Jul 13 2016

If “The Why Stage” Causes an Actual Nervous Breakdown, Please Send Help

Well, I thought we missed it.

I thought The Why Stage would happen right around two-ish, when kids are SUPPOSED to drive you crazy, when language is shiny and new and words that are monosyllabic get preferential treatment. After P turned three a few months ago and it still hadn’t happened, I kicked back in my imaginary chair with an imaginary, umbrella-d Mai Tai and laughed and pointed at alllll the imaginary people.

WE MISSED IT, SUCKERS! You had to answer all those unanswerable questions, and look at me over here sipping my beverage! FLAWLESS. VICTORY.

And then along came almost-three-and-a-half. She woke up one morning, asked “Why?” when I told her to put on her pants, and it hasn’t stopped since.

At first, I viewed the situation as a storytelling exercise. Who needs creative writing prompts when your preschooler demands constant answers to questions you’ve never, ever considered? I spun responses into short narratives, weaving in details and Big Fish embellishments to entertain my audience of one. I replied to all of her follow-up “why”s with lightning speed, back and forth, like brain ping-pong.

She is keeping your mind sharp, I reasoned. This is way better than a crossword puzzle.

why word created from alphabet puzzle, "the why stage"

But one evening, after the seven hundred and fortieth why, I stared at my computer and tried to write something and came up completely blank. There was nothing left. No more juice. This wasn’t a successful brain exercise — IT WAS MURDERING MY CREATIVE SOUL.

By the next day, that mind void had expanded to an overfilled, temperamental, poppable helium balloon. And when she asked, “But WHY do I have to put away all my toys before naptime?” I did not bother to fashion an intelligent response.

Instead, I reached into the bag of Things You Promised You Would Never Say and pulled out “BECAUSE I SAID SO.” (Also included, free of charge: “You’re going to poke someone’s eye out with that” and “We don’t play with our food.”)

I cringed when it escaped my mouth, but now the seal is broken — I’ve busted it out another handful of times since then. Yep, I kind of hate myself.

But I mean, please have a look at some ACTUAL conversations happening in our household this month:

#1: “Why are all the stores already closed?”

Because it’s Sunday, and lots of stores close early on Sunday. People need to rest. They need to get home to their families.

“But why don’t they need to get home to their families on all the OTHER days?”

They do. They just get home a little bit later on those days so other people can shop.

“Why do people need to shop?”

Because that’s how we get things like food and clothes and soap.

“But why do they call it ‘shop’? Why is that the word? Why did someone make that word?”

#2: “Why is that lady walking her dog on that street?”

Maybe she lives there, honey. Her house is probably on that street.

“But WHY does she live there? Why do WE not live there?”

Well, we chose to live somewhere else. Remember? We just moved into a different house.

“Why can’t we put our house on that lady’s street?”

#3: “Why do dogs have to pee outside?”

So they don’t pee in the house.

“But why is that bad? Why doesn’t the rest of our family pee outside?”

#4: “MOM! The baby is trying to touch the toilet water. Wait. Why can’t babies touch toilet water?”

Because it’s pretty yucky, you know?

“Why is it yucky?”

Well, that’s where we go to the bathroom.

“But WHY is that yucky?”

Because there are germs in the bathroom sometimes. And that’s why we wash our hands — we are trying to get the germs to go down the drain.


“But why is toilet water yucky and sink water is NOT yucky?”

#5: “Why isn’t it time to get up yet?”

Um, because it’s five-o-clock in the morning.

“But WHY don’t persons get up at five-o-clock in the morning?”

BECAUSE WE ARE SANE. (Or we used to be…sort of.) NOW GO BACK TO SLEEP.

Her inflection kills me. It’s drawn out and monotone and sometimes a little bit bored, and it sounds like “Whyyy-eee.” With a period. As if she’s humoring me by engaging with her mother in the first place, like I should feel privileged that she has chosen to ask me at all.

Guys. I used to answer questions about Shakespeare and Orwell and Emerson. I used to be the one ASKING the questions, in fact. Things like, “What is a theme of The Catcher in the Rye, and how is it still relevant to teenagers today?” Now my preschooler asks:

Why does our new microwave have a different beep than our old microwave?

Why do ‘struction workers use orange cones instead of yellow cones?

Why do I want to drink water when I’m hot?

Why does that place have grass and THAT place have wood chips?

Why do my eyes match YOUR eyes but not Daddy’s?

Why do bees like purple flowers?

I know Peaches starts with the letter P, but WHY? Why does it have to do that?

Sometimes I know what to say. Sometimes I make something up. Sometimes I am just totally defeated, and I tell her, “I don’t know,” because I CANNOT ADDRESS ANY MORE QUESTIONS (and probably because I have no actual idea).

And then last night she asked, “Mom. When you give me a hug, why do you hold me sooo long?”

I rubbed her little back, almost sinewy now, no longer fluffed with puffy baby rolls.

Why are you growing up so quickly? Why can’t you be this tiny and precious forever? Why don’t we get a pause button?

I tightened my squeeze. “Because,” I replied. “I just love you so much.”

That one I knew how to answer.

About Melissa

Melissa is a SAG-AFTRA actress and former high school teacher from Michigan who (reluctantly) moved across the country when she was six months pregnant. She is the winner of the SmokeLong Quarterly Grand Micro Contest and a past winner of the Breakwater Review Fiction Prize (selected by Susanna Kaysen, author of Girl, Interrupted), the F(r)iction flash fiction competition, and The Writer's inaugural personal essay contest, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review, The Greensboro Review, New Ohio Review, HuffPost, Scary Mommy, and The Boston Globe Magazine, among others. She has been shortlisted for both the Bridport Prize and the Bath Flash Fiction Award and was recently selected for The Best Small Fictions and the Wigleaf Top 50. Melissa is represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

6 comments on “If “The Why Stage” Causes an Actual Nervous Breakdown, Please Send Help

  1. Melissa,
    I enjoy reading your writing so much. I can’t wait to read your first book. Put down an order for me please!

  2. Oh Melissa!
    This brings back so many memories with my Emilee! She was so full of questions! I am so proud of you and your wonderful writing skills! I am also proud of your parenting skills. You must have had great teachers!! Love you, Girl!

  3. I always found that some version of “what do you think” worked quite well when my daughter was in the WHY phase (it lasted for about 8 years by the way)

  4. “Why?”
    “Because God made it that way.”
    “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask God.”
    Drop the mic, questions done, I win. This ended many circular why conversations when my kids were younger. Now the problem is they know I will tell them in great detail, lol.

  5. I’m laughing at #3 because that was the exact logic my eldest son used when he was 3 and I caught him peeing in our backyard: the dogs pee there so why couldn’t he?

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