“I want a pet of my own,” 9-year-old Charlie stated one morning over his frozen waffle. I raised an eyebrow and tipped my head toward the giant designer puppy sitting in the corner of the room, remnants of someone’s Boba Fett figure still stuck in the hair on his chin. “No, I want something that is just mine,” Charlie clarified, shaking his head. “Like a gerbil, or a hamster.”
I groaned. Over the years, as we added one small human being after another to our family until we had a grand total of four to feed, bathe, and parent, we had attempted a variety of pets: parakeets that bit hard and shed seed and feathers everywhere; aquatic African frogs we forgot to feed; hermit crabs we rarely laid eyes on (because they ate each other, OMG); and countless fish. So very many fish. Please note: only parents hoping to teach their children about death should ever try to keep fish as pets.
A quick learner, I finally declared that we never again would have pets that required tanks or cages. I have a hard enough time keeping the children alive and bathed to add cages to the household responsibilities.
Now, there are many “rules” of parenting, but perhaps one of the most important is that one must never make “rules.” Inevitably, you will break your own rule, every single time. Because when your 9-year-old middle son is the most empathetic child you know and wears his big heart on his sleeve, worries too much, and is painfully sensitive to the world in a way that makes him capable of both great sadness and deep love and joy on a daily basis, and that same son asks you for a pet of his own that will love him back?
You become a rat owner.
Actually, a two-rat owner.
I begrudgingly did my research on small animals, knowing that a pet of his own would be valuable to Charlie. We were looking for a pet that would be social, that could love a certain emotional middle child back, maybe, and would want to be held. We needed an animal that wouldn’t be incredibly hard to care for and one that would not aggravate my allergies. After a period of denial, I finally acknowledged that — gulp — rats are widely renowned to be remarkable, social, intelligent pets. Of all the options, they seemed to be, crazy as it sounded, my best bet. So I did what any mom would do (right?): I found a rat breeder on Craigslist. Yes, these actually exist. A few months later, Charlie and I drove two hours to pick up the already-beloved babies from the breeder, who had been meticulous and thorough in her notes and recommendations for cages (size matters!) and bedding (aspen shavings only!) and toys (avoid painted wood!).
I’m not sure what I expected a Craigslist rat breeder to look like. I did not expect to find her to be a 19-year-old community college student with a nose ring living with her parents, a sweet younger brother, and about a bajillion rats. When we arrived to pick up Charlie’s new pets, the breeder’s mother had dinner on the stove, and her father was reading the paper in a nearby recliner. I looked down at the enormous cage in the den full of rats and rat babies, and all I could think was that I am not, in reality, the biggest pushover of a parent in the world after all.
Charlie promptly named his new pets Ginger and Luna, and he held them on his lap for the two hour car trip home. Ginger and Luna love lavender-scented cage liner, multi-grain Cheerios, and cardboard tubes. Charlie just loves Ginger and Luna.
When I posted the picture of Charlie with the rats on Facebook that evening, I received a million comments from my friends that expressed everything from disgust to shock to genuine admiration for me as a mother. “You are a nicer mom than I am,” several of them intoned. But I don’t think I am. The funny thing about being a mother, I have found, is that it enables you to do things you never knew you could. Being a mom means finding strength and fortitude beyond a normal person’s resources. For me, it has meant that I can show affection to large rodents with red eyes and very long tails just because it makes my baby happy. The twentysomething me that lived in Manhattan apartments still can’t believe I willingly and purposely brought rats into my home, but the thirty something mom version of me totally gets it.
I am not thrilled to be a pet rat owner. I still don’t adore cleaning a cage, even with my son’s help, and I’ll never be a fangirl of rodents. I’m just as twitchy about having rats in my house as the next person would be. But the rats thrill Charlie, and Charlie is a child who feels the full weight of the world every day — much more so than my other children do. Charlie needed these rats. It was as simple as that. This is what love is, folks: pet rat ownership.
Thankfully, rats only live about three years. So I have that going for me.
This post originally appeared on Scary Mommy.