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Transformation: lessons from the monarch butterfly cycle provide insight into our children’s periods of transformation

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My friend, Claudia, is a plant whisperer. She has beautiful plants and flowers covering her front yard, across from the elementary school to which we have walked since 2009. She has so many monarch eggs and caterpillars in her yard that she recently sent out a plea for friends to “foster” caterpillars in butterfly mesh because so many were being eaten by other insects in her yard.

My mother loves butterflies, especially monarch butterflies, so much so that the appearance of a monarch butterfly makes my mom think of her mom, who also loved butterflies. Because of this, I invited my mom to foster some caterpillars, and I decided to do the same.

We drove up to a native plant store to buy some milkweed. I ordered a twin pack of butterfly mesh cages from Amazon. We took the children to Claudia’s yard to collect caterpillars and each came home with 5 caterpillars to foster, safe in their butterfly mesh with plenty of milkweed to eat. Even my dad got involved, reading the entire booklet to make sure he followed the rules of raising caterpillars.

I remember learning along with my children about butterflies when they studied the life cycle in kindergarten. I still have their 5-year-old drawings of an egg, a caterpillar, a chrysalis, a butterfly, and then circling back to the egg. I thought it was cute at the time, but I had never witnessed these transformations up close until I had time to slow down and foster the monarch caterpillars this year.

Do you remember the children’s book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” by Eric Carle? I must have read that book to my children 100 times each, often enough that they each could “read” it back to me by age 3. Fostering these caterpillars has made me appreciate that book in a new way, as Claudia tells me each caterpillar eats about 20 milkweed leaves before it ascends to the top of the cage to spin its chrysalis.

The caterpillars of various sizes walk around the plants eating, but I’ve also seen them “bully” the younger caterpillars. I can’t believe I’ve never noticed caterpillars before. They grow very fast. And they poop a lot!

The slow-down of 2020 has brought along some positives. Actually, many positives. In 2019, I never would’ve had time or energy to sit and watch a caterpillar spin its chrysalis (which, I’ve learned, takes 6 minutes). And I wouldn’t have grown tomatoes. Or peppers. Or let a beanstalk started by one of my children actually grow big enough that I have had to Google “does a bean grow out of a beanstalk?”

Transformations are not easy. Anytime we or our children are at a time of growth in our lives, there can be discord. When parents tell me their toddlers are tantruming, I affirm that is actually a good thing.

A tantruming toddler is simply having her own thoughts and ideas about her life and the world, which you should want as a parent, as hard as the transformation is through toddlerhood. “I do it myself” is an adorable and annoying stage, as the child usually takes 10 times longer to “do it myself” than if she just accepted help to get it done. But after the time of conflict, the toddler transforms into a more independent school-aged child.

An adolescent who is trying to figure out who he is, rather than who you want him to be, is also having a transformation. Part of his individuation process is to break away from you as his parent, which leads to tension and relational conflict. But the transformation into a fully functional adult is worth all the life lessons that have to be learned in that period of transformation.

I see now why butterflies are used in so much imagery. Parenting is kind of like raising newly hatched caterpillars, dumping their poop and watering the milkweed so they will have enough to eat. The adolescents disappear into their own chrysalis, preparing for the next stage, just as my human adolescents disappear into their rooms.

This morning there was a newly hatched butterfly in my mesh cage. I had pots of flowers waiting for the butterfly to eat, as the booklet recommended. But the butterfly just flapped its wings and flew away, and I realized I had done my job.

This is the work of parenting, isn’t it? Getting our kids to the stage where they can fly away, find their own flowers, and not need us in the same ways anymore.

Perhaps this is a transformative time for all of us. Maybe in 2019 we were just walking around our own milkweed leaves, living each day as it came, stuck in our own rat race. Perhaps in 2020 we are separated, isolated, waiting in our own chrysalis to see what will emerge in 2021 and beyond.

And perhaps when we emerge, we will be like the monarch butterfly that I witnessed shed its chrysalis and its isolation. Beautiful, vibrant, healthy, and ready to fly away for the next adventure. And in hindsight, I think we will see that every step of the 2020 transformation was necessary to become who we want to be.

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