I’m a cat person. In fact, this was very nearly a cat blog instead of a mommy blog.
Occasionally, cat-themed posts have still found their way in, like that time I was trying to figure out why hating cats is so popular. I even started pulling them in order to start a separate kitty blog until I figured out how maintaining both would be unrealistically time-consuming.
And everyone here has a personal cat. This wasn’t by design, but somehow every family member ended up taking ownership of one kitty in particular. So to understand our household politics, grasping the shadow feline alliances going on behind the scenes is critical. It provides relevant character insight:
Wylie is a gorgeous grey-striped cat with white eyeliner. He looks and acts a bit feral. In fact, he had been labelled an “unadoptable” kitten with “problem behavior” when we met him in Petco that day…
He IS a bit stubborn and neurotic, though otherwise sweet. He jumps into every open cabinet and gets accidentally trapped all the time, which is really annoying around the kitchen. He’ll also keep jumping into your lap, easily thirty times in row, when you don’t want him sitting there and keep throwing him down. He’ll put his ears back, jump onto your chest and scream, “You WILL love me, damn it!” in cat.
He is my husband John’s cat, which is kind of hilarious. John was always a dog person until Wylie kept putting his front paws on John’s chest and meowing in his face, occasionally hugging him tightly around the neck and smashing his cat face into John’s forehead.
I don’t know if John, who once considered cats aloof, ever pictured himself being worn down by some cat’s incessant neediness, but Wylie follows him around like a crazed stalker and repeatedly torpedoes into John’s lap whenever he sits down. “Not NOW, cat!” John barks at him, as Wylie endlessly climbs up the opposite side of the couch and dives again, hoping a fresh angle will make all the difference.
John can’t help but be somewhat touched by this, especially since Wylie used to guard Brontë for hours when she was napping in her baby swing.
Very few people in the world will ever know of Violet. Violet sightings are extraordinarily rare.
She’s utterly elusive, slipping soundlessly out of view at the slightest footstep. She’s a tiny, 5-pound, black-and-white cat who must not have been held very much as a kitten because she’s deathly afraid of humans.
And she’s my kitty.
Luckily for her, I’m quasi-Druid and have an uncanny ability to tame wild animals (or part ranger, depending on how you roll). I spent about a year slowly sidling up to Violet, which was tough because she’d vaporize any time I made noise or perceptively moved in her direct line of sight.
But finally, she became my loyal friend. She only hangs out in my territory, sleeping next to me every night and whenever I’m up too late writing, she sneaks in to settle atop my desk until I’m ready to go to bed.
My daughter Brontë holds Violet in special regard, her being “mommy’s kitty.” She was hurt that Violet always ran away from her, so I taught her how to make friendly cat sounds and approach gently… this was invaluable practice being quiet for a toddler who usually stomped around screaming, because the cute little kitty would always disappear when she did. Violet taught Brontë how to be sneaky.
Now, Violet will let Brontë pet her and will even climb onto her lap. Brontë is very proud of this and loves to talk about how Violet “only trusts mommy and me” to anyone willing to listen, except they may suspect Violet is only a legend, having never caught sight of her.
Frodo is the little black cat who always had a special bond with Brontë. When she would cry in her pack-n-play as an infant, he would jump in, ninja-style, licking her face until she stopped. He’s Violet’s brother, but much less shy than she.
Frodo is a good hunter and likes to hunch up his shoulders and walk like a panther as he terrorizes the local birds and squirrels. He our best bet for taking down errant spiders.
Fun fact: Frodo was initially named “Vivien” until the name became clearly inappropriate.
Another fun fact: Brontë keeps trying to teach Frodo to walk. She’s not there yet, but she can get him to stand on his hand legs by holding up her hand until he raises to meet it. He appreciates all the time she’s spent trying to help him evolve and tries to make it up to her with dead bird offerings, which she keeps pretending to like.
Raj (whom I sometimes call “Roger”) is a big, meaty cat that looks like someone went to town decorating on with a black Sharpie. I mean, he’s yellowy with white eyeliner ringed in black eyeliner and a ridiculously ornate color pattern of black swirling and stripes, dots, waves, and a distinctly raccoon-looking tail. Big, beefy paws.
