“What’s the most important moment of your life?” I say and my son rolls his eyes. “Gastrulation!”
His mom is pregnant and so we’ve been talking a lot about where babies come from. Revision. He is a nine-year-old boy, so we’ve been talking about everything.
What school do astronauts go to? How many days does it take for Komodo Dragon venom to kill you? When did Tyrannosaurus Rex live?
There are some things I know a lot about, gastrulation being one.
Gastrulation is the moment where the little sphere of cells that will one day be you softly puckers inward on one side. Blip! And for the rest of your life, this will be your bottom. Such a subtle thing. And yet. Without this first orientation of the body, an unfolding of a compass to decipher, Ah yes, true north is this way, everything else in your life, while miraculous, would never be possible.
Then there are things I know very little about. But, there is a library.
As a step-parent, my greatest joy is partnering with my kids as they learn. This is why I like the term “bonus mom.” I’m not trying to step in on anyone, I’m just a bonus for love and alternate perspectives.
But, along with the joys, there are also unique frustrations. The library book that created the most furor (surpassing, even, the objections to Harry Potter) was the illustrated children’s book entitled Evolution.
Our son was reading it while my husband drove to the halfway point for the kids exchange (“It sounds like a drug deal when you call it that!” my daughter says). That night, our phones lit up with a group text from his ex-wife. She felt it was disrespectful for me to confuse the kids with a book about evolution when she was raising them to be Christian.
“How exciting!” I said, waving my phone in front of my husband. “She’s talking to me directly now!”
I once had this dream where our son was sick. He was feverish and coughing and I was holding him and patting his back but nothing would make him better. And I was thinking, in my dream, I should call their mom. If I could just call her and ask her, she would know what to do.
I woke up from the dream, filled with so much longing for the kind of relationship with her where it would be possible to call her, that I had to squeeze my eyes and clench my fists so hard that my nails cut into my palms.
Divorce is about dividing adults and adults’ things. But it can also divide parenting, such that grief or power or bitterness drives decisions. While I was taken aback to hear their mom/my husband’s ex-wife (Momex? Can that be a thing?) say biology and a belief in Jesus are incompatible, I was giddy to think we might finally have a chance to come together to do what was best for these two precious kids.
I thought a lot about what to text back to her, then finally sent out this reply, “Thanks for reaching out! I’d love to get on a call so we can talk about this.”
Over the next week, I reached out to my friends who were strongest in their Christian faith.
But first I called my mother. “Mooommmm!” I groaned over the phone.
My mother holds a PhD in biology, by the way. “Maybe she just doesn’t understand what evolution is,” my mother suggested, “and so she’s afraid?”
My friend Dan — he’s a ship engineer and a Catholic, was perhaps the most eloquent on this subject. He told me the evidence for evolution is uncontroversial. But, like my husband, he believes God created evolution as a process. To study biology and its principles is to study the divine. Speaking with emotion, Dan said, “What is revealed to us, when we see all this biological diversity and these intricate mechanisms, is how much love He poured into this Earth. And into us, into creating all of this for us.”
Far from being a contradiction to God, biology is an affirmation of God and the bounty of His love. It’s just that, where a biologist sees a random scrambling of genetic code during meiosis, a believer sees the hand of God. Where a physicist sees a happenstance Big Bang, a believer sees Genesis.
But how do you, as a parent, balance letting your kids explore, even make mistakes, while also protecting them? (As a bonus mom, there’s not a lot of time to think about these things in advance. You are plopped down in the middle of a young person’s life and you just have to start swimming as hard as you can.)
My friend Steve talked about it this way. “What it comes back to,” he said, “is we are a team. That’s what I tell my kids, we are a team, so what’s best for the team?”
When a kid is struggling, he needs to be able to struggle with you. When you, as a parent, ban a book or refuse to engage on an idea, you take yourself off the team. The kid will read that book anyway, you can be sure of that. But now, when he wants to talk about it, it’s going to be with someone else because you’re not on the team anymore.
I played phone tag with the Momex for a week or so. But when she finally got through, it was to my husband while he was at work.
My husband had not been looking at any of this as a wonderful opportunity for us all to come together in a lovely Kumbayah of parenthood and compassionate study of faith and science. Rather, this was another trial in Momex Overreach and no way was he going to be told what to do in his own home.
The conversation apparently got heated and my opportunity to understand what it was that Momex was so afraid of was, sadly, lost. I was left only with the imprints of fingernails in my palms.
When the kids returned to our custody two weeks later, we shared with them that neither of us thought science and Christianity were at all incompatible.
Over dinner on our back porch, I ran through some high points on DNA, Darwin’s finches, and the mane of the Big Daddy Lion of the Sahara.
There’s only so much you can cover in seven minutes — according to my therapist, the length of time a man can attentively listen to a woman. But, as I told my husband after we’d put the kids to bed that night, if two months from now he hears the word evolution and this little thing goes off in his brain where he says, “What was that thing again? Something about guppies and God?” that would be good enough for me. The presentation of an alternative.
Love also happens differently when you’re a bonus mom. My son doesn’t say the words, “I love you.” He’s loyal to his mom, and I get that. He hasn’t learned yet that there’s this funny thing about love where your heart is so so big, you can love and love and love and, the more you love, the more love you have to give.
But he shows what I know as love in other ways.
There’s a lullaby my dad used to sing to me when I was a little girl and now I’ve been singing it to my kids for the past year or two when they have trouble falling asleep.
The other night, my son was still wired when we were putting him to bed. I started rubbing his back and softly began, “As I sat down one evening / ’twas in a small cafe…” He joined in, his delicate voice partially muffled through the pillow. And he knew every word from start to finish. Blip! went my heart. This must be the most tender moment of my life.
My mother was also a stepmom herself, to my dad’s first two kids before she gave birth to me and my sister. “Being a stepmom is hard,” she says. “You get all of the bad parts and none of the credit.” But she also tells me to just be myself. “Even when it doesn’t seem like it, they are listening to you,” she says.
Several days after the finches and the Big Daddy lions talk, my son and I were playing one of his favorite card games in the kitchen. We were snacking on Rainier cherries — they are glorious and sweet this time of year. I picked out a card. Map my card reads at the top. I have to try and get my son to guess the word, but without saying the other words on the card: navigation, exploration, travel, world, or treasure. “If you needed to go somewhere,” I say, “you would use this plus a compass.”
My son guesses it, and pulls out a card for his turn. “Birds evolved from these?” he says.
I pause. Study his face. “Dinosaurs?” I say, holding my breath.
“Yep!” and without even looking up he’s already flipping to the next card.
Inside, my heart does cartwheels. Blip! Kablam! Kablow!
“Thank you, Momex,” I whisper deep inside myself. With her text message, she gifted me a whole week of conversations with my friends on a deeper level we rarely talk about. More than that, she gifted me this beautiful, smart little boy, whose top and bottom and heart and curiosity are all in exactly the right place.
And isn’t that miraculous?
Kyra Wiens lives in Tacoma, Washington where she is a professional triathlete, Air Force wife, and yoga teacher. You may follow her blog at www.kyrawiens.com.