“What do you think?” I counter, shifting the baby to my other hip and trying to sound breezy. This has been my response the last two years. My husband Lee and I have already decided that this year, if Iris asks again, we will be kind but honest. We've read moving letters circulating the internet about how to explain to your kids that they are part of Santa’s army now. It sounds legit, meaningful, responsible. We have an approach ready if not a plan. What we did not anticipate was that she’d ask in the company of her four-year-old brother.
“I think he’s real but Adam from Adam Ruins Everything said he was a myth and that means he isn’t. So tell me the truth.”
The word truth drops with a thud and hangs in the air. I’ve always tried to be as honest as possible with my daughter, knowing that the trust we share now will inform our relationship during what I can only assume with her ferocious intellect and raw sensitivity will be tumultuous teen years. Henry pauses, alligator magnet in hand. Is he listening? Did I imagine that? I set the baby on the floor, usher her toward Henry, and choose my words carefully.
“I believe in the magic of Christmas and Santa is a part of that.”
“Promise me,” she says again and again, studying my face. I know what answer she wants, but I also know she is terrified of being mocked at school if Santa isn’t real and she’s in the camp defending him. “Promise me you believe.”
The next night, Iris and I sit by the fireplace alone. She’s being extra snuggly and I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve lied to her about something huge. I ask if she wants to talk about the Santa thing a bit more. The truth spills out of both of us, words toppling and shattering across the couch cushions, and she crumples. Honest sobs. I hold her for a good while and tell her about the palpable magic of Christmas that’s still inside of her somewhere and is so much more permanent and authentic than flying reindeer could ever be, about how there is still so much to believe in, how she's clever and good and true, and how if she tells Henry, I’ll kill her, and how really all of this just brings us closer. She collects herself.
“I wish I never watched that stupid episode,” she says.
“Man.” I laugh a little, tentatively. “Adam really does ruin everything.”
The corners of her mouth twitch slightly. “I know, right?”
It hits me how much Iris sounds like a tween already and not a little girl.
“Oh, and I already know about the Easter Bunny,” Iris says. “Because – giant bunny? Come on!”
It’s funny how much impact a realization like this has. In a matter of days, Iris just seems older. We start hanging out in a different way. We go out for Fro Yo and talk like old friends. She spontaneously decides she wants bangs. Lee and I start letting her walk to school on her own. She helps with the little ones.
It’s funny, though, the impact. I find myself telling everyone who will listen – coworkers, clients, the dentist, cashiers – that this is my daughter’s first Christmas without Santa. It becomes the thing I say in holiday small talk, a narrative I weave briskly that elicits knowing smiles from older parents and polite disinterest from the millennials in the office. Life goes on.
It’s a week before Christmas, and my husband and I are taking stock of things. We sit on the hardwood floor, leaning on the couch and perusing amazon. I pull the folded piece of newsprint from my wallet where I’ve been keeping a record of what I’ve bought each of our kids and how much I’ve spent. We search specifics still untouched and fill in some of the gaps, but the amount we have left to spend is chunked out in a few quick “add to cart” clicks. I scan the neat columns on my paper. OK, Henry has the garbage truck, and the baby has bath toys, and I got Iris that earring tree shaped like the Eiffel Tower, but I know she really, really wants that Harry Potter charm bracelet. I do broke people math in my head.
“It’s not gonna happen, is it? The charm bracelet.” My voice threatens to crack, and I haven’t cried at anything outside of sentimental viral videos and a particularly haunting episode of SVU in I don’t know how long. I’m not a crier. I’m not much of an emoter at all, really. Lee closes the laptop.
“It will be fine,” he says. “It always is. Even if we don’t buy another thing, Christmas will be wicked.”
We’re not broke like we were five years ago, and we’ve never had to navigate Christmas with the bracing desperation that some parents do, but Christmas is always a little scary and we scratch our heads a lot and wonder how we’re going to pull it off. It will be fine. It always is. Still, this panic sits between my eyes and climbs up my throat.
I fold and unfold the list, smooth the edges, smudge the penciled record of what we can and can’t make happen. It’s not about this sheet of paper or the corresponding pile of presents under the tree, I realize with a sudden rush. Iris is a mostly good kid. She knows that Christmas is about something bigger than what’s hidden underneath shiny paper and that giving and getting overlap in extraordinary ways. Here I am staring at a list of gifts, asking myself again and again, is it enough? But what I’m really asking is deeper and more piercing. Am I enough? For her? For any of my children who represent my truest understanding of magic? Without unbridled hope and unspeakable expectation, am I enough? Beyond Christmas, beyond third grade, beyond and beyond and beyond – am I enough?