It was bloody when my children were growing up, and there were tears. My children fought about food and kept my kitchen tense for years. They were finding their way in life, doing that sacred tango of emancipation like all kids do. My daughter is a strict vegetarian. My son is a bow hunter.
I wanted a peaceful home where everyone got along and we gathered around a table for lively discussions with the big personalities in my home to eat, talk and laugh. Big personalities and peace don’t always go together.
It’s a good thing there was a wall between my children’s rooms. My daughter won’t wear leather, and hasn’t eaten a s’more in a decade because marshmallows contain gelatin, an animal product. My son kept wrapping up rabbits to put in our freezer and regaling us with the whole story of how the latest triumph was achieved.
My daughter was mid-way through middle school when they were studying ethics of medical testing. She was horrified by the Draize eye and skin tests that use rabbits. The animals are restrained as chemicals are put into their eyes or onto their shaved skin to test for irritation. The animals cannot move, so cannot rub the chemicals away, and irritants form. Then the animals are killed.
She came home with red eyes. “It’s time isn’t it?” I said as I hugged her. Some deep motherhood voice inside me had been listening to my daughter’s struggle and knew she’d been considering becoming a vegetarian for months. She nodded and hasn’t eaten meat since. When we moved to a small town in Colorado in the middle of ranching country, the kids on her school bus didn’t understand why someone would want humus instead of hamburgers.
It was difficult to let my son become a hunter. I’m certainly not a gun person. My only exposure to guns felt violent and I was trying to cultivate a peaceful home. But I ate meat and it seemed hypocritical to have an animal die and my hands remained so clean, especially now that I was listening to my daughter.
I remember the day my 12-year boy had his backpack ready to go and was headed out the door with his dad for ten long days. As I kissed him goodbye I told him, “You will be different when you return. You are going to grow up on this trip.” It was late October and it would be cold in the Colorado Mountains, especially above 9,000 feet.
“Dad would ask me two questions, ‘Which way is north?’ and ‘Which way is camp?’” he told me years later. At first he couldn’t answer, but he learned to use his compass and map and, “I got better, until I could answer even in the foggiest days after I’d been hiking for hours through the woods.”
My son learned to find his way on those hunts as he learned how to feed our family. It is humbling and transformative to hear my son tell the story of how he learned to sit with an animal as it takes its last breaths. “Did you thank this deer?” I ask. “Over and over, Mom, while I held her head.” You eat meat differently, when you realize the effect of offering deepest gratitude for feeding our family and for the impact on my son. That is something you cannot purchase shopping at Walmart.
When children are discovering who they are, especially when their path is different from their parents, sometimes they go a little extreme. And, in their extremity, acquaintances confused my children’s voices for my own.
My daughter, whose concern for animals spread to all living things, decided it was a travesty that Christmas trees were cut down and she wrote an op-ed in the school newspaper. Christmas tree cutting is not my issue, but she had been so brave about so many things, I wanted to support her and we found an alternative tree several years running. I endured many Grinch looks in the process however, as if I was personally killing Christmas by not getting a tree.
My son’s excess was with hunting. He could talk of nothing else. He knew every gun and bow and their make and model. We went to a party once and, when a friend discovered my son was a “brutal hunter,” I spent the rest of the evening watching the telephone game as people pointed to me and frowned. I don’t think they were mentioning my son’s 5th in the nation archery ranking.
Instead of feeling guilty about killing Christmas or raising a brutal killer, I learned to focus on what mattered to me: raising kids to find their own way in the world rather than worrying about how I was misunderstood. This was my path to peace. A practice I still am … practicing.
But practicing yields results. One day at the grocery story my son lifted out the bag of Skittles candy I had put into the cart to read the label. “Mom, Kaitlin can’t eat these. They have gelatin.” he put them back and grabbed something different even though he loves Skittles too.
My daughter was the one, at her college, who surprised many vegetarians about her stand on hunting, “If a person is going to eat meat, I think hunting is the kindest way to go. The animal has a great life and they die quickly. My brother never wastes a life.”
I think it was the wall they shared. On his side were trophy heads of animals he killed. On her side were the necklaces she made to raise money to go to Best Friends Animal shelter. On each side of that wall, as they became themselves, they appreciated how their sibling added to their family as a whole.
They graduated the same year: he from high school, she from college. And they gave each other the present of a yin/yang tattoo on their ribs. Instead of letting it cause separation, our family has married my children’s juxtaposed values to better inform and widen our experience. Life is peaceful and everyone gets along, even with big personalities at the table.
I like my friend, Kelly’s piece about how comparing ourselves is like opening ourselves up to having our joy stolen away.
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