My daughter is 7 years old. We sit at my kitchen table when she turns to me and asks, “Can you believe we came from monkeys?”
And I reply, “I know, isn’t it amazing?”
But she just looks at me. “No,” She says. “I mean, you actually believe that? Because I don’t. I believe we came from a dusty man rib.”
I knew something was coming. But not this. Of course she had questions, all kids do. She was trying to piece things together, trying to sort out from what we came and from where. But she had a special talent of asking the kinds of questions that caused me to radiate joy and think of her as a little philosopher, not unlike myself. When she was five she asked, “Is God dead yet?” A question for which I felt prepared, maybe even triumphant as I started expounding the meaning of Nietzsche’s God is Dead.
“I think sweetie you’re asking if God is relevant to you. I’m not sure I can answer that question. People spend their whole lives trying to answer that question and ultimately, each of us does so alone.”
I said this to a five year old. A toddler who dutifully looked up at me and nodded along. A friend has since pointed out that she was most likely asking if God had died since he was – duh – in heaven already.
A dusty man rib.
I’m so dumbfounded by her current pronouncement that I can’t say anything right away. I get up from the table, stumble across the kitchen, rummage around blindly, pretending to look for something, then come back to the table and sit back down. She continues, “God made a man of dust and then took his rib and made woman from his dusty man rib.”
Not a dusty man rib. His dusty man rib.
Before my children were born, I decided I wanted to raise them free from the strictures of my religious upbringing. When the idea of kids became a reality, I approached my mother – a Southern Baptist – and made her agree to keep Jesus to herself until the children reach “hellfire age,” which we determined to be twelve. How this agreement came to be is a little bit of a miracle in itself and I don’t quite remember why my mother went along with it. But she did. My reasoning was that I would have the more pressing issues of puberty and teenage pregnancy to worry about when they turned twelve so I wouldn’t care much about them finding Jesus. I also figured that by that age they wouldn’t either. In the meantime, I learned to deflect anything that had even a mild religious theme. We stopped going to my favorite neighborhood coffee shop when I discovered they had stocked their bookshelves with kid- friendly bible stories. I suspiciously avoided the Care Bears, Narnia Books, boys in neckties at my front door. I could not, however, keep my children from their paternal grandparents, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whom my daughter especially adores. It’s no use telling them to stop reading The Watchtower to her at bedtime or to quit telling her about “all the bad people spending eternity in hell.” They just smile politely and when I’m out of earshot, lean over her, shaking their heads, “your poor mom is going to be one of them.”
When, starting at about 4 years old, my daughter began coming home from weekends at their house talking about God and hell and being saved, I got creative knowing there was little I could do to absolutely thwart it. I, at first, tried the inclusive approach and spent some time talking about Prince Siddhartha and his journey towards becoming the Buddha. We talked a little about Hindus, and Islam… But this experiment didn’t last long. It’s not that as an atheist I don’t understand why people have such beliefs or that I lack understanding of why faith is so important to us. Faith, after all, isn’t a question of whether God exists, it’s a question of what we can hope for, if we can hope for an existence with less suffering, more justice, more love – or, at the very least, some kind of future at all. But, I’m not interested in spending much of my time researching dogma on a Saturday night. So, instead we watched Nova together while I explained the big bang and human evolution.
Even still, my daughter told me again and again that she believed in Jehovah. She drew herself up, arms akimbo, jaw set. “I believe in Jehovah.” She prayed at the table and asked us to join her. When we didn’t, she gave up asking and just made a good show of bowing her head and glancing up at us with a smug, “Amen.”
Because I have a habit of talking to little children like they are adults and as though they are capable of understanding complexity and nuance, I’ve come to realize that if this is a battle for her soul, I’m on the losing side. Simplicity is religion’s strong suit. For instance, when speaking to toddlers, I’ve attempted to explain why the grass is green: “The grass is green because plants make a chemical called chlorophyll in a process known as photosynthesis that turns their leaves green. You see, the sun shines down on the plants and in the cells… the process of turning light… from the sun in…to… energy—never mind.” vs. “The plants are green because God made them that way.” Easy. Done.
His dusty man rib.
“God made man out of dust and then took his rib and made woman.” She says this gently, but firmly as though this is a pressing matter that one must attend to carefully. It’s a gift she’s giving me. She’s proud to have this chance being the teacher this time. For my child, and I believe for most, a woman coming from the rib of a dusty man is not more unreasonable or less plausible than the slow evolution of one species into another. It’s a question of upon which possibility does the imagination fix its gaze.
Sitting at the kitchen table and looking at my seven-year-old, I try not to feel like I’m failing her. I try to invoke the wonder and mysticism that are still unveiled in her eyes, the quick light of discovery that flashes here and there on her face. I try not to let this moment unravel too far into the future, as though everything resides in the kernel of this moment, all my worries about who she will become. I also try hard not to feel that all the years of feminism has been reduced to a single obscure conversation between mother and daughter about whether or not women came from man, to serve him, to tempt him, to test God, to lead us always astray, to be bound to nature and death; that women deserve what they get, and should be ashamed – don’t be a slut, don’t get pregnant, find a good boy and get married someday; that women will again fall obediently into step with the dictates of their makers. Am I wrong to think that eventually it all comes down to a mother and a daughter trying to traverse the kitchen table – and a few thousand years of history – to find each other?
This is precisely what I wanted to avoid. We want to connect to our kids, bridge the generational divide, isn’t that true? I want to loosen the rigid and archaic roles that dictate how we should sit together, how to speak and to whom. I, too, have faith in less suffering, more justice, more love. I have faith in our ability to connect. Which is the main reason why I don’t really have any special defense when my daughter says, “A dusty man rib. Grandma told me.”
I smile. “Okay,” I say. And I mean it.