My normally hyperactive, constant-motion child sits for hours by the box on the back veranda--cuddling, cooing, coaxing.
Once in a long while, I predict a parenting moment correctly. I decided to take on the responsibility of a litter of kittens during my kids' middle childhood. And it took planning.
Some might ask why i would plan to contribute to the overpopulation of small furry creatures. My first reason is that I always felt a measure of guilt that I had my first beloved cat spayed fourteen years ago, before she had a chance to have even one kitten.
I watched her pine and grieve over other kittens. She almost adopted a kitten who came to live at our neighbor's house. He followed her around a bit, but didn't stay attached to her.
All this was made extra poignant by the fact that I was struggling with unexplained infertility at the time and it eventually led to adoption. Some small part of me wondered if my inability to have children wasn't a kind of karmic retribution, even though I know all the theories claiming that spaying is the kindest thing we can do for our pets.
I will get my cat spayed and I already have more prospective adoptive homes lined up than I have kittens to fill them. But I feel a sense of relief having gone through with it.
My second reason has to do with my children, who I finally did find at the end of my own long road. Having a litter of kittens at home was one of my great childhood dreams (which went unfulfilled along with the shiny black dress shoes I coveted). Beyond that, I believe that watching birth and the bonding between a mother and her young is a fundamental part of education that is often missed by human children today.
If I could persuade my ducks or hens to exercise their parenting instincts I would have baby chicks as well. But the only easily observable mother around turns out to be our new cat, a flighty year-old adolescent herself. She was abandoned as a kitten and we adopted her after my first cat died.
We waited to allow her a litter of kittens before being spayed--for her sake and for the education of our next human generation.
The kids watched her grow heavy with a drooping belly. They wondered as her behavior changed, while she searched for security and struggled with the pain of birth. They ran to me at least twenty times, calling out that the kittens were being born. And each time it was a false alarm.
Finally one afternoon, my six-year-old son came to me with round, solemn eyes. "The kittens are there," he said. "They are already born."
I hurried to look and sure enough the cat, who in retrospect I realized had been strangely quiet that day, lay with four tiny vaguely rat-shaped bundles attached to the tits on her underside.
Still it was my older child who was most overwhelmed. Though she usually has great difficulty controlling her impulses, she took to heart admonitions against picking up the newborns and sat occasionally stroking their backs with one tentative finger for as long as we would let her in the evening.
Getting her to sleep that night was as difficult as it has ever been on the eve of a major holiday. She lay in bed wriggling with delight and anticipation, believing the tiny beings in the cat's basket would be running and romping with her the very next day.
Kittens do grow quickly, but not instantly. In fact, their timing is well calibrated to teach small humans--who can conceive of about a week but no more--the rudiments of patience.
The children observed the chewed off remnants of umbilical cords on the kitten's bellies. Now they watch as the kittens totter about and open their eyes. They learned amazing amounts from this, so much more than they absorb from school or books.
And the thought that so many children today never get to closely observe this process of new life gives me pause. No wonder we are so disconnected from life and our interdependence with the natural world. This seems to me to be such a fundamental building block--as crucial as reading or addition.
The simple awe-inspiring beauty of kittens is nigh unto to universal. An acquaintance passing by on a bike ride thanked me profusely after my children showed her the kittens. I was momentarily perplexed, but she explained that seeing them was just what she had needed.
The calming and centering effect on children for whom every day at school is a struggle is clear. I do hope this time I have done right by all.