A conversation with my five-year-old son left me rather perplexed recently. It went something like this:
Son: Daddy, when I grow up I'm going to get a boy dog and a girl dog.
Me: Why, Izzy?
Son: So I can have a lot of puppies.
Me: Really? Well, who's going to take care of them?
Son: My wife!
Me: Oh... you're getting married.
Son: Of course.
Me: Well, who are you going to marry?
Son: I don't know... did you know mommy before you got married?
Me: Did I know mommy? Of course I... uh, well...
Ain't that a kick in the head? Stumped by a kid who just started kindergarten. It was tempting to take his question at face value and simply tell him "of course I knew mommy," thereby fulfilling my fatherly duties and getting back to my coffee. However that answer would have been at best a white lie and I felt a responsibility to take him seriously and give his question the consideration it deserved.
If I was honest in that moment, my best answer might have been something like: "Well, when I started dating your mom, I didn't know myself very well, let alone anyone else." but that's way too much existential angst to heave onto a five-year-old. Instead, I borrowed an old public speaking tactic and stalled for more time, asking if I could think about his question and get back to him later. Thankfully, he agreed.
While contemplating how to answer Izzy's question in a thoughtful and age appropriate way, I was reminded of a cringe-worthy experience from a few years back. My wife had come across printouts she'd saved of our old online dating profiles, and asked if I would be interested in reading mine. "Of course," I replied. "Sounds like fun!"
I was wrong.
The person described in my profile sounded a little like me, only pumped up with half-truths and exaggerations: he had a penchant for creative projects (check! I had composed music for a couple of documentary films), an attraction to Western Canada (Check! I was living in Vancouver at the time), he was a risk-taking mountain biker (er... a couple of years ago sure, maybe), religiously observant (ohhh, yeah, that was more of an aspiration and something that would impress potential in-laws), serious about marriage (ummm really!? At the time I was severely commitment-phobic).
Comedian Chris Rock seems to understand well the struggle to know and represent our true selves when in one of his bits, taken from the album Bigger & Blacker, he asks:
"Who's the biggest liar, men or women? Men lie all the time, but women tell the biggest lies: You ain't that tall, you got heels on; your face don't look like that, you got makeup on, your lips ain't that big..."
About men, on the other hand, he says,
"Men lie all the time.... We lie so much, it's damn near a language."
Sure, Chris Rock is over-the-top cynical about the ways we lie to each other. He's a comedian looking for laughs. However he has a point that we never really know ourselves, or our potential partners, as well as we think we do.
As a therapist, I know there are many things we can and should do to become more self-aware, but there will always be an element of the unknown in the partner we choose. The reason being that we tend to fall in love with fantasies and projections. It can take many years -- with the predictable ups and downs of life -- to slowly discover who we, and our partners, truly are.
I eventually answered my son's question by explaining in simple terms that people are always changing and growing, and that sometimes this can make it hard to really know someone else. But with hard work and a little luck, we can change and grow together and make an adventure out of it.
My son was predictably satisfied with my response. After all if anyone can appreciate the thrill of the unknown it's a five-year-old boy full of questions.