THE BLOG
08/01/2013 10:06 am ET | Updated Oct 01, 2013

The Existential Weight of Motherhood: 'Will I Die, Mom?'

Kim Siegal

"Mom, what's a funeral?" my son Caleb asks me from the back seat of the car.

I got myself into this. I had just finished explaining that our good friend would not be visiting us today as planned because she had gone to a "funeral." As soon as the words escaped my mouth, I knew I was in for it.

So, how to answer? Caleb was 3. There was probably some well-vetted, developmentally appropriate response to this question, but driving in the car, I did not have access to it.

I could just give a kind of murky half-truth answer to the question, a la "It's a time when people come together to celebrate someone's life." But then again... maybe I should just go for it.

Living here as expats in Western Kenya makes me think that children are a lot more capable of coping with the truth about life and death than we give them credit for. Adults talk about it freely with their kids. The greater mortality and larger extended family networks mean that people -- along with their children -- simply go to more funerals.

And living on a working shamba (farm), as most Kenyans do, means that the cycle of life and death is part of backdrop of life. One of the first songs sung to Caleb here (at less than 2 years old), went like this: "Caleb anataka kuchinja kuku." Translation: Caleb wants to slaughter a chicken. It was a catchy little ditty accompanied by hand motions indicating a knife slitting across the neck. It was all done with the whimsy and joy of a nursery rhyme.

And speaking of nursery rhymes, those suckers are loaded with pretty morbid imagery. I find myself singing gleefully to this same child, "I don't know why she swallowed a fly, perhaps she'll die" and softly crooning, "... down will come baby, cradle and all." At night, we curl up and read little tales about Jack falling down hills and breaking his head and grown women cutting off tails with carving knives. All of which makes me think that in our own not-so-distant past, we were comfortable talking about death with our kids. And it makes sense. Death was more frequent and more visible. It didn't happen in hospitals, but in the home. The deceased were laid out in the parlor room. Kids dealt with it.

So, all this running through my mind I told Caleb, using my best and most reassuring mom-as-teacher voice:

"Well, honey, a funeral is somewhere you go to bury someone who has died and celebrate their lives. You know, remember what you loved about them. It's also to comfort people who are sad."

There. Done and done. I felt pretty proud of this explanation.

Caleb sat with it silently for a few minutes, chewing on the idea. Then from the backseat of my car: "Mom, I don't want to die. Will I die?"

Crap. Well, now I just want to die. Why did I just tell my 3-year-old about death?

My grandfather died when I was 6 years old. It shook me up and gave me nightmares. I would crawl in my parents bed in the middle of night and plead with them not to die. My parents were, much like I am now, at a loss. They sent me to a therapist. Maybe it was overkill, but how do you help a small person deal with the ugly reality of death?

So, what did I say in response to Caleb's very profound question? I stammered out, "Um. No. I don't think so. Let's just not worry about that right now." I changed the subject quickly, praying that he would just forget about it.

This was a text book "what not to do" moment. What happened to all my brutal honesty? Maybe if I was religious I'd have a more optimistic response about heaven, but his question caught me off guard. It's pretty heavy stuff to deal with on the way to school.

It was in that moment that it hit me: The existential weight of motherhood.

After my first child was born, I was constantly asked what it was like "being a mother." I never had a good answer. I felt more like a frazzled women caring for a completely unpredictable infant than a mother. I thought I would only feel like a "mother" when I start saying things like "No!" and "Stop that Caleb, or there will be consequences."

And it was true. When I had to start scolding him and teaching him how to hold a crayon and poop on the potty, I did start to feel more like I was finding my stride as a mother. I felt I was finally embodying that archetypal concept of motherhood. Sure, I was ambivalent a lot of the time, but I imposed boundaries. I created rules. I taught basic how-to-get-around-in-the-world skills. I had answers.

But when Caleb asked me about death, I had no answers.

I am a culturally Jewish spiritual agnostic. Like so many others of my demographic of NPR-listening, Daily Show-watching, urban-dwelling progressives, I pick and choose from religious traditions and spiritual philosophies. I suppose my world view is an awkward combination of Judaism, pragmatism, transcendentalism, human rights, mysticism, cognitive psychology and more than I care to admit from self-help gurus and ghost stories. But the truth is I don't have a faith as much as I have leanings, or really ideas I'd like to lean to when I'm trying to be my better self. And a lot of open questions about death and God.

All this is quite complicated to a 3-year-old. It's quite complicated to a 38-year-old.

Now, just to be clear, Caleb asking me about death wasn't the first time we thought about his religious or spiritual upbringing. My husband and I come from two different religious traditions, so we had discussed this eventuality even before we had children. At that time, we had this lofty idea that we'd raise them "spiritually Baha'i and culturally Jewish," which sounded good at cocktail parties and settled the issue for the time being. And after the baby came we became preoccupied with sleep schedules, settling tantrums, potty training and drilling "pleases and "thank yous." The "big question" got pushed to the side.

But here it was smacking me in the face. Caleb urgently needed answers. Answers I hadn't yet figured out for myself. I couldn't tell him something I didn't quite believe myself, or I'd feel like a fraud on spiritual grounds. I couldn't quite get the story about going to heaven out of my mouth.

Yet the "what's a funeral?" incident forced us to face the issue, and we've reached a decision. We've decided to outsource the answers. We'll let people more convinced of their faith teach our children the Baha'i answers to the big questions. We'll let people more observant in their Jewish traditions show our youngsters how it's done. We'll hope this isn't too confusing or contradictory. We'll hope it provides some grounding, some orientation, some comfort.

Maybe this is typical of our age. We go through a cycle of some kind of a religious upbringing, then challenge and question it in our youth, come back to it for the sake of our children as young parents and then maybe cling to it more deeply when we're faced with crisis or our own mortality.

Things were probably easier for our ancestors when they laid out uncle John in front of God and everybody in the parlor room. They had a clear, comforting and universally accepted answer about where Uncle John's soul was heading. Modern parents have the freedom to question and carve out their own philosophies, but also the burden to find answers when their children, mirroring the very crises that spurred religious traditions in the first place, ask them "Will I die mom? I don't want to die."