Several months ago, I wrote a column about my daughter wanting to get a pet as a birthday present (although I did not want one), and after weighing much of our options, we ended up with a low-maintenance guinea pig.
The conditions for having this pet were: I do nothing, she does everything. You want to enjoy this pet? You also need to care for it. This included daily feedings, providing fresh water and a once- a-week thorough cage cleaning/scraping. She had to keep the area around the cage neat because the pig would run around and eat hay, and then bedding scraps and droppings would fly out of the cage and litter the surrounding floor. And also, feeding it hay was usually messy because carrying the straw from the bag into the cage would result in several stalks dropping onto the floor and getting tangled in the carpet.
We removed the carpet. We moved the guinea pig. We put the bag of hay on top of the cage to minimize the traveling distance. We bought compressed hay in cubes that were supposed to be neat, but that the guinea pig did not eat. The mess never abated. But the worst part was the Sunday clean up. She would do it, but not without a theatrical ceremony that grated on my ears and jangled my nerves for no less than an hour (whereas the actual cleaning part was ten minutes), and involved statements such as how terrible her life was, and how I am the worst mother. Ironically, I was also the worst mother when I did not buy her a pet. I’m okay, though, and have grown to embrace my status.
But it became a power struggle. I wanted her to give it away because I sensed that she wasn’t enjoying it. She refused. The guinea pig would bite at her when she would try to take it out of the cage. It did not want to play or be hugged, or get dressed up into costumes. It did not want to be trained to do circus tricks as the book had promised. It would run for its hideout when she would put it on the floor in her room. It was a one-way relationship that was causing her stress. And there was the unavoidable weekly breakdown involving the cleaning, although for Chanukah she did give me a gift certificate that said, One week of cleaning the guinea pig cage without a tantrum. I cashed in on that right away and it was the best gift ever.
Finally, one Sunday, I had enough. I realized that I am the parent, and I choose to not accept the complaining, the breakdowns, the hay-ridden floor. This is not a level of “caring” that seemed appropriate, and if a child is going to be responsible for a pet, there needs to be a certain standard that is acceptable. This was not. But instead of threatening or punishing, I simply said, “I see that this is hard for you. It’s not the way you wanted it to be. It’s a lot of work. And maybe you changed your mind about the guinea pig, and that’s okay with me. We can find it a new home.”
She looked at me and cried. To be fair, she was already crying because she had just missed the garbage bag and the entire week’s worth of droppings and bedding and untouched hay-cubes were now on the floor. But she cried harder because she felt the empathy and she could finally admit that it wasn’t for her, without thinking it was bad, like giving away “Sparkle” was a punishment. We were on the same team.
She moaned and sobbed, drew a loving portrait of Sparkle and hung it on her door, collected some loose hairs that had clung to her shirt during the cleaning and affixed them to her closet with a piece of tape as a memento, and asked me to take some pictures of the two of them. I obliged. And once the emotion was all dried up, she was ready to let her go. My cleaning lady graciously adopted her two days later. (Sparkle, not my daughter, though that might have worked, too.)
I was happy to have given my child the opportunity to experience real life. To desire something that seems glorious, fun, to be able to give love and to receive love in return. But to also realize that sometimes our visions do not actualize as we had hoped. Sometimes the effort we have to put in does not afford a satisfying output. And sometimes, it’s okay to say, This is not for me, no matter how hard we pushed in the first place. Not every relationship is successful, and as we parted ways with the piggy and set ourselves free, we were comforted to know that Sparkle would be loved in her new home and we’d be happier in ours.
Sarah Abenaim is a freelance writer living with her husband and four children in Teaneck. She is working on her first book. More of her essays can be read at www.writersblackout.wordpress.com.
By Sarah Abenaim