The other day my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter and I were walking down the street after leaving our favorite frozen yogurt place. We’d been celebrating her last day of preschool and were headed back to our car so that we could meet up with another kid from her preschool at a nearby park for a “playdate.” (As much as I resisted this terminology, there is no better alternative for describing the kind of pre-arranged, adult-supervised activities that we have with our children, who are no longer allowed to roam the neighborhood, visiting the houses of the kids they want to play with, as I did as a child in the 1970s.)
On this busy downtown street, a young man with a clipboard approached us and, after hesitating for a moment, (we were already late--as usual-- for our playdate), I stopped and listened to his request. Do you have a minute to help support gay marriage?, which of course, still not being over the sense of rage and shock I felt by the failing of California’s Proposition 8, I did. I must admit that I often don’t have that “minute” the person is asking for. I am even guilty of looking more hurried than I actually am just to avoid having my attention constantly redirected by all the needs of the world. In this case, I tried to offer my signature, but he wanted money, and I had none at that moment. So he directed me to the office where the campaign was headquartered, and my daughter and I continued on our way.
“What did he want mom?” my daughter asked earnestly.
“Oh, he’s trying to raise money for his cause,” I replied, somewhat aware of the fact that people on that busy street were listening to this conversation.
“What’s his cause mom?” she pressed on. My daughter is the sort who loves to ask questions, and she’s never ever satisfied with your vague answers. Why should she be? I always ask myself. But there have been many moments when I am not quite prepared out in public for my answers about how, say, a woman and a man actually make a baby, or why those angry Iranian people on the cover of The New York Times have set all the cars on fire. I have to take a moment and think about how I’m going to cover a complex topic, because I realize that the first time I explain something or introduce a concept is a crucial moment.
At least I think it is.
"Well," I started in as she eagerly awaited my explanation, "you know how the kids next door have two dads, and some of your friends have two moms? Well, some of them want to be married, just like dad and I are. And the law says that they can’t get married. Even though some of them have gotten married, because they don’t care what the law says…"
For another moment I stopped myself. There are some abstract concepts that I don't have a problem explaining, but the "law" isn't once of them. She understands what it means when I say we have to wear our seatbelts or drive the speed limit or the police will give us ticket. And when she and I once got pulled over for driving 35 in a 25 zone (!) it illustrated the concept a little better. But in the case of speeding or not wearing a seatbelt, we're talking about the potential of not harming someone, right?
How do you make a case for the terrible things that might happen if two men get married? You simply don't, because there aren't any.
Because I have always tried to normalize any offbeat sexuality/parntership choices when I talk about things with her, we haven't really talked about the fact that there are people in the world who think gay people are evil and demented and that they should be treated like criminals or drug dealers. So, we've just been breezing along talking about so and so's two dads without any discussion about what that means (you know, just doing my part, as the bumper sticker says, to piss off the religious right, I suppose). I just didn't want to plant any judgments in her head, or give her any reason to start looking at people like they aren't "normal." Someday we'll have the "contiuum of sexuality" conversation...perhaps in kindergarten?
So how do I even begin to explain to her that "the law" says Janie's parents, the ones who have selflessly given birth to and cared for her since she was conceived, aren't allowed to get married?
How could I tell her about the article I'd read earlier that day, about the nonprofit hospital in central California that refused to allow a lesbian woman to see her partner in the emergency room (the Associated Press.), a woman who was rushed to the hospital after collapsing during a pro-gay-marriage march? I didn't. But the news was still hanging there in my view.
Instead did my best to state the fact that in California gay couples aren't "legally allowed" to marry. I tried to say it matter of factly, though I'm sure she realized how I felt about it. And what followed was one of those moments that will occupy a particularly memorable place in my history as a mom, a moment that, as writer Ayelet Waldman writes, I “should be able to melt with emotion” over. So I am doing that here, now.
My preschooler said, "I think people should get to choose whoever they want to marry. It should be their choice, not somebody's elses."
I couldn't have said it better.
And I couldn't have gushed more. By this time we were driving to the park, she was strapped into her booster seat, and I turned around and said, "I like the way you think." What I wanted to say was, "I am so proud of how smart you are I can't even stand it..." If she can figure out something so simple, what is everybody else's problem?