here, though with every conversation I think that we are edging closer to the realisation that one day, everyone dies. So far I have explained that people die because they are old, or because they are very ill. I know that he will realise one day that sometimes death just comes out of nowhere and shatters everything, even when no-one was old, or particularly ill, but he doesn’t have to realise it yet.

I hugged him extra tight tonight and took comfort in the fact that it is true, in a way. I won’t die because I am his mummy and because I am L’s mummy. Because everything my little boys do in their lives will be attributable to the fact that I grew them, and I bore them, and I raised them. Things will happen that would not have happened had they not been born and they would not have been born but for me.

Life, the universe, and everything makes my head hurt. I can still send myself into a panic thinking about it all – even writing this post stresses me out slightly. But it is moments like this that make life worth living: the wide-eyed innocence of a little boy who believes that I will never die, and the thought that through him and his brother, I never really will.