He’s our unpretentious, galumphing, cuddly enforcer… the only one chasing our lunatic dog Douglas to beat the crap out of him, whenever he’s getting out of hand, before collapsing into our laps in a purring lump. He likes to eat, fight, love, and sleep.
She’s also a fighter, who responds to skinning her knee by first punching the air and walls around her, then collapsing into my lap in a snuggly, toddler lump. Raj and Bridget “get” each other.
Bridget has a ridiculous ongoing routine with Raj that involves her tackling him with everything she’s got like a 3-foot Lenny, which he handles the best he can until she’s crushing his intestines to the point where he has to lightly smack her to not suffocate. Then she cries about “Raj scratching” until I remind her that she had it coming, which seems to keep getting us nowhere.
But she still profoundly loves him with all of her toddler heart and he loves her too. Raj is the cat she measures all other cats against… she screams out “RAJ!” whenever she meets a new one. And when our dog gets too hyper around Bridget and knocks her over, it’s Raj who always comes running to her defense.
Ah, Zoë… she’s a beautiful black, long-haired girly cat who adopted shy little Violet when Violet was still scared and missing her mom. They would snuggle together for hours.
Zoë has a sweet little voice, is a beautiful doll, and knew I was pregnant before the tests did. She would signal this by sitting on my belly, purring, and guarding me. I’m convinced my girls could hear her purring when they were in the womb, and are still soothed by the sound.
Zoë is such a girly-girl cat, however, that she’ll blow up to 3X her original size upon catching sight of Wylie, Frodo, or Raj. I don’t know what her problem is, but she HATES boy cats.
And I mean HATES them. Wylie, Frodo, and Raj instantly transform gentle Zoë into a spitting, cat-swearing, claw-flinging maniac.
Having to live around boy cats pisses her off. Even after we tried everything from cat pheromones and separate liter boxes, Zoë would still protest her unacceptable proximity to boy cats by crapping in Brontë’s bed every time she saw one.
Night after night, Brontë would throw back her covers to reveal yet another curling cat turd before raising both arms in the air and shrieking at the insult. We finally decided Zoë would have to mostly be an outside cat.
Which is where she is now: circling the house perimeter in relative harmony until she happens upon one of the boy cats and flies into lunatic ravings.
So, there’s my introduction to the cat members of our household. Our sweet neighbor has also started fostering kittens for a local shelter, so there are two new kitties next door. She asked me if I wanted to participate, but frankly I’m a little worried because, as you can probably tell, I have some issues getting attached to stray animals and welcoming them into my home forever. Because I kind of like animals. A lot.
Having chickens that you’ve held since chick-hood means having some pretty tame chickens.
Hester and Rosie race up to us whenever we go into the backyard so we can pet them. I managed to capture these charming photos of Brontë snuggling Hester on the backyard baby gate.
What I didn’t manage to capture, despite my best efforts, was Hester rubbing her chicken face back and forth against Brontë’s forehead. Dang it, that was precious… we’re talking viral, give-you-instant-cavities cuteness. Top shelf adorable.
The chickens are soft, cuddly and follow us whoever we go. The only real downside to keeping them is my not being able to eat chicken anymore. Of course, it doesn’t help that I had a freak aversion to chicken during pregnancy (it all tasted rotten and horrible) and I still can’t forget it.
I realize this is illogical, since I eat meat and just happen to have chicken pets. I’m sure cows are really nice too. It’s just tough to eat chickens once you have a couple of sweet ones running around your yard that have bonded with your kids.
We do have some killer, free-range organic eggs, at least. So many that we’ve started bartering them. John has a coworker that keeps bees, so we are trading eggs for honey. I’m getting all kinds of crazy gardening and soap-making fantasies, but we will try to take things one step at a time…
My daughter Brontë recently started attending preschool. It was high time for her to go (she really wants to make friends with other children), but for me, it was bittersweet. It’s the end of an era: the World of Just Mommy and Brontë.
It means she won’t stay a little girl forever. Someday she will learn to drive, go off to college, and move out of the house…
We are very close, so I knew it could be a tough transition for her. The night before her first day, I lovingly packed her My Little Pony backpack with a coat, extra socks, and a change of clothes. In the morning, I gave her a special treat (Frozen cereal. Anything Elsa is gold) and explained to her on the drive over that mommy would be dropping her off to play, but not to be scared, because mommy would come back in a little while to pick her up.
