Sneaking out to see the stars

“Mama, let’s go outside to see the stars!”  My hopeful four-year-old smiled eagerly at me as he padded over in his footie pajamas, hopeful for a last-minute reprieve from bedtime. 

“Not tonight, sweetie,” I said, “we’ve already read your books and tucked you in.  I’ll be back to snuggle you in a moment.”  I smiled as I tucked in my six-year-old, tousled his blond hair, and gave him an extra hug.  I knew that they just wanted to stay up a little later, but with daylight savings time starting tonight, I had to be the parent and say no. 

I said no, but part of me wanted to go out and show them the stars, to point out constellations to them as my father had to me when I was six years old, as I had to them so often as toddlers and young preschoolers, and to make that memory again, now that they were perhaps old enough to remember.  I wanted to see what they saw, to follow their chubby little pointing fingers as they found stars — and planets, and planes — in the sky, and to tell them tales of far-away worlds and wonders that generations older than theirs are only now beginning to discover, with telescopes in space, adaptive optics, planes, and space planes in which  people will soon be able to take flight, soaring high above the atmosphere, pointing their cameras at the stars and taking pictures and data to explore the space at once nearby and so very far away.  These new techniques are revealing worlds upon worlds of mystery, so much more than I even dreamed of as a child, standing in the driveway with my parents and our printed star chart.

I dreamed that I would be one of those scientists, discovering new worlds, searching new space, finding the planet that I knew — just knew — existed out there, around another sun, just around the astronomical corner from us. 

As it turns out, I’m not.  When I faced the choice to stay and run the amazing Discovery Program of new NASA missions to explore the planets or be home before my kids’ bedtime, I wavered.  I explored my options, and, after a time, there were none.  No one at NASA Headquarters allowed regular telecommuting at the time, and no one allowed part-time work.  I know.  I called in all my chits and went to talk to everyone I knew, in offices from Astrophysics to Heliophysics to Planetary, the Chief Scientist’s Office, and in staff positions, but there was nothing.  No options.  No way to stay at the job of my dreams and also work less than 40 hours a week – 50 including commute time – away from my infant.  No one could even understand why I would want to.

And so, I left my dreams behind, and I came home.  I don’t regret my decision – it was the right one for me – but some nights, when I look up at the sky, or return from fancy planetary science conferences, there is a twinge of curiosity.  Of what might have been.  Of what person I might have been, and in what paradigm shattering research I might have participated.

I sigh and tuck my children into bed.  They snuggle in, warm, safe, and loved, and that reassures me as I go next door to my office to work on my contract work late into the night.

At 5 a.m. my little one stumbled into our room, waking us with tears and news of a potty accident.  As I stripped his bed and changed his clothes, tucking him into our bed for the rest of the night, the stars outside my window caught my eye, and I couldn’t help myself.

“Little Bear, would you like to see the stars?” I asked, knowing that it would be harder to get him back to sleep, but willing to trade rest for the moment of shared experience.  “Right now, Mama?” he asked, surprised at my willingness to interrupt his sleep.  “Right now, Bear.”  I helped him climb on to the chair by my window, and together we gazed out into the dark night, captivated by the two stars that seemed caught in the treetops in the forest.  Another one hung nearby, and he asked me, “Why there only three stars out tonight?” I started to tell him about city lights and interference, and then gave up all hope of getting him back to sleep.  “Put your coat on, Bear.  Let’s go outside to see the stars.” 

He could barely contain his excitement as he wiggled into his brother’s shoes and coat, more easily found in the dark, and we giggled as we snuck onto the driveway, moving away from the house for a better view.  I showed him how to shield his eyes from the streetlight, and together we gazed at the dark sky and bright stars, silent with wonder.

I showed him the big dipper, and he found a planet and a plane, and we drank deeply of the night air and the constellations.  As he started to shiver in the cold, I pointed to the bright north star and said, ”See that bright star?” 

And with four-year-old innocence, he said, “Uh-huh.  That’s the dipper,” and turned around to go inside, back to bed, where he would once again snuggle in, safe, warm, and loved, but this time with the memory of the thrill of sneaking outside in the middle of the night, awed by the majesty of the night sky, and alive with wonder at the stars that dot the edges of his experience.

Susan Niebur is an astrophysicist by training and a mom by practice, also blogging at http://toddlerplanet.wordpress.com, http://womeninplanetaryscience.com, and http://motherswithcancer.com.

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