I had one of those “Mom in the Mirror” moments recently. You know, when you catch your frantic, frazzled?reflection and wonder, “Am I doing this parenting thing the right way? Or am I screwing it up entirely?”
At the time, I was holding a lizard to my bosom to keep him warm. That’s right, a lizard. On my chest. (Shudder.)
This whole strange story started when my seven-year-old son (an only child, I should mention) became obsessed with dragons a few years ago. Every picture, book, story and flight of fancy was dragon-related. His imaginary friend to this day is a 6 foot dragon named “Boo” who follows him around doing various dragon-y things. One day the “helpful” librarian introduced us to a book on bearded dragons, and the rest, as they say, is history. My son begged, cajoled and campaigned to get one — his very own dragon, “small enough to fit in the palm of his hand! I’ll never ask for anything again! Please oh please oh please…”
Already guilt-ridden by the fact that my child can’t have a regular cuddly pet in the house (I grew up on a small horse farm, but in adulthood I’ve become severely allergic to every fur-bearing animal known to man), I agreed to investigate. I found out a few disturbing things: 1) Bearded dragons are from the deserts of Australia and need to be kept warm at all times — like, 100 degrees warm. 2) They cost an arm and a leg. Tank, heater, sand, tunnel, etc. will run you several hundred dollars — before you even buy the lizard, which is also pricey. 3) They can carry diseases, like salmonella. This requires you to wash your hands thoroughly every time you touch them. 4) They primarily eat a diet of live crickets. Ugh.
Being normal and fairly sane parents, my husband and I tried to distract our son in hopes his obsession would go away. We introduced other pets as options. “How about a nice fish?” my husband asked. He got our son a Beta fish, which promptly died after 6 months. We had a funeral for “Puffy” in the backyard last summer. My son stood over his little fish grave and wept for hours. Is there anything quite so childhood-tragic as the death of a pet? (For more on how to deal with this, check out Single Dad’s post this week on grieving the loss of a family pet.)
My son faithfully remembered that I had promised he could get a bearded dragon when he turned seven. (I recall saying this when he was but five, with a vague wave of my hand, thinking, “Oh, he’ll never remember this in two years!” Yeah, right. Parenting mistake number 1: Don’t ever forget that kids will remember when you promise them something — and torture you if you don’t follow through!)
I gave up the denial last year when the fish went belly-up. I knew a lizard was in our future, so I told Alex to save every penny for his future pet– and that if he saved all his birthday and Christmas cash and bought the tank, we would buy the lizard. (Gulp. Spending big bucks on a little scaly creature is not my idea of a fun shopping experience. I rationalized, though, that even getting a dog from the shelter would cost that much — and probably more, when you thought about shots and worming and all that jazz. ) I also wanted our son to pay for part of the bearded dragon’s cost so he would feel a sense of responsibility about his pet and understand everything that went into his upkeep.
Alex faithfully saved his pennies, and buy the little reptile we did. To my surprise, I grew very fond of “Twister”– bearded dragons make great pets, like to be held, and are actually pretty fun to watch. My husband and I congratulated each other on a job well done.
Cut to last week. A huge Nor’ Easter blew into New England, causing floods, power outages and an incredible amount of damage across several states. (Winds were clocked at 74 mph in some places.) As it so happens, the small Maine town where we live has lots of trees, and most of them fell on the power lines. Long story short, our power was out for 2 1/2 days. Last Thursday night, I was up working on the computer as the wind howled around our house. Then it happened — all the lights went out, and the heat shut down completely with a soft whirr.
Oh crud, I thought. (My words may have been a little saltier, but I am sanitizing my speech to preserve?the last shred of dignity I have left.) My son and husband were fine, sleeping under layers of down comforters. But Twister…that was another story. I knew if the heat went below 65 he was a goner. The teens at the pet store where we bought him had cheerfully told me that many of them “slept with their lizards” when the power went out. Gulp again. I felt around for a flashlight, went to his cage and picked him up. “Oh, all right,” I said, and let him cuddle up under my chin.
I went to the bathroom mirror. In the dim glow of the flashlight I asked myself, “Is this what parenting is all about? Anything to avoid my child’s grief if his beloved pet dies? And does this mean letting his lizard sleep on my chest all night?”
The answer, I am sorry to say, was “Yes.” At least for that night.
P.S. The pet store staff told me the next day that I could have just taped those little 10-hour handwarmers to the side of Twister’s tank until the power came back on. So NOW they tell me.
Have you gone above and beyond for your child? Where do you draw the line? Please leave your comments here.
About Elisabeth Wilkins
Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.