Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Problem with Unicorns

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Photo by Kate Ristau

Photo by Kate Ristau

My son, Rowan, and I have been talking a lot about unicorns lately. He's five years old, and since he was a baby, we've been telling him stories about our dog, Winslow. They started out simple—Winslow would smell muffins, and then he'd try to find them. He'd hear a strange sound, and he'd run off to investigate. The stories tuck Rowan in at night and fill him up when he's feeling sad. They're just one way we help him understand his world in very concrete, simple terms.

As he's grown, the stories have too; not just in length, but in the cast of characters. There's Rowantree and Star and Ralph the Dinosaur. There's Treeton, Taco Steve, and we can't forget Skillet Face the Dog. But his favorite lately has been Spirit the unicorn. Rowan asks for him every night now.

"One more story? Please, Dad? You didn't do a Spirit one."

Bob looks at me for help.

I want to hear about Spirit, too. I don't want the quiet yet. "Please, Dad?" I repeat, smiling.

"Fine," he says. "One more. Snuggle in. But seriously, you guys. This is the last one."

And then we're off to the Kingdom of the Valley of the Land of the Puppers where Spirit will vanquish the terrible and rescue everyone from uncertainty or hunger. Spirit, you see, is a unicorn who thinks the solution to any scenario is either a rainbow or sprinkles.

Winslow is sad? Rainbows!

Winslow is hungry? Sprinkles!

These stories are easy, and they're fun. Dancing, twirling—Spirit dusts every scene with unicorn sparkles, and Rowan listens with glossy eyes. Spirit makes sense to him because he loves magical thinking—loves the gleaming power of possibility. He still looks at the world with wonder. For him, if something is wrong, if he's sad or angry or lonely, it seems perfectly reasonable that someone might throw a cupcake at him.

The problem is that his world isn't all cupcakes and rainbows. I wish it were. In a very uncomplicated way, I wish everything could always be okay for him, but it won't be. Sure, there's sweetness and snuggles and holding hands, but there's no ever-flowing Frosting River. Rather, frustration, nightmares, and broccoli are folded in. His world is mixed with loss and anger, pain and heart defects. His blood speeds through a hole in his heart, enlarging the left side, pushing and pulsing, slowing him down, making him tired and short of breath. Over time, he'll get worse, and new terminology will be tossed our way: congestive heart failure, and arrhythmias, and cyanosis, and heart failure, and all those things you think your grandpa had—or maybe your Great Aunt Irene—but that you can't even begin to imagine in your five-year-old son. When Rowan is sitting on a hospital bed, hooked up to an EKG, it will be hard for Bob to talk about rainbows.

We can't throw cupcakes at everything. If we could—if that was something we could do— we'd load our arms with chocolate and buttercream and hurtle them through his nightmares. Instead of heart surgery, we'd have dessert. We'd fill our cupcakes with lemon curd and sink them into clotted cream. We'd trade the scalpel for a meringue and the bandages for ganache. We'd sugar the pain away; instead, we'll take him to the hospital, and talk to him about pain. We'll hold his hand, and tell him one last story before they lay him down, cut him open, and try to fix what all the stories and all the cupcakes can't.

I want our words to work. I want to cast spells and weave a web of story around him so tight that the darkness can't ever get back in. I want him to be safe and healthy and strong, but my arms aren't full of magic. I'm not a unicorn. Even if I stuck a horn on my head, I wouldn't float to the sky and twirl rainbows from my fingers and stars from my eyes. I couldn't do much more than a song and spin; my feet can't find the music the way my husband's can. On our wedding day, he counted softly in my ear—thinking it would help me hear the beat—thinking that it mattered. 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3. It lifted me up, and I laughed as he spun me around the room. That's the thing: It didn't matter if I looked terrible—like a wiggling octopus flailing through a tub of vanilla pudding—he made me feel like tacos and rainbows. He made everyone disappear until it was just me and him, with his whispered 1-2-3's. He made me feel like magic was possible.

And maybe it is.

Somehow, we made Rowan. Somehow, one of the holes in his heart has already closed. Somehow, he is still here this morning to tell me that I made his waffle wrong, and that Daddy lets him pour the syrup himself.

Maybe he's right. Maybe he needs more syrup. Maybe he needs one more story. Maybe he needs more magic. Because that's the thing–I'll do anything to keep him safe. And I know that words have power; they can hurt, and they can heal. So, if our stories have any kind of magic in them—if they can protect Rowan in any way—I'll weave worlds of wonder. I'll put on my tap shoes, tie on my horn, get out the sprinkles, and fill Rowan's days with joy and his life with possibility. I'll tell him stories, and I'll cover him in cupcakes.


Kate Ristau is the author of the middle grade series, Clockbreakers, and the young adult series, Shadow Girl. In her ideal world, magic and myth combine to create memorable stories with unforgettable characters. Until she finds that world, she’ll live in Oregon with her husband, her son, and her dog.


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So beautifully written and I'm so glad Rowan's ok.
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