“Mommy, tell me a story.”
It’s the latest bedtime stall tactic in our house. My body wants to say no, wants to claw my way out of this room, away from their needs, and clock out of this day job before I must report for duty too early the next morning – at least as long as everyone sleeps through the night.
But I am a writer and writers need to hone their skills. So even though I’m tired at the end of a long day, I see his challenge as a creative practice for me.
Lately he has asked for scary stories. I don’t like scary. As a peacemaker at heart I like happy and cozy and harmony all wrapped up in a pretty watercolor backdrop. But my boy is different than me; he always has been. He came into my world with an intensity I still find unfamiliar. His immense curiosity leaves him wanting to know about all parts of the world, but especially the ones that baffle the mind of a four year old. Because it’s the unknown that can be the most frightening.
I recognize viewing the world through the lens of a story makes a child’s fears smaller, distant, more manageable. Accessing emotions like fear and sadness and anger is much easier when set in a story. The monsters come alive in our fairy tales but then go away just as quickly at the story’s conclusion. It’s tempting for me to share visions of an ideal world where everyone is jolly, but children need stories that grip the mind and heart, even if the story doesn’t end happily ever after. My children need sad. They need a bit of scary. They need stories in which things don’t work out. Stories of tragedy, struggle, and foolish characters all have a place in a child’s world to help them understand life.
In fact, I think they need a place in my world too. He isn’t the only one I tell scary stories to. Sometimes, I tell these stories to myself. Stories about failure, about weak protagonists, about not being enough. In these stories, I am the one failing, the one who makes mistakes with her children because they make the world a bit more confusing and uncertain.
Here is one that comes to mind:
“Once upon a time there was a mother bear. She had three little cubs she loved so dearly. But her cubs were busy. While they loved to run and play, they also needed their mama bear very much. They needed her to find them food and clean their fur. They wanted answers to their questions – like why bugs are crunchy and why the water is blue. She had to convince them to sleep when they wanted to watch the stars instead, or stay close when they wanted to run. She wanted them to be free and happy but sometimes it was a lot of work for a mama bear in a big forest.
One day Mama bear got mad. She couldn’t handle any more questions and she couldn’t find them one more grub to eat and she was so tired of pulling them off of the tree so they could move on to the stream to do the fishing for the day. In her frustration, she roared a very loud roar. It was all her bear body knew what to do. But the roar was so big and her bear cubs so small, they got scared. They got so scared that they ran far, far away from their mama bear to hide.
She felt sad.
This isn’t a story I have shared yet, not with him anyway. Yet it is one that haunts me sometimes at night. Not being enough for them. Losing my patience. Scaring them away with my big emotions.
But then sometimes I imagine what he might say if I told him that story. Would it scare him too?
“Mommy that’s not how that ends,” he might say.
“No.” he would say with a smile. “The baby cubs wouldn’t run away from their mama!”
“They wouldn’t? But she roared so loudly. Weren’t they scared?”
“Well yeah, they were. At first. But they loved her so much. They knew she was just doing what Mama bears are supposed to do. Bears roar. It’s how she talks to her cubs. Besides, her cubs need to learn how to roar too.”
“Yes. Bears should be loud. That’s how they show how strong they are.”
He is a good storyteller, this strong, brave, fear seeking little boy. I like his version much better than my own.
Perhaps this is why we tell ourselves the scary stories – we need an ending with more hope than fear. What we label as faults in our stories might just be lessons for ourselves and for our children. Days can be hard, emotions big, and fears real. Maybe we need to tell ourselves these scary stories to realize that the thoughts we have aren’t to be felt in shame but told in bravery and hope. Fear and shame and defeat have a very real, unavoidable place in this world. But so does redemption, forgiveness, and love.
I still love a happy ending. I always will. But he reminds me to not be so afraid to tell the scary stories too. After all, I am a Mama Bear, and bears should be loud.