Most parents would be ashamed to admit that they sometimes need time away from their children. Recently a feral cat snuck into my garage and had six kittens. We did not notice the queen or her kittens for approximately 2 weeks when the kittens began to signal loudly to mamma that they were hungry.
Because all of the local cat rescues were full during this “kitten season,” my family was tasked with keeping Mary, as she became affectionately called, and her kittens safe. I was amazed at how this young feral cat immediately assumed the role of parenting her kittens. Instead of prowling the streets, she remained in the corner of our garage attending to her kittens all day and night. Mary would occasionally sneak out to eat the food that we left for her, but as soon as we approached, Mary would quickly return to her hidden litter.
What was most intriguing to me was that Mary was relying on a fixed pattern of behavior hardwired into her primitive brain to carry out her parental duties. In the absence of a cat parenting manual, Mary instinctively understood that she must keep reticent to avoid human detection. Even more impressive, but to my chagrin, was that Mary knew that she had to move her litter at 2 weeks because it was too light and loud in our garage.
According to Christian Adams, cats understand that their kittens are born blind and deaf so mamma cats instinctively move their kittens to a place where they will not go blind or deaf. My garage was not the ideal spot, especially since we kept flashing lights at the cat family to make sure the kittens were still there.
Watching guest cat family during the Mother’s Day season caused me to reflect on human mothers. Having a new baby changes mothers’ lives emotionally and physically. Emotionally, a new mother is thrust into the role of primary caregiver to a dependent human being. Human mothers instinctively and intellectually understand that they are responsible for their child’s development and survival.
The difference between Mary and human mothers is intellect. Parents do not rely solely on instinct, they must make deliberate decisions, weighing the costs and benefits. This higher knowledge is a huge responsibility and emotional burden for the new parent. New parents are sometimes ashamed to acknowledge that they feel less than excited about their new baby, but admitting that the child is a burden is hard to admit, even in the safety of the therapist’s office.
Unlike Mary, who was able to quickly resume her feral life once her kittens were old enough to ween, human parents must remain domesticated and raise their children until they are at least 18 years old, the age when society has established that children are emotionally and intellectually capable of living independently.
Some parents of adult children now understand that 18 years, a mere 216 months is not enough time for some children to reach autonomy. Parents that recognize that they only have approximately 7,000 days from birth to 18 years to realize that they need to begin actively raising their kids at birth. There are no holidays or vacation time-off with pay. Parents must put in work all 7,000 days to be successful. This can be a daunting task for parents.
In honor of Mother’s Day, I would like to offer readers the best advice I have for parents who aspire to successfully get their children to their final destination of adulthood: Take advantage of opportunities for respite. Like all full-time jobs, parents require time off for good behavior away from their child’s age-appropriate but sometimes bad behavior.
According to Parenting By Design, raising a challenging child can wear a parent down and lead to parental anger. This is a normal adult emotion of frustration. Respite is “lifting a burden or pain” so parents can regain composure and re-engage with their children appropriately. Respite does not consist of leaving children with people who are not capable of providing responsible supervision. Children should be cared for by people who share their parent's values. Substitute caretakers must be willing to carry out the parent's plan to get the child to successful adulthood.
I have counseled many adults who are healing from the trauma of being left under the supervision of irresponsible, and even abusive adults. It is important to have parental breaks but in the absence of a responsible friend or relatives, parents can seek out trained respite providers. The National Respite Network and Resource Center provide information on finding information on respite programs. Remember, people do the best they can, at any given time, with the resources available to them. Knowledge is a great parent resource.
Adams, Christian (2022). Why do cats move their kittens? 3 Reasons for this Behavior. https://excitedcats.com/why-cats-move-their-kittens/
California State Information on Respite Providers or Programs https://archrespite.org/respite-locator-service-state-information/123-california-info
• Lisa Hill, Ph.D., is an associate professor in criminal justice at California State University, East Bay and a licensed marriage and family therapist. She also worked for county and federal probation departments for three decades and wrote a book based on that experience. She and her husband live in Tracy and have four children. Contact her at email@example.com.