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The Things We Do For Love: Dissecting, Collecting And Other New Frontiers Of Parenting

Having my sons see me do things I’m not comfortable with, writes Eliana Osborn, is a life lesson I hope they hold on to a lot longer than those icky preserved insects. (Nate Steiner/ flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
Having my sons see me do things I’m not comfortable with, writes Eliana Osborn, is a life lesson I hope they hold on to a lot longer than those icky preserved insects. (Nate Steiner/ flickr)

The other night, I helped my 8-year-old dissect a hummingbird. His grandfather found it dead on the doorstep — most likely it had crashed into a window — and brought it over.

We looked at it with a magnifying glass, oohed and ahhed, then put it in a plastic baggie in the door of the freezer to explore later.

Eleven years ago, when I first became a mom, this would not have happened.

I'm a writer and English professor. My husband is an English teacher. We do words. And humanities, like music and plays. Not blood and organs, bugs and microscopes. Our two sons did not get this memo.

I wore rubber gloves and held open the tiny chest cavity of a hummingbird for Owen while he probed with his dissection tools to identify the organs. Cracking open the skull was not a great moment.

I hoped we could sway them through parenting, but their interests came pretty hard-wired. Then I hoped we could outsource these gory passions with clubs and classes — buying stuff if needed. But what kids want, really, is to share their enthusiasm with the people they love.

Sure, they take piano lessons and attend the symphony. We visit museums and libraries, read and draw. Still, they gravitate toward nature. And not my kind of nature, where you casually observe and saunter along the beach. Hands-on nature. Poking things. Touching them. Collecting items alive and fossilized. Scaling cliffs and seeing just how sharp cactus spines really are.

These are good qualities. They show interest in the world, a thoughtful mind and an engagement in things rather than passive acceptance.

I engage. Just not with biological matter.

Yet, I wore rubber gloves and held open the tiny chest cavity of a hummingbird for Owen while he probed with his dissection tools to identify the organs. Cracking open the skull was not a great moment. Everything else was interesting: the kidneys, stomach contents, the spinal cord going up into the brain.

I didn't gag. I discussed things maturely. We sanitized after. I have pictures on my cell phone, gory ones that Owen's very proud of. I have to admit, bodies are fascinating things, even if I’m mostly in the dark about how they function. I see the allure of discovery beneath the viscous scarlet blood.

I've struggled with this passion for science at our house, but I've found it has been good for me. What started out as feigned interest has turned into some real caring about the natural world, and I've rediscovered some of that fire of interest. I want to be a part of what my kids care about, for as long as possible. And if that means collecting bugs and preserving insects — another special part of life these days — so be it.

I want to be a part of what my kids care about, for as long as possible. And if that means collecting bugs and preserving insects -- another special part of life these days -- so be it.

Recently, I decided to volunteer as the parent helper for an entomology after school club. I figured I could supervise on bug hunts, that sort of thing. But on our second meeting, I found myself teasing apart the moist wings on the back of a cockroach. It was too delicate a task for the third graders — after soaking in rubbing alcohol, the wings were ready to tear with any hint of pressure. I pinned one wing on each side of the Styrofoam drying racks we’d built. The cockroach body hung down in the center, allowing the specimen to dry dramatically.

Both of my sons, in third and fifth grade, couldn’t wait to tell their dad what I’d done. That night at dinner, I was the star of the family. I’d touched a cockroach. I handled it maturely and was able to avoid thinking about the skittering sound they make late at night.

Engaging in passions not my own has given me opportunities I would have otherwise missed. Can I have fun with my kids on my terms? Totally. And I do it all the time. But getting involved in their interests has let them teach me for a change. And having them see me do things I’m not comfortable with? That’s a life lesson I hope they hold on to a lot longer than those icky preserved insects.

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Eliana Osborn Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Eliana Osborn is a writer focusing on higher education and issues of inequality. She lives with her husband, two sons and Peter Parker the terrier.

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