Declan, the bitey kitty cat and the eternal quest to stave off childhood traumas
In an encouraging sign that Declan, despite his sunny disposition, cheerful personality and immense popularity, is, in fact my child, my boy loves cats. When he visits his aunt he loves to look at her cats. Needless to say, her cats are less excited to see him. The only creatures in the world immune to my baby’s charm appear to be my dog Ghostface and all of the cats of the entire world.
My wife is violently allergic to cats so my son and I need to get our cat fixes outside our apartment. You can imagine how excited I was to find the upstairs neighbor’s beautiful orange and black cat lying contentedly in a deck chair on our front porch. I tentatively went over to pet the cat and discovered that he was super friendly. He rolled over on his back and I rubbed his belly and motioned Declan to come over and join me.
Declan was in heaven tentatively but enthusiastically petting the cat. I was overjoyed to have another thing to share with my son. Oh sure, I had known how mercurial and finicky cats could be from my many decades owning anywhere from one to four cats (seriously, I was a cat person on an almost pathological level) but this seemed like a really nice cat, and a cat that obviously had a lot of familiarity and comfort with human beings.
Our happy idyll was shattered when Declan’s look of boyish rapture was replaced by a look of complete shock. Tears began to pour down Declan’s cheeks as he howled, “He bit me! He bit me! The kitty bit me!” On an intellectual, adult level I understood what had just happened. Declan was petting a cat, something he hasn’t done very often, and when he pet the cat too close to its tail or face it probably nipped him.
In that moment, at least, Declan seemed to be processing it very differently. He was overjoyed petting a nice kitty, and then in an instant, that pleasure was replaced by pain and a sense of profound betrayal. The tears seemed attributable to the shock more than the pain but I was nevertheless worried that Declan’s brain was telling him that his unfortunate experience with a cat represented the permanent truth about all cats: they seem nice but if you try to pet them, or befriend them, they will reject and hurt you.
Because when you’re a parent, you have no idea what babies or children will forget about more or less instantly, because they’re babies and children and have the attention spans of such, and what will become a formative trauma. I don’t want to do anything that might set in motion a series of events that lead to a 40-year-old Declan telling his psychiatrist a childhood anecdote that ends with, “And that’s why I was such easy picking for the Men’s Rights Movement and Scientology. And incapable of experiencing either love or pleasure.”
I think fairly often about a formative trauma of my own. When I was five years old I had to convert to Judaism before my (Jewish) dad could re-marry a Jew. As part of the conversion, my father had to dunk my head underwater for a predetermined amount of time. My dad misjudged the amount of time he needed to hold me under and when I finally I came up, my lungs where full of water and I was overcome with an intense fear of drowning.
My dad hadn’t really done anything wrong. He had just held me under maybe water five or ten seconds too long but my five year old brain immediately took away the lesson that water is dangerous and scary and can kill you and also, you can’t trust adults. That’s a pretty extreme takeaway, but the incident made such a profound impact on me that thirty-six years later I’m still thinking and writing about it.
I think I found the conversion bath so scary because I didn’t have much security before then. There wasn’t much in my life to counter the idea that the world is scary and you can’t depend on people, even my dad, who I’ve always been able to count on.
Thankfully, Declan seems to be experiencing a much more secure and stable childhood. So I hope that the cat bite experience washed over him without making much of an impression beyond the initial shock and surprise. Alternately, I hope that he’s at least able to see it in context, and know that some cats are nice, and some cats bite, and some cats are nice but also bite but no matter what, his parents will always be there to protect him, from cat bites and everything we possibly can, for as long as we possibly can, and when we can’t, that we’ve at least given him the tools he needs to protect himself.
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