Lessons Learned from Kitten-Rearing

Pile of aunts and nieces
Pile of aunts and nieces

Growing up, my family kept a lot of dogs and cats. Our pets, especially the kitties, would have litters and litters of babies, year after year. This wouldn’t really fly these days, since we are constantly reminded of the duty to spay and neuter, but my folks were just a couple generations away from farmers who viewed the animal breeding cycle as part and parcel of the natural world.

To their credit, my folks always either found homes for the puppies and kittens or kept them around. Constant exposure to baby animals was a Wonderland palace of lollipops and unicorns in my childhood. I learned how to help an animal in labor, how to rescue kittens in distress (with, say, umbilical cords wrapped around their necks) and watched momma cats raise kittens, again and again. I played with baby kittens and puppies for hours upon hours upon weeks…

Watching momma cats work their magic gave me an interesting perspective on childrearing that I have been applying to my own baby (for better or worse). It was a given that I would breastfeed, for example, since that’s just what momma animals DO. It doesn’t seem awkward when you have been watching it since childhood, and my farmer great grandparents always declared breastfeeding “the way it should be” in contrast to my grandmother and mother, who had babies in the 50’s and 70’s, respectively, when formula-feeding was advertised as the responsible way to go.

It also led to some interesting behavior in the delivery room. Fresh from the hormone-drenching lake of delivery, I felt attuned to the natural rhythms of life… the nurses, however, must have thought I’d gone feral. In the recovery room, I built a pillow fort around the bed in which I stayed naked, with my baby, under the covers for days. As much as the nurses wanted me to bundle the newborn up and put her in the plastic tray for the night, I was far too deep in a sea of instinctive hormones for that nonsense.

One of the nurses would passive-aggressively crank the thermostat up every time I growled at her, refusing to dress my daughter up (as though our sweaty pile wasn’t warm enough). A different nurse approved, however, saying she didn’t understand why moms bother to get dressed at all instead of bundling up with their babies as I was doing. I also received high marks from the granola lactation consultant they brought in.

The lactation consultant was a hippie from Nevada City with swinging turquoise  earrings and long silver hair. She was upbeat, full of energy, and untroubled by my naked swaddling. She was like a frank-but-chipper hippie fairy godmother, and thought nothing of grabbing my boobies for a full inspection, declaring them “good breastfeeding boobs” due to my lack of inverted nipples (I was a little taken aback but reminded myself that she deals with boobs all day long).

She gave me great tips on breastfeeding and showed me how to “hand-express.” She seemed rather suspicious of pumping machines, consistent with her overall crunchy approach, though I have to disagree with her on this point. In case any prospective breastfeeding mothers are on the fence, you can hand-express in a pinch, but I believe that manual expressing on a regular basis will leave your boobies feeling like they’ve gone through a meat-grinder.

Another quick tip for new moms: because of Obama’s healthcare reforms, you are entitled to a free breast pumping machine. It isn’t the best version on the market, but they are pricy and I definitely recommend having one around.

There’s something about having a baby that reminds you how despite all of civilization’s progress–the cubicles, the cars, the smartphones–we are all still cave men on the biological level. In many ways, I am no different than a momma cat with her kitten (though thankfully, one of the exceptions is my ability to obtain baby wipes).

One valuable lesson I learned from raising hordes of kittens is the more you pet and hold a kitten the tamer it will be. And so, I hold and kiss and snuggle and carry around my daughter all the time, every day, convinced she will be a more secure, happy kid after getting so much human contact. I think Attachment Parenting folks are spot on about the contact thing (though I question their recommendation to let children co-sleep for years, just because parents do eventually need a break).

The other day in Momma-Baby exercise class, I was getting strange looks for raspberry-ing my daughter’s belly. I guess there is a range of how much contact is considered “normal” and I am on one extreme end. On the other, there is a mom who slathers her hands in antibacterial slime before and after she touches her infant, every time. Her son farted one day in class and she turned beet red, saying “I’m so sorry, I’m mortified!” I know she means well, but have to wonder whether her concern about germs isn’t more damaging than helpful. I wonder if her son is going to grow up deathly afraid of gas or touching anything, or if he will bounce to the opposite extreme, farting in rebellious protest (Freud coined the term “anal retentive,” which caught on in popular usage, but I think it’s a shame that his counter-term, the “anal explosive,” seems to have been forgotten) .

Germs appear inevitable to me. You don’t want to expose your child to ebola, obviously, but germs are absolutely everywhere and a little exposure is probably good for growing immune systems. The baby is going to crawl in the floor, chew on everything he or she finds… antibacterial hand wash feels like a losing battle under the circumstances.

Pictured above is some of my extended family piling up with Brontë and her new cousin, born a few months before her. I love photos like this–just a big, sweaty, happy family.

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