I took a more lackadaisical approach to talking to Scott about the particulars of reproduction. A few months ago I started to worry a little about it, wondering if he was a victim of typical second-child neglect. This manifests in the photo albums empty of the second child’s baby pictures, less alacrity in setting up playdates, and less vigilance as far as schoolyard justice goes.
It seems like it’s worked out, sort of. I managed avoid the temptation to maneuver him into asking The Question just so I could answer it. Perhaps if I’d left Connor to his own devices he’d have also been nearly 7 before it would have occurred to him to ask.
With Scott, it happened very naturally. We have a book I got back when Connor had a passion for all things human body. Scott’s recently rediscovered it and we’ve been re-reading it.
The book starts out with a circle that represents the globe (I have it here in front of me and just noticed that it is the eastern hemisphere represented, from Africa to Australia. Nary an American continent to be found.) Beneath the globe it says: “Every human being on earth starts life the same way.” On the adjacent page is another circle, the exact same size as the globe, and this represents a single cell—a fertilized egg. Below: “You started life as a tiny cell—a dot so small it can only be seen under a microscope.” Scrolled across the top of the two pages is a progression of images from unfertilized egg being approached by sperm, to penetration and the formation of one cell, through the myriad cell divisions that form a developing embryo, to the fetus awaiting birth.
Scott enjoyed dwelling on this page. I seized the opportunity to introduce the concept of ‘seeds’; his father’s seed joining with mine to create the fruit that eventually was him. He seemed taken with the idea for a while and kept talking about “When I was a seed”.
Sometimes we’d get bogged down in some technical questions whose subtleties I wasn’t sure how to parse for him: “I weighed zero pounds when I was a seed”. He doesn’t have fractions down yet.
The trouble started last night when he was talking about being a seed and how he’d seen Connor when he was inside me. I explained that he wasn’t inside at the same time as Connor (although it just now occurs to me, I guess in the technical sense, ‘he’ really was—lying in wait in an ovary somewhere. Shit; I might have saved some heartbreak had I had the presence of mind to realize that. Damn my oh so literal mind.). His brow furrowed and he zeroed in on this new concept: “How old was I when Connor was zero?” “Well, you didn’t exist then.” “What????” “You weren’t around yet.”
To my dismay he began to sob. “I was a seed? I was a SEED?? It’s not fair!”
“But Scott, we ALL started as seeds. I was a seed. Your Dad was a seed. Grandma and Grandpa were seeds. Billy was a seed.” But he was inconsolable.
“When I was a seed, I was cold, and I was hungry, and I was all alone, AND I NEVER WANT THAT TO HAPPEN AGAIN!!!!!! “No, Dear, that will never happen to you again” (in this life). By now he was in my arms, sobbing and hiccuping against my chest.
Perhaps I’m projecting, but I think that maybe his 6 year old mind was contemplating, for the first time, a concept that is too much for even the adult mind: the concept of our own non-existence.
Nice Job, Mom.
Today I tried a different tack. I explained to him that zero is in the middle, and to one side of it is positive numbers, and to the other, negative. So that when he was zero Connor was positive 4. And when Connor was zero, he was negative 4. He seemed to brighten at this, so I continued: “…and when I was zero, Connor was negative 40, and when I was zero, you were negative 44. When my mom was zero, I was negative 21.” To my surprise, he brightened up considerably. The notion of continuity must be soooo important…
So whoever gave us the concept of ‘zero’, and invented negative numbers did me and my little boy a big favor today.