Peruse an “astronomical” gallery from Magnum Photos.
The other night, my boys curled up on the couch with my husband and went to the moon. They were enthralled by a grainy video of Neil Armstrong’s 1969 shaky descent onto the pitted lunar sand. “Mom, the Eagle has landed!” they shouted in unison. “Come watch!” I was in the kitchen, reading Elizabeth Weil’s New York Times Magazine story on the perils of trying to improve a companionate marriage. I was enthralled, too. “Listen to this,” I said, reading aloud as I walked into the living room, “We lost steam 95 percent of the way through our D.I.Y. home remodeling and, as a result, have no master-bathroom door.”
“SHHH!” my sons hissed. “Mom, be quiet!” scolded Simon, who is 6.
I sat down, put the magazine aside, and tried to care about the moon, the planets, the stars, the galaxy. I concentrated on the astronauts and Sputnik and the race with the Soviet Union from JFK to Nixon. But I was interrupted by a stingy voice in my head: Just think what we could do on this planet with all the time and energy we spend trying to reach other ones. I know, I know: It’s anti-science, anti-American, anti-imagination. But I am incorrigibly, constitutionally earthbound. I have never willingly studied a single page of astronomy. My knowledge of the planets begins and ends with My Very Elderly Mother Just Sat Upon Nine Pillows (except, no more P, as Simon has informed me). I relish stories about NASA boondoggles for confirming my suspicion that the agency is a budget sinkhole.
And yet my boys are in love. They ask for library books about outer space. They had a DVD of the moon landing. They go to the local planetarium. They recite facts about planetary gasses and burned-up stars and black holes and something else called a white hole. “Mom, did you know?” they ask before launching into a minilecture. I never do. Nor, if I’m honest, do I care to find out. The other day, Eli interrupted himself in the middle of a shooting star explanation and said, sagely, “Mom, sometimes you don’t really listen to me.”
This leaves me with a guilty question: What do you do when your children’s interests don’t match your own? Do you do your utmost to cultivate genuine enthusiasm and expertise? Do you fake it? Or do you keep the faith with your own passions, figuring you’re teaching a lesson about assertion of selfhood and independence?
I am tempted to stray down the last path—is that the one for the lazy, self-involved parent, or is it the proudly resolute one? I know it’s ridiculous to oppose in any way a child’s passion for anything scientific. They could be hacking into corporate mainframes instead of dreaming about Apollo 11. Also, and inconveniently, my boredom plays straight into tedious gender stereotypes I hate to reinforce. What’s the message I’m sending: Men are from Mars and women are from … not even Venus? Simon and I recently read aloud The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, in which a girl in Texas at the turn of the 20th century drinks in Darwin and helps her grandfather look for undiscovered species. I recommend it. But a book is no substitute for a mother who shows rather than tells her sons that women do science, or at least appreciate its wonders.
Also, my choice to skip out on the moon landing was making me a figure of ridicule. “If you’d rather read about someone’s marriage than watch the moon landing, that’s just—” Eli searched, “dumb!”
“Dumb and boring!” Simon threw in.
“But I’m more interested in things like marriage that happen to people, on Earth, than I am in anything on the moon,” I said. I got a little carried away. “I mean, who cares about the moon? How does it affect us or any other human beings? It doesn’t.”
The boys stared at me.
“You know, sometimes people are interested in things that other people aren’t interested in,” I continued. “Like this story I’m reading about marriage. You wouldn’t be interested in it, but I am.”
“I’m interested,” Simon said. “Tell me about it.”
That kind of stopped me. The next day, I called Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience with a new book about sex difference, Pink Brain, Blue Brain. She didn’t sympathize. “How can you not be interested in astronomy?” she asked.
All too easily.
I asked Eliot whether I should feign interest so my kids didn’t get the idea that women don’t like science. “Having kids is a good opportunity to stretch yourself,” she said. “You know, it’s a good idea to open your mind, regardless of gender, and try to catch some of their fever. You’ll be starting from ground zero, so you’ll be asking the questions they’re asking.”
Well, no, I explained. My kids were way ahead of me.
“Even better!” Eliot responded. “Kids really benefit from being teachers. They learn even better from explaining things to other people than from having things explained to them.”
Right. Child-directed learning. I’ve heard of that. I even like to preach it. And so instead of waving good-bye to my boys and my husband, I went along for a visit to the local planetarium. I did not come away with a lot of facts in my head about black holes. But I did go with my kids into the cold night air to peer through long telescopes at Jupiter and the Andromeda Galaxy. OK, I faked a little excitement. But, hey, one way to learn to walk the walk for real is to start going through the motions.
We bought a small telescope of our own at the planetarium. The next night, Eli and Simon wanted to put it together. My husband, Paul, was out. This was really a double whammy: astronomy and do-it-yourself assembly. But I helped take the pieces out of the box and unfolded the alarmingly cryptic page of instructions.
I would like to report that we successfully built that telescope and that night we trained it on Jupiter and Venus. Alas, those tricky instructions tripped us up, and we couldn’t align the telescope’s lenses properly, and I was reduced to promising that Paul would help us finish tomorrow. Still, we’d worked on the project together. I got points for that from Eli and Simon. (As it turned out, Paul couldn’t figure out how to put the telescope together, either.)
Undeterred, Simon has been asking for a periscope. He also says that when he grows up, he’s going to be an astronomer and an astronaut. I mentioned biologist as an alternative a few times. But then I stopped. Now I tell him that I can’t wait for him to teach me all about the solar system. Maybe he’ll be a rebel astronomer, and someday reform NASA, or call for an end to manned space missions so that the money can be used to fix Social Security? A mother can dream.