Primates, Parents, and Other Animals

Yesterday, Sam and I went to the zoo…the big, huge, San Francisco Zoo, which is one of our favorite places in the city. I have to admit that I typically shy away from places that are designed particularly for kids, and which draw crowds of parents. I’m not exactly sure why this is, but I often find that something about those places doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s because the demographic seems lopsided, like all dads and single people and old folks have been raptured away and only the harrassed-looking moms and toddlers were left, or maybe it’s because the places are designed by Grown-ups for Children, so there’s a little something about them that feels contrived. Sam and I have always done better in places designed by God for People. Like a patch of grass. Or the beach. But we love the zoo, and it isn’t designed only for children, but for everyone, including the animals. Plus, sometimes you just have to brave the crowds of caffeinated stroller-drivers (wait…am I one of them?) in order to watch the lemurs, feed the goats, and gawk at the hippos. So we go to the zoo, and we go often, mainly–currently–for the monkeys.

This is what happened: Sam and I were sitting on some concrete steps watching the howler monkeys run frenetically up the mesh side of their enclosure and then catapult themselves into a trampoline about 15 feet down and land on top of each other, wrestling (incidentally, one of the howlers had a tiny baby howler hanging onto her back for dear life through the whole spectacle–is that what I look like to onlookers when Sam’s in the Ergo? I wonder), when a tiny toddler wobbled over to me, grinning a wide, cream-cheese-encrusted grin. I said hello and smiled, and he affectionately nuzzled up to my shoulder, snuggling my arm! Cream cheese aside, it was endearing, and I was taken.

And then he slapped me in the face. Square on my forehead, hard. SMACK! 

The mom came over, picked up the boy, soothed him (him!). And then after a couple of minutes went by, she said in passing, without really looking at me, “Oh, sorry about that,” and then walked away while I was still rubbing my forehead and wondering about humanity. Now, I’m fairly used to receiving abuse from miniature people. But I’m not yet used to the subtle yet jarring communication snafus that come up regularly when interacting with fellow moms in public places.

I am telling you this because of the teenagers who happened to be sitting a few feet away on the steps. They were also watching the monkeys, and us. And I thought, “When they grow up, if a genie gives them a choice, they will probably opt for adopting a pet howler rather than sign up for parenthood.” But then something happened. Sam, who was still watching the monkeys (and not us–thankfully, he missed the me vs. schizophrenic toddler showdown), started to laugh. Every time a howler jumped, he would erupt in cackles. His belly-laughing giggles got louder and squeakier with every jump, until he could hardly breathe. Everyone watching the monkeys started watching Sam. And I couldn’t help it: I started howling with laughter, too. Suddenly everyone in the Primate Discovery Center was looking at us, and they were doubling over with laughter themselves. 

What we do can be contagious. 

Last year, for Mother’s Day, Jordan bought me a little card with drawing of a striped tent on the front, and inside it read, “Thanks for running this circus with me.” The truth is, to mix metaphors a bit, raising a toddler is a circus. It’s a daily rigamarole of a balancing act, juxtaposed, of course, with plenty of peaceful, sane moments, as well as other moments–and these are the ones that we’ll remember most–when I stop worrying so much about controlling the circus acts and just cut loose to to follow Sam’s curiosity with him. 

How is it that little kids can get away with responding to the world in ways that are socially unacceptable for grown-ups? Sam will plop himself down in the middle of the sidewalk to inspect an ant, or stop in his tracks and howl with glee when he spots the moon way up in the sky. I have a choice: to pull him along impatiently, or to plop right down next to him, grinning. I want to choose the latter, and I want any teenagers hanging around to see us and laugh at us. And not just the teenagers, but also the people who wonder if having children will turn them into a lunatic, or, worse, a slightly out-of-touch person, and maybe they should just raise cats. Or the people who, deep down, would like to have more children but then stop to wonder if maybe one child is plenty and now let’s get a monkey! (Oh wait–that is me.) I don’t mean to say that we should put on a falsely happy front when we’re in public. I mean that others are affected by how we act and what we allow to control us. In this day of parents looking harassed by their children and vice versa, I want to get on board with Sam a little more. I want to stop to enjoy what he enjoys, take a cue from him and grin at random strangers, take every opportunity to laugh out loud at nature’s best jokes, and wonder at what he wonders at, remembering that there is encouragement for others and for yourself in allowing joy to win. 

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