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Jodi Halpern

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Middle Age Mom: Keeping Up With Young Children In Midlife

Posted: 01/26/2012 7:50 pm

At 50, being the "singlish" parent of a very inquisitive, high energy 10-year-old boy keeps me on my toes. Daniel asks questions from the second he wakes up at 7 a.m. until I've dropped him off at school and moved out of his field of vision. His second shift runs from when I pick him up in the afternoon until he finally falls asleep at 10 p.m. If he can see me, he's got questions, and they aren't easy ones. When he was less than five he was already asking things like, "How can the universe be expanding if it includes everything there is?" and "Why don't people start with an even amount of money so they can each have an equal chance in life?"

Now, at 10, it's, "If we built a computer out of carbon, and knew how to make all the nerve pathways, what else do we need to give it consciousness?" and "Why do we have two opposing political parties in charge when they can never get things done? Why don't we have a better system?"

Daniel is clearly a deep thinker, but you couldn't call him contemplative. The kid is hyperactive, so these questions are asked urgently, in rapid succession, with no pauses to think about answers. Think of it as Jeopardy on meth.

I love discussing ideas. I'm an academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy on top of being a psychiatrist. Plus, I'm a New Yorker -- I've always been a fast talker with an inquisitive mind (and yes, growing up, they told me I asked too many questions). So I want to encourage Daniel's curiosity, at least in theory. But when he presses me for answers, I come up short, and often tell him, "Honey, I'm too tired to think about that."

He finally said to me, in a precociously tactful voice that got my attention, "Mommy, are you sure you used to be smart?"

The thing is, I'm 50-year-old woman in peri-menopause. What I'm saying is that there's a certain memory fog on top of the exhaustion of keeping up with my full-time academic and professional life as well as my son. So when I tried to show my son that his mother was a smart person, I had a hard time thinking of an example. That is, an actual idea that I could lay out for him. Oh sure, I could tell him about my old test scores and academic awards, but showing is better than telling, and I could not figure out how to demonstrate my smarts.

For example, yesterday when he asked me that question about what we would need to build a carbon computer that would have consciousness, I wanted to explain to him the mind-body problem, which played a central role in my own philosophy dissertation over a decade ago. So I told him that knowing how to design the right circuitry was not enough to know how to tell a computer what the color blue looks like. Daniel was skeptical. "What else do you need?" he asked. I said something about programming what an experience feels like, but he asked, "But how does that make us see blue?" And I didn't know what to say next. I drew all kinds of diagrams, including a version of the food pyramid, with consciousness on top, physical explanations on the bottom and biology somewhere in the middle, but he just stared at me, unusually quiet. We both knew that I didn't know how to explain the concept of consciousness to a 10 year old.

He kindly asked me what was for dinner. Then he asked me why the Republican candidates for president would prevent children of immigrants who were born in this country from going to college on scholarships. Even though I care passionately about that issue, I was glad for the familiar routine of putting water in the pot to boil for pasta, and answered, on automatic, "Sorry, honey, my brain is tired right now. Please pass me the macaroni."