When we arrived, I squeezed her tiny warm hand as we crossed the parking lot to the front door. She was wide-eyed. I knelt down to hug and kiss her as I mentally prepared myself for an emotional flood. This was the first time she would be left by herself in a new place. She might grab me around the legs, sobbing, and beg me not to leave her. I would reassure her, again and again, promising her that this would be so much fun and I would definitely always come back for her.
Instead, she popped her My Little Pony backpack on a nearby hook, like a pro, then casually said “Bye moms!” before tearing off into the building.
The transition went, umm, rather smoothly.
I, on the other hand, have much to learn. This is a unique, play-based preschool where one parent works a shift every week. I love the concept of parental participation, but it means a steep learning-curve about a bunch of new policies and procedures. My shift is on Wednesday, and I’m supposed to bring kid and parent snacks every month.
These impending snack duties made me anxious. How much is enough? How organic should it be? Can it contain gluten? Are graham crackers alright, or do they contain too much sugar? What if it’s messy? Will other parents be mad?
I’m the new kid on the block and don’t want to jack up my reputation with an embarrassing snack faux-pas, so on my first Wednesday, I was curious to see what the snack-bringer was dishing up.
It was quite impressive: hot crockpot chili (it’s finally getting chilly in California), with tortilla chips and cheddar cheese. She told me she had also made corn muffins, but couldn’t bring them in after reading on the box that the mix was prepared in a facility that also processes tree nuts. Last year, five of the kids had severe nut allergies.
Uh-oh… nut allergies. Not only can’t we bring in any food containing nuts, but we can’t bring in anything prepared with ingredients that might have once made friends with a nut. Non-nut ingredients can’t even run in the same social circles without tarnishing their reputations.
I don’t mean to make light of severe allergies, of course. Allergies are a serious issue with potentially tragic consequences. But what confounds me is how nut allergies have become so prevalent.
I was a kid during the 1980’s. Back then, if you tossed a handful of rocks into a cafeteria and hit five random kids, I guarantee that at least one of them would have been eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at the time. Another one would’ve been bouncing off the walls while stuffing his face with Willy Wonka candy.
That Willy Wonka kid would be diagnosed with ADHD, nowadays, just like that hyper kid who used to sit behind me whose butt never actually touched his seat. He would just hover over it, trying to sit down, but shaking with too much energy to manage it, like a trapped Roomba smacking repeatedly against a corner of the room.
ADHD diagnoses have also exploded in the past twenty years, but it’s possible that we just didn’t know what to call it, in those days, when a kid didn’t pay attention (besides “spazz”). Perhaps we have a better handle on behavioral patterns and potential treatments now than in my youth.
Back then, the principal would give each class a brief speech every year, during which he would introduce his spanking paddle and warn us about how our butts might get better acquainted with it if we chose to misbehave.
Not sure if anyone’s butt ever met Mr. Paddle, though. The warning may have been enough.
Whether a child is choosing to misbehave, or simply has abnormal brain chemistry, can be a difficult call. While experts continue to debate the relative merits of punishment vs. medication to treat problem behavior, allergies seem more straightforward: a bad physical reaction to a peanut is an objective fact. A positive test result is clear.
Still, you can’t bring a peanut anywhere near most schools anymore, in case peanut dust hits the air stream, whereas about half the brown lunch bags at my elementary school contained PB&J’s on any given day.
Once, when I was a child, I heard about a kid with a severe peanut allergy who died after taking a bite of something containing peanuts. I remembered it forever, mostly because it sounded so incredibly strange. Allergic to peanuts? How was that possible?
I never knew that kid, or knew anyone who knew him. It was always a friend-of-a-friend story. For all I knew, it was an urban legend, like the razor blades stuck into apples in some kid’s trick-or-treat bag.
And now, there are five kids with severe allergies at a small preschool?
The problem is now so prevalent that I was warned, by medical experts, not to eat any nuts during pregnancy, in case it triggered nut allergies. It bothered me at the time, since nuts are incredibly nutritious and I was used to eating almond butter every day.
After much internal debate, I decided to ignore the advice.
