My boys love astronomy. I couldn't care less.

Snapshots of life at home.
Dec. 11 2009 7:11 AM

Mom, the Eagle Has Landed!

My boys love astronomy. I couldn't care less.

Peruse an "astronomical" gallery from Magnum Photos. 

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

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.

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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."

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