About a week ago, just before career day, with his speech memorized and his suit ready, M told me he didn't want to be an astronaut anymore.
"Papa's friend just told me that aliens do exist. So I don't need to go anymore. They know."
The backstory:When M was almost five, he asked me if aliens were real, and I told him, truthfully, that no one knows for sure. Unfazed, he asked me to "search it up" (ie google it.) My disappointing explanation -that Google only knows what people input into websites- was his first awareness of the finite nature of human knowledge.
Up until that point, questions always had answers. There were plenty of things he didn't know, but he could always ask me. And if I didn't know, we'd just look it up. That day led to two major realizations for him: that answers (whether from books or google) were ultimately dependent on human knowledge and that there are some things that we just don't know yet. It really shook him.
I have thought about that day from time to time since then, remembering how shocked he was, how hard it was for him to accept that we just don't know. But I didn't know that it had stuck with him as well.
A few years later, when he began meeting with Dr. D, he recounted to her how that was the day he had decided to become an astronaut. I hadn't realized that. He had been interested in space anyway, so it made sense to me that he would be attracted to that career. The missions, the adventure, the weightlessness... I didn't make the connection to that one question. I had no idea that he still just wanted an answer.
Dr. D said his awareness of the future, as a six-year-old, is unprecedented. Most six year olds would say they want to be an astronaut, or a doctor, or a princess, or a builder, or a teacher. They have the name of a job and vague idea of what they'd do, but no plan or process in mind, no particular motivation outside of "It's fun and I like it", and no idea of what it takes to get there.
When she asked him, he said he wanted to be an astronaut, so he was going to have to study to be a pilot first, then afterward he could apply to Nasa's space program. He wouldn't like the cramped quarters in the shuttle, but he'd manage. He figured by the time he became an astronaut he'd be about 30 and already have a wife and kids (but they couldn't come on his missions, of course. They'd wait back on earth.) And his goal? To discover if there is life in other galaxies. Full stop.
Dreaming of becoming an astronaut is a pretty typical boyhood fantasy, but for M, it wasn't. It wasn't wonder at the joy of floating weightlessly though space, or excitement at seeing earth from outside our atmosphere. It was business. A mission to put to rest that one unanswered fact, and if it took 25 years to find it, well... so be it.
Knowing M, if he did discover life on another planet, he would probably just fly right back to earth and resign, since he now had his answer.
That's why his career-change declaration last week made me sad. Not that he changed his mind. He'll probably change it a hundred more times before he's old enough to really know what he wants. It just made me face what I had been denying since December. That even when he's dressed up like an astronaut, the same as two other kids in his class, the astronaut thing is just another way that he's different. He never actually wanted to be an astronaut, he just wanted an answer.
In the end, he did go to career day as an astronaut. I told him it was too late to change and papa's friend didn't have any evidence, so he should still plan on being an astronaut until they can know for sure. But that's (shame alert!) just because I didn't want to have to talk to his teacher about changing careers at the last second and then have to figure out a different costume for him the same night as the Easter concert.
But I wish I had. Now that career day is behind us, I asked him what he wanted to be now that he doesn't want to be an astronaut and he said an author. Awwww! Now that would be a job for him. It wouldn't even have been a hard costume!