My family has no history of nut allergies, so I figured it wasn’t a big risk. Plus, the list of foods we are supposed to avoid when pregnant is very long. Depending on the source, it includes rare meat, dairy, soft cheeses, fruit juice, sushi, homemade desserts, pre-stuffed poultry, lunchmeat, fish, meat spreads, vegetables, sprouts, salads, smoked meat, refrigerated meat, nuts, and herbal tea.
The list of banned foods so long, in fact, that I was more concerned with not getting beneficial nutrients than about potential contamination. Following such strict guidelines means you won’t be left with much to eat beyond saltine crackers (which probably have too much salt). We don’t even know how well vitamin supplements work, so I cast my lot in the “food variety” bucket, rather than playing it safe.
Turns out, I may have been onto something. A study following more than 11,000 pregnant women found that mothers who ate tree nuts during pregnancy actually reduced the incidence of allergies. In this CNN report, the study’s lead author suggests that early exposure helps children build up a tolerance.
This makes intuitive sense to me. Allergies happen when your immune system attacks something it doesn’t recognize, so wouldn’t you increase the risk of allergies through lack of exposure? How could introducing a food “trigger” an allergy in someone who wasn’t genetically predisposed?
A recent article in Time suggests exposure peanuts might even cure peanut allergies. Another study showed that predisposed children fitted with a “peanut patch” increased their tolerance to peanuts ten-fold.
A sanitized environment isn’t always the answer. As I mentioned in a previous post (“Americans are Too Damn Clean“), studies show that children exposed to a little contamination (such as the mold and plant particles on a family pet) tend to have lower rates of allergies and asthma than those kept in more disinfected environments.
Is it possible that our well-intended avoidance of tree nuts is what’s responsible for the allergy explosion? Are other countries experiencing a similar tree nut allergy phenomenon?
It’s such a difficult issue. No one wants to be responsible for a preventable death, especially of a child. But on the other hand, is our vigilance actually making things worse?
Brontë told me today that the cat took her diaper off and applied diaper cream. It was really nice of him to help out, since we have so much going on around here.
This photo of my daughter and our resourceful cat will likely inspire a range of reader reactions. Some (probably pet owners) will think it’s adorable. Others will be horrified.
In the horrified group, some will have noticed the “help me” look in the cat’s eyes. Well… my daughter loves the kitties a lot, sometimes a lot like Lenny from Of Mice and Men. She tackles them and buries her little face in their fur. The cats have shown tremendous patience throughout her exuberant toddlerdom, mostly indulging her aggressive love, and occasionally running away when she gets too rough. When she truly crosses the line (trying to yank whiskers out or pulling on tails), they lightly pepper her arm, which has proven a far more effective training tool than our insistence that she be more gentle. Overall, the cats have a wonderful relationship with our daughters, packed with snuggling, purring, and hysterical string chasing.
The horrified group that aren’t concerned about the pet’s health and safety are made up of folks who believe you should get rid of your pets when you have children. This is usually because they are afraid that:
Pets will injure their kids. If you have a vicious, unpredictable pet, getting rid of it is a good idea. I don’t believe cats should be declawed, however, unless the cat is unusually aggressive. Or,
Pets are dirty and will make their children sick.
I’d like to address the hygiene issue, for the benefit of potentially relocated pets everywhere. If your child has severe allergies or a compromised immune system, then yes, it may be a good idea to get rid of your pets. For everyone else, however, pets will actually improve your child’s health.
Yes, cats and dogs are a little bit dirty (by human standards). They run around outside, rolling in dirt and various plants, crapping in litter boxes or the open air, and don’t scrub themselves with soap and hot water. They are covered in germs. The very idea induces shudders amongst ultra-hygienic Americans, as they bathe their hands in sanitizer.
But you know what? Americans are too damn clean. I know, I know… that sounds crazy. Clean is good. Clean is pure. Clean is healthy. We have all kinds of pleasant associations with cleanliness, from happy clean bodies to sinless souls. Ivory soap is 99 44/100 % pure, so pure it floats (and in my experience, so caustic that it leathers your skin in a few washings). Clorox cleans the “purest clean.” Cover Girl is “clean makeup” (even though it makes everyone break out).
