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Truth Telling

In my work with children, truth-telling depends on a convergence of events that are often out of my control, including the developmental stage of the child, the circumstances surrounding his or her support and care and the caregiver's own belief systems.
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At MotherWoman, we believe that telling our truth about mothering is a revolutionary act. Telling the truth can break the silence and provide relief to the oppression and isolation that many women experience. We also support mothers in telling the truth to their children, whether it's about where babies come from or any of the other numerous questions that children ask.

By Alice Barber

"Will I have a baby in my belly when I'm a man?"

My son asks me this just prior to storytime and lights out one evening. This is when many truths are asked for by children, in those moments before sleep. Or, from the backseat of a car, usually in heavy traffic in the rain. They are rarely asked for in therapy sessions. I am a psychotherapist for young children, many of whom come from difficult circumstances. I am also the mother of a 4-year-old boy who asks me for the truth on a daily basis. Regardless of which role I am inhabiting, truth-telling about big things gets my heart racing.

Truth-telling to children can be difficult to do. I often work with children to whom a difficult truth must be told. These span the range of truths, from divorce to violence to illness to death. These are truths with jagged edges we often want to smooth out for the perceived safety and comfort of the child. Really, this "smoothing out" is mostly for our own comfort. I know it is for me. Holding a child within the storm of his or her own truth can be uncomfortable.

When my son poses this question to me, he is anticipatory. His eyebrows rise expectantly. His face belies nothing, ever. This question comes off the heels of weeks of intense care of Ralph, a baby doll whom he has dressed, rocked, fed and tucked into bed each evening. He has been attentive to all aspects of parenting this baby doll. I sigh and launch myself from the edge of the precipice, a free fall into the unknown. We begin to travel from soft ignorance through the sharp winds of reality.

My professional mind considers the ramifications of language and his age. Later in his life, my wording may be different. Careful to use his own words back to him, I say, "I have something to tell you. When you are a man, you will have a body that can't have babies in your belly." I look at his baby-round cheeks and suddenly remember burping him after meals.

There was no way around it, really. I feel ready for my son in so many ways. I am the "cool" mom who has concocted an array of possibilities for his adulthood. He self-identifies as "boy," but I am as ready as I can be if he tells me that he is a girl. I have readied myself if he decides to bring home a boyfriend. But this particular question had not occurred to me. And, I'm suddenly fearful that this is what truth-telling is in parenthood: always the thing I have not been able to predict.

"What?" he asks, as though he hasn't heard, and I repeat my answer with a quick Internet image search of "cartoon of internal reproductive organs of men and women."

"Yes," I say, "look at this." I point to my handy screen. "The woman's body has a place called a uterus. This is the pouch where the baby lives. The man's body doesn't have a pouch for a baby."

Jesse's face crumples in heartbreak. Tears the size of mountains spill out over his bottom lids and he sobs, "I want a uterus." He gasps this between sharp intakes of breath. His cheeks redden. "U-ter-us." He is barely audible and the three syllables of the word are sputtered like the last gasps of a failing car. "And an egg." He ends with this.

I take him in my arms and hold him as he cries. The truth hits him hard, but I think it hits me harder. His mourning is for what cannot possibly be, which is what difficult truth-telling is often about. I hate to see my son mourning anything. I soften our edges a bit by telling him about sperm, adoption. This helps him. And it helps me. The conversation twists and turns from there to questions I would not have expected, but answer with details that will satisfy his curiosity and leave little room for his wild imagination.

In my work with children, truth-telling depends on a convergence of events that are often out of my control, including the developmental stage of the child, the circumstances surrounding his or her support and care and the caregiver's own belief systems. It is a delicate balance of determining where the adult's truth ends and where a child's truth begins. It forces us, as caregivers, to stand squarely at the child's precipice -- we witness their "before" and their "after."

In my role as mother, I also need to figure out where my truth ends and my son's truth begins. This is not as easy as it seems. It can be hard to accept that the truth will hurt him, this person I love most in the world, but I hold a deep belief that lies, in the end, hurt him more. I have never regretted being a part of telling the truth to a child, any more than I have been thankful to know my own.

2015-01-29-MotherWoman.jpgAlice Barber is the mother of a truth-expecting 4-year-old boy. She is also a psychotherapist for young children and specializes in early childhood trauma. She practices in Springfield and Easthampton, Massachusetts. Her book, Blue Butterfly Open: Moments from a Child Psychotherapy Practice, will be published by Gallery Of Readers Press in the fall of 2015.

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