I was raised by a woman who once told me that she purchased our family home for one important reason:
The real estate agent told her there were plenty of babysitters around.
My mother practiced a form of what some might consider “hands off” parenting. Most of the time, I was a free-range kid. I essentially ran with a pack of suburban child-wolves and came home only when the sun was setting and my belly was grumbling enough to warrant an appearance at the family dinner table.
I recently spent time contemplating my childhood. Believe it or not, I began reflecting on my life as a wild child while reading an absolutely fascinating book about octopuses.
The first thing I learned from the book is that the pleural of octopus IS actually octopuses. I like that word a lot. Almost as much as I like octopuses themselves. I am slightly obsessed with them; creatures with eight arms and giant heads that can squeeze themselves through an opening the size of a quarter if so inclined.
Octopuses are cognitively far more advanced than one might think, with problem solving abilities that by my calculations far exceed those of the average high schooler. Female octopuses are especially fascinating. Their bodily processes blow my mind. In a nutshell, they live their life for one purpose… to sacrifice any ounce of happiness, health, and wellbeing for the good of their offspring.
The process of octopus sex alone already seems pretty miserable. It involves the male inserting what is essentially an entire arm into that poor female. Talk about unpleasant. But honestly, it gets much, much worse.
The female octopus has a lair that she occupies, a den completely dedicated to the successful maturation of her eggs. She lays her eggs in the den, and hangs them from the ceiling where they can be watched obsessively by her until they are ready to hatch. Her eggs drift happily and safely in a sea of plankton, so there is always plenty of snack food for them.
Though there is absolutely nothing around for her.
She never leaves them. Ever. And it takes up to six months for those eggs to hatch. That amounts to six months of starvation during her vigil. If she gets hungry enough, she might even eat her own arms for survival, because her only goal is to live until her eggs hatch. She will actually go into a state that is described as “dementia-like”, withering away and developing open sores that make her body susceptible to horrible infections.
After the eggs hatch, the poor thing goes through what is described by scientists as “cellular suicide”, where a wave of horrific physiological events course through her tissues and organs until she dies.
I have come to the conclusion that – while I will forever hold the greatest respect for every single female octopus on planet earth – I elect not to follow that lovely creature’s lead.
My mother tells me that raising human children shares nothing in common with a female octopus’ plight.
Mom, with all due respect, I beg to differ. I have observed the stress and strain of modern parenting with the watchful eye of an amateur anthropologist, and I have come to the conclusion that today’s definition of parenting can, in some instances, have an awful lot in common with the octopus version of parenting.
I understand where my mother is coming from, as her views on raising a child are not exactly in line with some folks currently rearing young. In the 70’s, in addition to allowing her children to roam free, unobserved for hours, roller skating up and down the hill out front and throwing acorn bombs at the boys up the street, my mother also happily embraced the “it takes a village” side of non-traditional parenting. Lovely people on my road took me into their home any time of day. I spent hours in neighbor’s houses, raiding kitchen cabinets for snack food and living rooms couches for the Atari remote. In all fairness to my mom, she returned the favor with their children. In fact, having the coolest mom in the neighborhood gave me serious street cred. To this day, those children, now adults, think of my mother as their second mom; a refuge from their more traditional parents.
My mom was different. I always knew she loved me. But I also understood that she really enjoyed having me release any of my childhood energy far outside of her hearing range.
My childhood seems to share very little in common with some of the children I see when I am out and about. For example, if I had screeched “MOMMY” 28 million times a day, she would have likely banished me to a tent in the backyard for extended periods of time, or maybe dropped me off in a field to fend for myself for a bit. The idea of driving me to countless activities daily would have been completely foreign to her. My life was not scheduled. I was left to injure myself at will, make bad decisions, and ultimately learn by making (pretty normal) childhood mistakes.
If it is not already obvious, I loved the way I grew up. There were definitely moments of sadness and challenge that accompanied the fun times, but ultimately I respect my mother’s way of parenting.
However, if I were a mom, raising children in this day and age, I fear I would be an octopus. I understand myself well enough to appreciate that fact. And it was one of the reasons (one of many, I must stress) that I chose not to have children of my own.
People tell me that I am crazy. They tell me that it would be my choice to raise my children in any way that I wanted. I know they are right. It IS possible. I have watched many, many good friends and family members be un-octopus-like parents.
But, good people: I also know myself. I can’t run from the person I am at my very core. I have a hard enough time not becoming overly crazed about my dogs – and some would argue I am actually past the point of healthy doggie-parenting, practically needing a Xanax if the pug hiccups. I don’t even want to think about how intense I would be as a human’s mother, and I have little interest in exploring that side of my obsessive personality any more deeply than I already have. That is just one of the reasons I elected to tap out of the mothering marathon.
Regardless, when I look at the challenges parents face, I feel deep respect. Especially you, Ms. Octopus. You are amazing. I will forever consider you one of nature’s most incredible creatures.
This year, on mother’s day, I will be thinking of you.
My heart is filled with love and awe.