Kittens, Kids and the Nature of Family

nature of family

Oscar was dead. To begin with. There is no doubt about t­­­hat.

He died a slow death.

In early May we began finding bits of him around the house. On the carpet. On the nightstand. In my husband’s hair. Oscar had a short, rough life. Chewed and bitten constantly. Enough to make anyone up and die in three weeks.

As I put what remained of Oscar – clumpy green felt and the remnants of a tail – in the trash, two pairs of expansive blue eye looked at me, communicating with their ocular way that what I was doing was not appreciated. But all could be forgiven if I immediately instituted a midday feeding.

nature of family

I denied a feeding BUT did appease them by producing another Oscar. (We have 10 Oscars. They are 10 dollars each. We’ve spent 100 dollars on Oscars.)

As one cat went off to become acquainted with New Oscar, the other tipped over the trash to retrieve Old Oscar. Poor dear. So I produced New New Oscar. And cleaned up the trash.

With New Oscar and New New Oscar on the playing field, all was righted.

For now.

‘For now.’ The MOST loaded phrase in the world of kittens.

They cannot jump up on the table … for now.
They will not eat our shoes … for now.
One of them is walking with a limp … for now.
They are sleeping in until 6:30 am … for now.

Change is the nature of kittens.

I came home from a four day trip to be informed by my husband that our kittens could now;

  1. jump onto the table;
  2. jump onto the counter;
  3. get to the ceiling of the bathroom (why?) by scaling the bath curtain (no idea).

I said, ‘Babe, I’m tired, tell me good news.’

‘Ellen, this IS good news! We have really athletic cats!’

Spoken like any proud father.

nature of family
Hop on Pop!

Father. Another loaded phrase in the world of kittens.

When you’re a childless, married couple in your mid-30s, and you get kittens, you know everyone’s thinking: You guys finally have kids!

We always wanted you to have kids! Because we have kids and it’s the rage. But please don’t post endless photos of them on Facebook. And don’t compare your sleepless nights to ours. Because they aren’t *really* kids. They’re kittens.

And then we assume some judgment is passed upon us for being childless, a judgment we don’t discuss and don’t mention outloud or even quietly in our brains.

When my mother visited she called herself “Grandma.” Which was cute. . . weird. Except, not wrong. I AM their mom. Or rather, the “role” in their life that provides safety, love, warmth and food. And they act like children, in their neediness, unconditional love, and tendency to cry at everything (they’re Siamese) especially closed doors and shelves they cannot reach. For now.

Our kids. (See the resemblance?)

nature of family
They say he has my eyes.

We’re thinking this too, of course. That they are our kids. How could we not? We wanted kids, we’ve been trying. It hasn’t worked, it’s tough to talk about. It might be the first “can’t get this to work” either my husband or I have ever encountered.

I won’t say “failure” but that is certainly what it feels like. After the sadness passes – and it does – not having children turns into vague feelings of impotency, inadequacy, frustration. You forget the lack of child, you just endure the presence of failure.

Eventually, to spare your ego, you don’t feel sadness about not having kids, just apathy.

Maybe we didn’t really want kids. . . we started to vocalize, regularly. We thought of all the unhappy couples we know. The burden of kids. What if our kids had the worst parts of both of us? Could we bring that scourge to the earth?

Besides, being an aunt and uncle is awesome! Why would we want more than that?

Just when we settled into this new eventuality, felt at peace with ourselves, that’s when people who are lurking around our lives bring their own doubts and fears into the open. All with good intentions, I’m sure. But good intentions don’t mean good outcomes.

“How’s it going, the – you know?” I know what? Did you forget the word?
“Any babies yet? No, they got lost in the mail.
“How’s that thing that I’m not supposed to talk about?” This is my mother-in-law. “Fine. And have you gained weight?” This is me. 

But MOST of all, you get the “Well, I know someone who couldn’t get pregnant, but then…”

EVERYONE has an “I know someone who…” story. Someone who sucked on olives . . . kept an bulldog under the bed . . . only had sex upside down with gnomes watching and Serpico playing in the background.” All directed at me of course, not my husband. Because this is my thing – not his. All intended to inspire hope. All making us feel worse. Because it’s not hope, it’s people not listening. Not letting us be. Making us feel not enough.

Finally, my mom said something that I had no idea I wanted to hear until I did.

“Ellen, we love you. It’s ok if you don’t have kids.”

There it was. Permission not to have kids. Permission to be happy in a marriage that some might pity for its lack of sacrifice. Permission not to fulfill the role for which my ovaries and hormones have so eagerly prepared. Permission and acceptance from a woman who defined herself by this very role.

My best friend is the same way. We have an unspoken pact that she won’t ask but I can always talk. And I won’t ask about her dating life. I don’t need her to be in a relationship. She doesn’t need me to have a kid. We need each other to be happy. My Mom is.

It was at this point that we got cats.

Cats were never supposed to be instead of children. It was more like, we love animals, what the hell are we waiting for?

So we got cats. Morse and Lewis. (I’m a *bit* of an anglophile.) I grew up with cats, I’m used to them. Except. . . I was blithely unaware of just how much my mom did and how little I – as a child – did to raise the cats I remember.

A few things I wasn’t expecting:

  • Wet slobbered toys and 100 dollars worth of Oscars.
  • Endless hours of fetch. Fetch?
  • Hopeful, bold eyes wanting love. Lunch. Doors to be opened.
  • The kicking. The biting. The licking. My husband licked back once, and only once.
  • And teeny tiny male genitalia which is always available for viewing and spotlighted by the fact that it’s 100x darker than anything else in the area and readily visible whenever they are relaxed. Which they are, all the time. It’s adorable, once you get over what it is.

I also wasn’t expecting how impossibly tender my husband would be. How generous and kind and loving.

And – if I’m honest – I wasn’t prepared for how impossibly tender I would be. Generous, kind, loving.

I wasn’t expecting that him and me and them, we became a family. I didn’t know we weren’t one until we were. FAMILY. Family are the people around whom you can remove your game face. People you can treat like shit and they stick around.

It’s that, certainly.

The nature of family is infinitely special and wonderful.

It’s a remarkable delight. Your soul delights. You care about things more than you do yourself. You notice when one of you is missing. And you love more, your house is literally dancing in surrender to love and sweetness. How is that possible?

I might not be a mom, but whatever this role is, I love it. Family comes in all shapes and sizes. There is no “traditional” about it. Whatever this is, it killed the apathy my husband and I were both feeling about kids in general, our kids specifically and each other especially.

I leave you with a bit of humor to match the happiness I am feeling.

Last night – about 10pm – I was in bed when I heard a monologue emanating from our spare room:

“Don’t go in here right now. I’m not done. No!! Not yet. I said not yet! You really need to go the bathroom now? Really? Apparently the answer’s ‘yes.’  And you do too? Look at that! Look at this mess! Look at that. Both of you. That was not needed. This is an unnecessary mess. Hey!”

“What are you doing in there?!”

“Cleaning the litter box.”

“And you were talking to the cats?


“And getting mad at them because they were using the litter box?”

“Yes. Well I had just cleaned it!”

“Right. You know you talk to them like they’re human.”

“Yeah. Whatever. I talk to babies like they’re human.”

“Hon, babies ARE human.”

Silence. Then some meows. Not sure if they were from the cats or my husband. 

This is my family. 



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