Do you remember when you learned the truth about Santa?
I don’t, but I am certain my daughter will.
She was in fourth grade, maybe the last kid in her class to believe.
The two of us were eating dinner at a restaurant I frequented in the months after her father and I decided to divorce. I didn’t yet have it together enough to cook at home.
A paraphrased recollection of the conversation:
“How was school today, Lily?”
“Okay, I guess. Actually, maybe not.”
“Just kids saying stupid stuff.”
“What stuff, Lily?”
“Mama, I have a very important question to ask and I want you to tell me the truth. Do you promise to tell me the truth?”
That last part is exactly how she said it.
“Do you promise to tell me the truth?” is SUCH a scary question, whether you’re talking to your child, your parents, your spouse, your colleague.
If they have to ask it, it means you won’t want to.
“Is Santa Clause your parents?”
I was prepared to answer the question, but I wanted her father’s reinforcement. I texted him: “Lily is asking about Santa Claus. Can you come meet us at the house in 15 minutes?”
“Be right there,” he said.
I looked at our sweet Pie (“Pie” has long been her nickname, along with Biscuit, Pea Pod, Love Bug and countless others) and I thought of all the ways we’d managed to disappoint our only child (our families’ only grandchild) in the last few months.
Lily, we’re getting divorced.
Lily, you’ll have two houses.
And of all the ways we’d managed to confuse her.
Lily, we love each other, but not in the specific way people who are married are supposed to love each other.
Lily, there are all kinds of love, and you don’t understand that now, but you will one day.
She asked again, refusing the restaurant’s complementary dessert.
“Please, Mama. Just tell me. Is Santa Claus your parents?”
“Lily, I will tell you the truth, but it’s a very complicated, very important truth. I want Daddy to be there when we explain it.”
Her eyes lit up and I thought, “This won’t be so bad. I can do this.”
I thought I would tell her about how Santa is real in your heart if not in the world. That there is a reason people follow Santa traditions, and that the reason is parents love their children so much that they want to make things magical for them. That generations of people have carried off the Santa thing, so many generations that who knows – maybe Santa WAS real at some point, and we’ve all just forgotten how he really works and so parents act as his surrogates.
I know in hindsight that while she may have expected a magical answer, what she wanted was the truth. And she wanted it from her parents before she was made to feel babyish by the kids at school.
Her dad joined us at home.
We crowded together on the love seat in the living room. (My ex had the sofa at his new house. I hadn’t yet found a new one.)
“Ok, Lily, we are going to talk to you about Santa Claus,” one of us said.
“I just want to know if Santa Claus is your parents,” she repeated.
Before I could launch my complicated answer, her father gave her the factual one.
“Santa Claus is your parents. Yes,” he said.
While my explanations have always been laden with metaphor, his have come in black and white.
The writer, the math teacher.
And our kid, who burst into tears.
A few weeks passed. We thought she’d gotten over the Santa betrayal.
Then one Saturday morning I got a text from her dad.
“Lily is asking how babies are born. Can you come meet us at Starbucks in 15 minutes?”
I met them there. She was in a minor panic.
“Are you and Mama going to tell me that babies aren’t real?” she asked.
Still tender from the Santa revelation, I had decided I’d let my ex-husband’s practical nature trump my romantic one. At least for this particular conversation.
We drew an anatomy lesson on a coffee shop napkin. “This is how it works,” we said.
“Gross,” she said.
But then, for a minute, her father became her mother.
“It’s not gross,”he said. “Sometimes people do it for fun, not just to have a baby. In fact, do you know there is only one other mammal like that?”
Dolphins, he said.
News to daughter and mother alike.
Magical news, in fact.
He is a great father, and she is a great kid. And like sex and Santa, there is a lot of context behind those simple facts.