Sunday, September 13, 2009

To be continued...

We reared a monarch caterpillar this summer and watched as it spun a chrysalis, then emerged a couple of weeks later as a butterfly. We were all giddy with excitement when it came time to release her. She had spent some time hanging upside down on the lid of her "home," after emerging from her chrysalis. This is a very important and vulnerable time for butterflies. When they emerge from a chrysalis, their wings are crumpled and damp, and for a few hours they hang and are very still. During this time, they pump their wings full of fluid, so they can unfurl and straignten and become strong. When the time is right, they begin to flap their wings a bit and walk around.

When "our" butterfly seemed ready to go, D opened the container and lay it on its side. The kids and I had been out running errands, and I had instructed him to call me when it was "time."He checked the container throughout the day on the day she emerged, and when she was flapping her wings a bit and standing on the floor of the container, he called me. We raced home.

We arrived home and the butterfly....was...just standing there, on the lantana.

The kids cheered to her "Fly butterfly! You can do it!" "We love you!"

They quickly turned to other things, like sliding rocks down the slide, and I tried to hide my concern. I squatted down and noticed that one of her wings was not quite flattened out. It looked a little wrinkled. I wasn't sure this butterfly could fly.

The kids came back to check on her. "What's taking her so long?" L demanded. "Will she fly?"

"Well, honey, I'm sure she'll fly eventually. She's just taking her time right now. Getting her strength up." Which might have been true. She may still have been pumping those wings full of fluid. Or, she may have been injured, perhaps she'd fallen in the container and D hadn't noticed.

After a long half hour, it was time to bring the kids in to get ready for bed. D and I exchanged worried looks every time the kids asked about the butterfly.

"Is she going to fly tonight? Will she be there in the morning?"

All I could say was, "I don't know."

The kids finally got to sleep and though it was dusk, I went out to check on the butterfly. She was still standing on the plant, though she had moved a bit from her original location. Things were not looking good. Usually, butterflies fly within a few minutes of being released.

We'd spent weeks talking about this. The kids were so interested in the chrysalis, and we'd checked it every day, numerous times. We read books about butterflies. We scouted them out when we were on walks. They were counting on "their" butterfly flying away.

"That butterfly is going to fly away tonight, whether it's on her own or into the compost heap." D said ominously. I wanted to agree with him. I wanted my kids to wake up thinking the butterfly had happily flown away and joined the legions of other happy monarchs. If that meant hiding the dead body to maintain the illusion, hey, so be it.

But. I really don't believe in lying to my kids. I have this "truth whenever it's developmentally appropriate" policy. In situations like this, it's mighty inconvenient.

Still. If they believe that she flew, wouldn't it encourage joy, wonder, appreciation? Wouldn't they feel great that they helped this butterfly grow, and then fly away? If they are told that she didn't make it, would it squelch the excitement about butterflies? Make them very sad? Or would it help develop empathy. The honest truth is, in nature, things die. Not every caterpillar becomes a butterfly. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, things don't always go as planned.

D reminded me that they are 2 and 4 years old, and would it really hurt to let them believe she flew away? I reminded him of this "Policy of truth" that we try to maintain, and that this situation was no exception. We fretted. Wrung our hands. What to say. Which angle to present to them. Reality or ideal.

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