As parents, it’s our natural instinct to want to shield our children from anything that can be hurtful. From the words of playground naysayers to physical dangers that could pose a threat of harm, we spring into action to preserve their safety, and safeguard their innocence.
And we’re not alone in this predisposition to protect. All kinds of animal species, from elephants to ants, have their own processes in place designed to keep their young safely at bay.
One amazing example? Marine biologists discovered that there was once a deep-sea octopus who guarded her baby eggs for an astonishing four years and five months. During that time, she was solely responsible for keeping the eggs clean and supplied with essential oxygen. The researchers who found her discovered that during that entire time, she likely didn’t take a single bite for herself. As someone who exists off leftover sandwich crusts and soggy cereal remnants, I can relate, and I’m sure plenty of mamas can too.
However, for all of our well-intended trying, there are times when we have to go through some difficult moments as a family, and facing them together is the only way to get through it cohesively. For example, we’ve been housing a baby squirrel in our garage for the past year or so. He scurried in there after a pretty big snow storm last winter, and we’ve seen him run in and out as we travel about our day, opening and shutting the garage door. My daughter sweetly nicknamed him Alvin and even though it’s probably a terrible idea to shelter wildlife in an enclosed space like that, we’ve let him take up residence. This is partially because I thought it would be a safe and warm space for him, and honestly because I have no idea how to get him out.
A few weeks ago, however, Alvin’s stay took a turn. Instead of hearing him bustling around the rafters, jumping from plank to plank with a thud, we saw him in the corner, desperately trying to tear into a big bag of bird food. It was then that I noticed how incredibly thin he was, and how hunched over his body had become. I called my husband, who immediately went into protective dad mode. He was able to get the squirrel into a bucket, then out into our yard, where we could finally get a good look at Alvin up close.
My daughter ran to get some sticks and some fallen acorns to place in his makeshift new home. She started talking excitedly about making him a little bed with leaves, and using pinecones as pillows. She even asked if we could give him a little sip from her milk cup (a request we quickly denied and diverted). However, from our older and wiser perspective, we could quickly tell that Alvin wasn’t going to make it. He’d gone too long without substantial food, and as he’d gotten weaker, it had become more difficult for him to wander outside to forage.
He was clinging to life, just as my daughter was clinging happily to the idea of a new mini playmate. We let her pour in the tiny debris she’d collected from around the house, and sat her down to explain the situation.
She’s not quite four yet, so we tried to make the conversation as simple and kid-friendly as possible. We explained that he was really tired, and was going somewhere soon where he’d be able to play with other baby squirrels. Her eyes filled with tears as she began to grasp what we were telling her. Then, she left for a moment, coming back with yet another tiny stick. “Honey,” I started to explain, “I don’t think he can play with that right now.” “Oh, this isn’t for now, mama,” she responded. “It’s for him to share with the other squirrels later.”
We buried him in the field beside our house and we haven’t spoken of Alvin since. Still, something in me knows that my daughter understood what we were telling her. Up until now, any mention of anything negative has been, for the most part, avoided. We’ve spent our days talking about cartoons, and library books. We discuss her favorite characters and sing silly school songs. We keep it lighthearted, which has made his incredibly heavy world feel a little less so, to be honest.
Yet, I know I can’t shield them forever. Just as that deep-sea octopus had to finally release control, they’ll be big enough to fend for themselves in due time. And along the way, I can’t promise them or myself that we won’t have to have some pretty heavy conversations. From substance abuse to bullying and every hard-to-discuss topic in between, my husband and I will need to be there, walking and talking them through it all.
It’s an incredible privilege to guide these tiny souls, that’s for certain. It can also be overwhelming to consider that my words and actions, especially those carried out in times of uncertainty or darkness, can impact their understanding of events. All I can do is pray for a little grace, and a lot of wisdom, so I can make sure that as we face these issues together, we can come out stronger, wiser and better. And along the way, we’ll both do a little growing up in the process.