Last week, I came into the kitchen to discover that my kitten, a nearly one-year old, all-black long-hair named Ash, had scooped one of our Betta fish out of its bowl, used it as a plaything, and left it for dead on the kitchen floor.
This was, of course, my fault. The day before, rather than simply drink water from the fish bowls as usual, Ash had begun pawing and splashing around in the bowls as though they were ponds filled with koi. The last time I’d seen her do this, I paused from my work for a moment, just long enough to notice how she appeared like the subject of a watercolor, reflecting the hard truth of inevitability.
When my children came down for breakfast and learned of the fish’s fate, they were unbowed, having already dealt with our first dead fish months earlier.
“What did you do with it?” My Kindergartener wondered aloud about the body of the second fish.
I told him I had put it in the trash.
“Oh,” he said, “That’s gross.”
We admonished Ash then, lovingly, amused that now we knew her better than before. She was developing into a real cat after all, and this was comforting, as though her behavior was helping us settle into the proper order of things.
My daughter is twelve years old and finishing up her first year of middle school. Outwardly, she has sprouted like something from my garden—a fresh green shoot, an elegant column of lily of the valley, where before, there was merely a pip.
As striking as it is to see her this way now, internally, she’s been changing for a while.
At the end of my day, after I put her two younger brothers to bed, my daughter and I have our time together, alone. When I enter her room, I sit, and I see what she has to say. Mostly, we talk about the relationships in her life—with teachers, friends, brothers, her father, or other family members.
Lately, she has been asking a lot of questions. How do you know when you’re ready for this, or that, or the other thing?
In response, I ask my own questions. What do you think? How do you feel?
Trust your intuition and know yourself, I am saying, urging her to recognize that her voice, the very one with all the questions, is the most important sound inside that fluttering orb of thought.
My daughter is planted in that interim stage between childhood and adulthood, and she is old enough now that I speak to her honestly, even when it makes her feel uncomfortable.
So it was that recently, while we were birthday shopping at a make-up store, when she chose a blush compact with a color called “Orgasm,” I suggested we find a different gift for her friend. My daughter asked why, and I told her.
“I don’t think I needed to know that,” she said, and maybe she was right.
Still, I want her to trust me to deliver the truth whenever and however it comes up, because that is exactly how life, and consequently growth, actually happens.
When she laughs or makes a face, or acts as though I’m crazy for bringing to light something she finds currently unnecessary, she is merely displaying her discomfort with how things are beginning to shift and change for her internally.
Her discomfort, however, doesn’t need to make me feel anxious or uncomfortable. Just as she is entering a new phase in her life, I am entering a new stage of parenting. It’s my job now to guide her and show her that any new, important life information is not weird, but self-evident. I also have to listen more and dictate less now than I did when she was younger—I have to learn how to even out the proportions of my voice versus hers.
When one pocket-sized thing in our emotional ecosystem starts to change, everything else must grow with it, too. I have to let my daughter develop, and with her, myself.
In the moments when this feels like too much effort, I ask myself whether I really have the time.
Yes, I answer—you make time for this, above all else.
Growth is hard, and scary. But everything we use in our lives to help things remain the same—whatever we think we need—can be moved, indeed, whether a tangible structure or conceptual stem, dangling from a branch in our minds.
It seems to me that animals are just far enough removed from human life that we learn from them easily, even when we tell ourselves we’re simply gazing upon them in love and wonder.
I ask myself then, as I protect our last remaining fish from the kitten by setting it on my writing desk, whether I will actually tuck the fish bowl under my arm when I get up to take a break, lest the fish get ambushed while I’m pouring a cup of tea.
I will, of course, but only until I take the time to go out and poke around for a new bowl—one with a proper lid.