I don’t know if my boys have ever seen me cry, but they did this week. And it wasn’t one of those manly tears that fall at the end of Braveheart. No, this was full blown bumbling, snot dripping, tears running off your chin crying. And for many people, including my wife, it was probably for a silly reason. I returned a guinea pig to the pet store. It was more than just a guinea pig moment though. It was an adult decision, a parent decision, a father decision that I knew would leave a lifelong impression on both me and the boys. A decision that I didn’t think would impact me the way it did and I could have lived without.
It all started about two months ago. After having a rough couple of days with our oldest son, we decided to challenge him with some responsibility that would reward and motivate him. Anyone who has or has had kids knows maturing wreaks havoc on their minds and emotions. It’s really a cruel joke of nature on both kids and parents. He had been asking for his own pet for a while and after some research decided guinea pigs would be a good fit. As hoped, he responded remarkably to our challenge and we soon day came where we drove all over town to pick out the right two guinea pigs. We had to get two because apparently they are extremely social animals and do best in pairs. So each boy picked one out.
One of the reason’s we had to go to four different stores was to find two female guinea pigs, because they get along better than two males and obviously can’t breed. The boys immediately fell in love with them and picked out perfect names, Squeakers (for my oldest) and Nibbles (for my youngest). Every day when I came home there the boys were, sitting on the couch reading with a guinea pig on their shoulder. Things were great as my oldest researched guinea pigs and taught us all about what they eat, trimming their nails, brushing them, and all kinds of random facts. The guinea pigs thrived and grew.
Then came Tuesday night. I had just got off work and called to check in as normal. My wife was outside with the boys and the guinea pigs letting them get some fresh air and munch on grass (the guinea pigs, not our boys). As we talked she said something was up with the guinea pigs. One of them was humping the other. Now, this isn’t unusual even for same sex animals when they get older as one tries to establish dominance. But just to be sure she flipped them over to double check. Sure enough, what we were told were two females by the pet store was actually a male and female. And they were old enough to start mating. As with all decisions my immediate response was “What would you like me to do dear”.
There were several options at our disposal: neutering, separation, or see if the store will take the male back. We agreed the easiest and most cost effective was to take the male back to the store. When I got home I went directly to the cage. They had been used to us now so he didn’t run away and was easy to catch. I put him in a box and proceeded to the door, trying to get out before the boys got back from the park and hoping to avoid a scene. It didn’t matter. When I got to the door there was my youngest. He saw the box and knew I was doing something with the guinea pigs.
“What are you doing dad?” came the simple, innocent question.
“Don’t worry about it, go have dinner with mom. She’ll talk to you.” And I hopped in the car.
The pet store manager was amazing as I explained the situation and she let me pick out a new guinea pig without any charges. As I concluded my business with the manager is when things changes. Everything began to sink. Up to that moment I had moved forward coldly and logically, walking through the decision without emotion. Now I was on the way home to face my son. I told myself this was what was best. But that didn’t make the sick feeling that was building in my stomach go away. Next came the hardest part. The talk with my son. I was choked up before I sat down. He was braver than I gave him credit. Braver than I was at the moment. I set him on my lap and held him tight as we talked.
“Do you know what I did?” I asked, trying to compose myself.
“Yes, mom explained it and it makes sense.” He replied.
Then I caved. My wall was gone. The weight of my parental decision attacking me from every side. I separated two innocent animals who trusted me to take care of them and who had become attached to our family. I had taken away my son’s pet. No warning. No discussion. Not even a goodbye. I explained everything. Why we did it. How hard it was on me and mom. How important he was and how parents have to make hard decisions some times. And if he wanted I would take him to the store to say goodbye.
Nothing can prepare you for those decisions. No one writes books about things like this that hit you in parenting. The life of a parent is filled with hundreds of thousands of decisions that you hope in the moment are the right one. Decisions that you make with little to no previous experience or knowledge. You pray that down the road you don’t regret it or that your kid doesn’t wind up in therapy because of it. Sure, you can rationally and reasonably make decisions that are logically the best move for you and your family, but is that always the best way to go about making decisions? No matter how rational a decision is and how reasonable it is, doesn’t there have to some heart that ultimately impacts it? Is moving into a new house the best? Is changing schools the best? Is it piano lessons or violin? Sports or science? The list goes on and on and on. It’s overwhelming and exhausting.
What amazes me is how you keep so many of those emotions at bay as you make decision after decision for your family and they hit you in the least expected moments. I didn’t even try to hide it from my boys. Many fathers would have. But I don’t want my boys to believe their dad has no emotions and doesn’t care. I don’t want them to think what we do as parents is easy and we just had kids so we had slaves to do the dishes.
I think about how I worry about my boys every day. Am I a good dad? Will they turn out okay because of how I’ve raised them and the decisions I’ve made? I can only hope so. I’m still beating myself up about it. In the grand scheme of things I know guinea pigs are such a trivial part of us. What I also know is my son rebounded without a blink. He understood and loves his replacement guinea pig with the same gusto he loved the other one. So, I guess I’m doing something okay.