"I'm so happy you're my mom because you're the nicest mom I know."
That's what my beaming daughter told me last week on the eve of her 9th birthday as she carried the latest addition to our ever-expanding family out of the pet shop in a small plastic pet carrier.
OK, I admit it. Despite not wanting to add to our household menagerie of existing pets, I caved in to the persistent wish of my then almost 9-year-old, who begged me for months to let her have a guinea pig for her birthday.
She wanted a pet of her own, one that she picked out herself and was solely responsible for. Never mind that she already lived with two old and quite large cats; a small dog prone to barking at any and all moving things, those both real and nonexistent; and three sad little goldfish who spend their days staring at us from inside their fish tank. And then there was the quarter-sized baby turtle we found in our garage. We took care of him for one day as foster parents, before releasing him into Sibley Lake this summer.
Pet ownership can be a positive experience for children, I told myself as I carefully weighed the pros and cons of adding a guinea pig to our home. It would teach her responsibility and empathy toward animals. A companion animal can teach many important lessons, including those on life, love and, eventually, loss.
So after shelling out $130 for a cage, guinea pig food, treats, bedding and the guinea pig, my daughter got her wish -- a 7-week-old girl she named Princess.
She adores her, and from the chirps and purrs Princess makes when my daughter carries her around the house, I think Princess loves her, too.
This is why the pig, which looks like a hairy little rat without a tail, has become the top dog in our house. Everyone from my daughter to my grandparents has developed a basic general knowledge about guinea pigs in order to understand the newest member of the family.
But while I was initially happy that guinea pigs don't lead long lives, now my greatest fear is that Princess, who was renamed Butterscotch by its owner, will die an untimely death.
Keeping the pig alive has become a task I've taken seriously. It didn't seem to be drinking enough water so I spent hours studying the little creature trying to entice it to its water bottle. I even bought a new, more expensive water bottle to make sure the guinea pig wouldn't dehydrate. I bought additional guinea treats to make sure it was getting enough Vitamin C, since it wasn't eating the salad buffet I was preparing each day.
So it finally dawned on me recently that instead of encouraging my daughter to care for her pet, I've found myself doing many of the chores she's supposed to be learning responsibility from.
It reminded me of my Aunt Shari, who bought a guinea pig for each of her three daughters years ago. Late one night my uncle found her downstairs crying as she scrubbed and disinfected the three guinea pig cages.
I decided I had better stop being the "nice" mom, the one who does everything for her child out of love, a trait that if continued, could jeopardize her self-confidence and her feeling of independence.
And that is much more important than whether Princess/Butterscotch has a clean cage.
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