What a rodent taught me about love—yes, love

I have a strong aversion to rodents, but my daughter wanted a pet hamster. So Dolly joined our family, and I learned something surprising while cohabitating with this rodent.

Photo: Courtesy Nicole C. Kear

It’s a fact of parenting that the thing your child needs is often the exact opposite of what you need. You learn this right out of the gates, when your need to sleep gets trumped by your newborn’s need to eat. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

As kids get older, their needs become more complicated but the pattern continues. They need privacy and you need to know what they’re doing in there. They need to sing that Beyoncé song over and over and over and you need to never hear that Beyoncé song again.

Not all needs are equal. In the family economy, kids’ needs often count more.

Which is how I ended up with a hamster. Despite my terror of hamsters.

My “thing” about rodents lands somewhere in between strong aversion and phobia. It was a bogeyman of my childhood and those are hard to shake. So when my daughter Rosa, then eight-years-old, asked if she could get a hamster, my response was deranged laughter.

My daughter had been begging for a pet—a pet you could pet, meaning no goldfish, thank you very much—for years. Her petitions for a dog, cat and bunny were denied on the basis of her siblings’ allergies. So, the plea for a hamster, a low-maintenance, cost-effective and non-allergy-inducing pet, was inevitable. Still, it was a non-starter.

“Honey,” I told Rosa. “You know how I feel about rodents.”

“But Mom,” she said plaintively, “I need a pet.”

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I find that the difference between “want” and “need” is sometimes lost on children. For instance, I am fairly certain no one needs a Nintendo Switch, though my sons would disagree. But when it came to my daughter needing a pet, I came to understand she was right. I, myself, am not an animal-lover. With their teeth and claws and venom, animals make me nervous.

But what makes me tense is exactly what puts my daughter most at ease. She speaks animal. Her whole body seems to relax when she’s near animals—even the ones that notoriously inspire fear. When she was two years old, I took her to the crowded Mermaid Day Parade on Coney Island, and took my eyes off of her for a few seconds. When I looked back at her, she was wearing a massive snake, the body as thick as an elephant truck, draped over her tiny shoulders. I nearly fainted. She beamed.

She doesn’t just want to spend time with animals, she needs to—not for her survival, of course, but for her well-being. In the same way that I need books and friends and laughter to feel like myself, to feel like I’m really alive in this world, my daughter needs animals. By the time her ninth birthday rolled around, this much was clear.

So I agreed to the hamster. And Dolly joined our family.

For a few days after Dolly moved into the corner of our living room, I had perpetual goosebumps. Any time she made the slightest noise—noises I later came to identify as her drinking water, running on her wheel, or sharpening her teeth on the cage bars—my nervous system took a hit. When Rosa took Dolly out to play, I’d leave the room. And every time she put Dolly back in, I made her check, and re-check, that the cage was locked. I’d heard that hamsters are expert escape artists and lived in fear of waking in the night to the sensation of tiny feet crawling up my leg. I didn’t have anything against Dolly, but I feared her and fear tends to breed dislike.

My daughter, on the other hand, was happier than I’d ever seen her. She blossomed—like a plant that had been moved into better light. I knew that she’d love the hamster, but her devotion took me by surprise. She made Dolly fruit smoothies and baked her tiny hamster carrot cakes. After a hard day at school, or a fight with friends, my daughter would instinctively lift Dolly out of her cage, and you could see the tension melt away as she drew her close.

One day, some months after Dolly moved in, we came home to find her cage empty. One of the plastic tube attachments had popped off. There was no trace of her

What followed can only be described as pandemonium. My daughter broke into frantic sobs. I ran through the apartment with no clear direction, too panicked to execute an effective search. Finding a fugitive hamster is the pet equivalent of locating a needle in a haystack. While my daughter worried about the hamster, I worried about my daughter.

Dolly was, I suddenly realized, the best friend a kid could have. She banished loneliness, sadness, boredom. She put out the fires of frustration and fury. She took almost nothing and gave so much back.

“We’ll find her,” I promised Rosa, not believing it for a minute. “We’ll find her.”

We moved bookcases, sofas, beds. We set out dishes of peanut butter all over the apartment. My daughter wept. I called Dolly’s name pleadingly. And then my husband came home and pointed out that our best bet for locating Dolly was by ear—and what would really help in that respect was for us to, possibly, stop making an incredible racket.

A few minutes later, he was lifting a dusty, defeated Dolly out of the armoire in my bedroom. As my daughter clutched Dolly to her chest, she finally stopped crying—and I started.

“Mom,” she said, perplexed. “Why are you crying? We found her.”

“I’m just…so glad,” I said. “I am so, so relieved.”

Rosa stroked Dolly’s walnut-colored fur, and sighed. “I just love her so much, and I don’t want anything bad to happen to her, you know?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know how you feel.”

If I wasn’t a mom, there’s no way I’d be cohabitating with a rodent. I’d never have felt compelled to leave that particular comfort zone. Parenthood pushes you into some strange spots, places that are odd, unpleasant and difficult. But those places are exactly where things get interesting. Those are the places where we grow.

I’m still not an animal lover. But I do love this animal—this beady-eyed, preternaturally fluffy teddy bear hamster that still (let’s be honest) scares me a little. I love her more than I could have ever imagined. As for the tarantula my daughter is now begging us to adopt, well…even mothers have their limits.

Nicole C. Kear has three children and lives in Brooklyn and when she’s not searching for fugitive hamsters, you can find her writing books, and teaching writing at NYU School of Professional Studies. She is the author of The Fix-It Friends chapter book series for children, whose newest books, Wish You Were Here, Eyes on the Prize and Three’s A Crowd, were released in January.

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