The other weekend, we were at a lifelong friend’s house for their son’s fifth birthday party. The mom grew up a few miles down the road from me, and in similar circumstances. Not a lot of money, and quite a bit of family stress. We both had loving parents that were doing the best they could in the face of huge obstacles. (The latter makes things easier, but not easy.) In our childhoods, the kids in our families heard “no,” a lot. “No, we can’t afford that.” “No, your mom’s sick.” “No, that’s just not an option right now.” It doesn’t matter how much your parents WANT to say yes if the money, and the time, and the resources just aren’t there. Where we grew up, “no” was a way of life.
But we also both had roots in the same countercultural community. And in that part of our lives, the answer was always, “I donno, can you?” There was never any money (unless you made it). But there was always opportunity, exemplified by one legendary kid, who sold invisible magic beans to audience members, for $10 a pop.
As we’ve become adults, we’ve both turned “I donno, can you?” into real businesses (that obviously traffic in their share of magic beans). For me, it’s APW. For them, it’s creating shows for tens of thousands of people, with live mermaids. And as we’ve grown those magic beans into magic beanstalks, we’ve both learned to say yes a lot more. Yes to the things we once knew you couldn’t even ask for.
On this early summer afternoon, we were there, in a big backyard, with our kids. The backyard was filled with an above ground pool, a swing set and slide, and a huge trampoline. Not to mention a homemade stage, and a grill, and a ride-along kid car. I wrangled my wriggling toddler from cake eating to mini-car pretend driving. And then I dove in the pool with the big kids (and the toddler), and spent a while jumping on the trampoline. None of it was fancy. It wasn’t a glamorous in-ground pool, or a state-of-the-art slide. But it was a giant series of, “Yes, why nots?” in a world that often seems filled with, “No.” It was an answer to the “I donno, can you?” with “Of course we can.”
As I fed my kid a lunch of strawberries, I listened to some of the other moms whisper, somewhat grimly, among themselves.
“Our kids are going to be really wired when they leave here.”
“I know. There are just so many things that they enjoy. And all in the same backyard.”
“My kids really want a trampoline, but we’ve said no. I can’t remember why… Oh, right, well. My husband is an insurance agent, and he says some companies won’t cover you if you have a trampoline in your backyard. I mean, some will, but some won’t, so we just think it’s a better idea not to have one.”
As someone with a childhood filled with nos, it was scary for me to dive into this gig of parenthood. Would having a kid mean going back to the same limitations of my childhood? But I forgot that one corner of my childhood was filled with an invitation to go for it, and that was the foundation on which I’d built my life.
It feels like modern parenthood often seems like it’s an invitation to say no, a whole lot. I think this as I’m telling a parent on a playground, “Yes, it’s okay if your kid shares their snacks!” I think this as I’m encouraging friends, “Of course you can step in if he’s doing something that looks dangerous!” I think this as I realize I’m the only parent waiting in line to “test out” the amazing bumpy slide winding down the hill in the fancy San Francisco playground. Modern parenthood pushes a cult of unnecessary nos, while never asking kids the open ended, “I donno, can you?” (Because of course they can, but we’re afraid it might be slightly dangerous.)
There are many times that I have to say no to my kid, or no to my family. No. He can’t run in the street, or bite people, or push, or touch the record player. But the rest of the time, I’ve filled my motherhood with a blinking sign that says, “Yes. Why not?” and when he’s older, I hope, “I donno, can you?”
Will my kid have the same kind of hustle I have? I hope not. My hustle is rooted in the rocky soil of “It can’t exist, unless you make it.” But I hope he’ll have a different kind of hustle. I hope he’ll have the drive to create backyard stages where there were no stages before. To say yes to huge slides. And to always, always try to sell a passerby an invisible magic bean.