By Christine Schoefer
When I discovered that our cat Ronya was pregnant, I felt sorry for her. Full of youthful bravado, she loved scaling trees and dashing after swirling leaves; at dusk, she would take off on secret missions. Extrapolating from my own experience as a mother of three, I knew that her feisty independence would be smothered by her offspring's demands. "Poor teenage mama," I warned her, "you have no idea what's coming your way." It turned out, though, that I was the clueless one: My kitty turned into an ingenious, fierce mother once she had her kittens in tow.
I knew that birthing time was near when Ronya began neglecting her fastidious grooming routine, so I stowed a flannel-lined cardboard box in the back of a closet. "Your birthing place," I instructed Ronya, as I sat her down in the softness. She squinted her green marbled eyes at me. Evidently, she had her own plans.
Early one Sunday morning, we awoke to small screeching sounds coming from our youngest daughter's bedroom. "The kittens," my husband called out urgently. Ronya had hidden under the bed, so we yanked aside blankets, sheets, and mattress. The dark, pulsating heap on the bare wooden floor turned out to be four newborns, huddled close. Their mother did not seem to care that her babies were alarmingly cold. She sat apart, staring at us.
"I knew it," I muttered, "she's too young." While my daughters warmed the moist kittens with gentle hands, I stroked Ronya's back, cooing words of encouragement. Suddenly, she let out a deep moan, like a Tibetan gong. A moment later, a fifth tiny newborn slithered out, feeling like a hot dumpling in my hand.
The work of birthing accomplished, Ronya turned her attention to the labor of caring. She nudged her babies into the crescent curve of her body until each tiny mouth clamped over a nipple. Once they had latched on, Ronya licked them hard, making the tiny bodies sway with every tongue stroke. Surely this was more than a matter of hygiene, perhaps the massage stimulated their miniscule internal organs? The kittens jostled, shoved, and belly tread as if the milk supply could run out any moment. Newborns are a force to be reckoned with, I thought, even if they are barely bigger than a thumb.
For 48 hours, Ronya did not leave her position. On the third day, I observed her scurrying out of the nursery. Radiating a sense of urgency, she rushed downstairs and gulped a quick bite to eat. Ignoring our outstretched hands, she hurried back to her babies. Ronya had turned into a paradox: a hardworking cat. Her happy habit of lounging on soft surfaces seemed forgotten as she toiled around the clock, feeding, grooming, protecting.
Under their mother's expert care, the kittens grew quickly and squabbled over nipple access. "Time to stop nursing," I told her, even though I had learned that she did not need my advice.
With her own impeccable timing, she turned her kittens' transition to solid food into a home-school curriculum. She brought in props from outside: mice, frogs, dragonflies, moles, birds, rats—even a duckling. In the beginning, she disabled the prey so that her clumsy babies had better odds when they practiced chasing and pouncing. Eventually, she released the catch of the day to her eager students unharmed. The lessons left a gory trail of tufts, feathers, claws, and non-descript strawberry colored innards scattered on the wooden floors.
One balmy day, we took the kittens outside and put them down in the grass. Of course, Ronya followed us. She did not seem to be watching her youngsters, nor did she pay attention to the buzzing insects that used to mesmerize her. Instead, she sat still, scanning the surroundings for predators. When the neighbor's giant Newfoundland strolled over, she inflated to double size and hissed viciously. Before she could hurl herself on his back, he was gone.
For weeks, Ronya's universe was defined by the relentless routine of caring for her offspring. Her nighttime escapades were a thing of the past. She no longer reclined among silky pillows. In fact, I never saw her sleeping, and I didn't hear her purr. Just when I started worrying about her fur growing dull and her ribs showing, Ronya changed the rules of the game. The period of nursing, grooming, cleaning, home schooling, and protecting had come to an end. Now, it was time to teach the kittens about boundaries and independence.
When they attempted to reach a nipple, Ronya swatted them with soft paws, claws retracted. Though she kept it playful, the subtext of her roughhousing was clear: I am the boss. Every time they tested her limits, she hissed. When they ignored her message, she used claws to make her point.
When the era of Ronya's self-sacrificing motherhood ended, so did her offspring's childhood.
Ronya never went back to being kittenish herself. Mothering had turned her into an impressive woman-cat, her body rounder, her fur thick and glossy once again. She went back to climbing trees and lolling on freshly made beds. No doubt, she was relieved to have finished the work of mothering.
We gave four kittens away and kept the one who was born into my hands. Mother and son worked out a modus vivendi: They ate from separate bowls, lounged in different armchairs, and hunted in distinct domains. The boy cat likes to stick his front paw deep into one of the small holes made by burrowing moles to pull up a furry little snack by the claws. He swaggers back into the house like he invented the technique. But I'm pretty sure it's one of many things he learned from his mother.
Christine Schoefer is a Berkeley writer who contributes frequently to The Monthly. She is completing a memoir about her years living in Berlin when that city was divided by the wall.
Photo by Rupert Trischberger.