We Americans really like clean. And if there is anything we need to keep clean, it’s babies. They came into the world clean, clean of body and spirit, and we need to keep them that way. Why would we want anything dirty around our clean babies?
Because it’s possible to be too damn clean and Americans have crossed that line. Somewhere around the turn of the century, we figured out that survival rates in hospitals improved drastically when doctors washed their hands. Before that, doctors would handle patient after patient, some of whom had deadly infectious diseases, without washing their hands. Sometimes they even handled cadavers, often the cadavers of people who died from fatal infectious diseases, then went on to meet sick patients with compromised immune systems or even perform surgeries. Obviously, disease spread like wildfire under these conditions and there was a mass campaign to bring sterilization and better hygiene to the medical profession.
This is all very reasonable, but things eventually got out-of-hand. I blame advertising. Marketers jumped on the opportunity to convince everyone that you needed to buy their products and use a lot of them if you didn’t want to become an unhealthy, socially-unacceptable slob. People used to wash their hair weekly, but now you need to wash it every day, twice (lather, rinse, and repeat). Doesn’t matter if you have dry hair, because instead of washing less frequently, you should use a shampoo specially formulated for dry hair. You’ll wash out your styling products and need to apply more, which means you’ll need to buy more. You also need to scrub every inch of your body with antibacterial soap, every day, and apply antiperspirant. Anything else would just be gross.
Baby care became increasingly sanitized, especially through the 1950’s. Cleanliness was supreme, and a reflection on the mother. Everything needed to be scrubbed, laundered, and de-germed. Upholstery was regularly vacuumed. Strollers were taken apart and disinfected, bolt by bolt. Even today, grocery stores offer sanitary wipes to disinfect shopping cats before children are loaded into them.
You know what the result of all this effort has been? A crapload more allergies and asthma. You see, the human animal did not spawn in a vacuum. We were always meant to make contact with the outside world, and our immune system carefully evolved under these conditions. We have a delicate balance of microorganisms in our guts, one that can be really screwed up by regular antibacterial blasting. While we obviously need protection from really nasty, lethal germs like ebola and tuberculosis, our bodies are usually equipped to handle everyday germs.
When you start over-sanitizing everything, our systems suffer, and science has started catching onto this. What do you think probiotics are? It’s just a nicer-sounding word for germs. We are putting them back in yogurt and taking them in capsule form because we are figuring out that we don’t have enough good bacteria in our guts anymore. “Probiotic yogurt” sells better than “Yogurt with germs.”
People are getting vitamin B12 deficiencies because B12 normally comes from the gut of animals, but our factory stems are blasting them with so many antibacterials that they aren’t supplying our bodies with enough of it anymore. This didn’t use to be a problem.
When you get a vaccination, it works like this: you are exposed to a little bit of a germ and your immune system develops antibodies to handle it (I realize some people are against vaccination, but that’s a subject for another post). Well, when you have a cat or dog that runs around the yard, it acts a bit like a natural inoculation for your child. The pet picks up little bits of flora and fauna in its environment and brings it back to your kid. Your kid’s immune system is then familiarized with the flora and fauna and is less likely to view it as a foreign particle requiring an allergic reaction.
This is counterintuitive, I realize. It feels like if we work harder to create a clean environment, we should be rewarded with a healthier child. Harder work should equal a better result, yet science supports the theory that a little dirt is good. Kids raised with pets since infancy have fewer allergies and a lower incidence of asthma.
I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, I used to eat grapes and berries straight from gardens or off bushes. Turns out, this was a good thing. Kids eating unwashed fruit have a better balance of gut bacteria than those who eat cleaned food. You should also let your kids play in dirt. It’s good for them.
Interestingly, some Swedish researchers recently found out that kids from homes that hand wash their dishes have a lower incidence of asthma, eczema, and allergies than the ones from homes with a dishwasher. This is probably because hand washing dishes removes the major germs, but doesn’t sterilize everything to the degree that a high-power dishwater does. Now I’m not suggesting everyone give up their dishwashers (I’m too lazy to hand wash everything), but it lends support to the idea that cleaner isn’t always better.
The takeaway from all this? Unless your kid has a specific condition, you probably don’t need to worry about a few germs or give away your pets. Pets are a little dirty, and that’s a good thing.