Zaynab. Oh, Zaynab. This child is my teacher.
She has a very specific bedtime ritual composed of a set of top-secret yes/no questions she asks me (out of respect for her, I can’t divulge the questions). If I’m not there, Siraj is an acceptable alternative.
This used to annoy me to no end. Eight questions back to back at the very time when my body has already shut down for the night. I would answer them curtly or irritably, and invariably she would get upset. Real mature of me, right? I decided to just tell her, “Zaynab, I just get so tired at this time; it’s hard for me to answer these questions.” She did not take it well.
Siraj had been observing me getting irritated over this for some time and he finally told me, “Look, you need to understand that these questions are very important to her, so you should respect that.” I was shocked into silence for a moment.
“Oh my God, Siraj. You sound like my therapist, Jerilyn.” He’s not the type to talk feelings, so I would have never expected this insight. Since that day, I have not once responded with irritation to her questions.
She knows that I’m not a big fan of the ritual, though. So there was one question in there that, due to changes in our house, became inapplicable. She would still ask me that one. I would sometimes try to get out of it, but she would persist with it every single day. She’s ornery like that. One night she said, “Do you know why I still ask you that question, and sometimes add others? It’s because I need to teach you patience. You need to learn to be more patient.”
Did I mention that she’s my greatest teacher?
Recently, Zaynab called me out again on my question/answer etiquette. In my haste to finish, sometimes I speed through by saying “Mmm hmm” or “Uhh uh” instead of “yes” or “no.”
She cornered me: “Why do you sometimes make those sounds instead of talking? When your friends are talking to you, do you just say ‘huh’ to them or do you actually talk? That’s not good, Mommy, that’s not good.”
It was one of those proverbial lightbulb moments. I finally understood her need behind the questions. She feels inattention and parental distraction and frustration quite keenly, and so she created this connection ritual each night as a reassurance to herself and a test for me. The questions sound silly and inconsequential, but what she’s really asking me with them is, “Do you love me unconditionally?”; “Are you always going to be there for me?”; “Can I count on you?” This was my chance at redemption and absolution at the end of each hectic, imperfect day. This was my chance to make things right, even when I’ve yelled and growled, been distracted or absent.
I finally understood. “Okay, Z, let’s do this one more time tonight. I think I understand.”
Before she even started in with the questions, she launched herself into my arms. “I love you sooo much!”
This time, instead of “mm hmms” and grunts, I said, “Yes, dear.” or “No, silly goose.” She grinned and engaged with me on a much deeper level than earlier when I was mentally checked out. It was her way of saying, “Yes, Mommy, you finally understood me.” At last, all was right in her world, and she could sleep with her heart at peace.