Thank god for the Bronx Zoo and its family membership plan. It’s just me and the kids on a lot of Sundays, and the zoo not only offers a fun diversion and a surefire way to induce long naps afterwards for all of us, but its membership plan rocks and pays for itself in two visits. Over time, I’ve become somewhat of a savvy zoogoer, and this past Sunday was a little bittersweet, since it’s probably it for us until spring. So as a tribute to all those Sundays I spent huffing and puffing behind a double stroller as I attempted to locate the elusive red pandas, these are the ways I’ve observed how a day at the zoo (in da Bronx or otherwise) can be an apt metaphor for parenthood.
1. You will learn the art of preparation: Any parent knows the importance in life of packing a well-rounded diaper bag or knapsack for outings with the kids. I thought I was a veteran, until I started going to the zoo. No matter how well I packed, my kids became immediately voracious and could polish off three-quarters of the snacks I bought before we’ve made it to the first exhibit. More than once, I was forced to pay for a $6 ice cream cone and a $3 drink box, member discount included, because I ran out of things for them to eat. I don’t know what it is about the zoo that makes them so freaking hungry, but I finally learned my lesson and now habitually pack all the contents of my pantry before we go out anywhere, and it is (usually) enough. These zoo outings have served to fine-tune my prep skills, and I’m a stronger–or at least better prepared–parent for it.
2. You will be embarrassed: I’m pretty good at circumventing toddler tantrums in the usual public places. But I was reminded keenly of parental humiliation when I took my kids on the zoo’s monorail, which was populated mostly by weary grownups looking for a seat and respite from noisy children. What was supposed to be a peaceful ride punctuated only by the thoughtful narration of the conductor was instead one where my 4-year-old made loud observations like, “This is MUCH more boring than the rides at Six Flags,” and “What if that elephant FARTED?!” and my 1-year-old shrieked for five minutes when I wouldn’t let her eat a leaf she was busily dissecting into bite-size pieces. I got some glares, some studied ignorance, and a sympathetic smile or two, and I was reminded that cute as they are, there is a special shade of red your face can turn by your children’s antics.
3. You will shep a lot of nachas: I love watching the world through my children’s eyes, and the zoo is no exception: there is a unique pleasure derived from watching my children press their small faces up against the glass to watch in pure wonderment as one animal or another wades or gallops closer. Their eyes light up to see the creatures that populate their books and television shows come to life. When a gorilla sat with his arms crossed and contemplated us, my son laughed in pure delight and mimicked his pose back to him, and I finally stopped with my obsessive picture-taking, put down my camera, and just enjoyed the moment.
4. You will need to adjust your children’s expectations: The zoo, like anything else in this world, is hit or miss. Sometimes, you get a day where the gorillas are out and doing ape-like things and the tigers stare you down as they follow your every move from right behind a glass partition that suddenly seems too thin. And then some days, all the animals are either in hiding or sleeping. That’s OK, though–the animals are entitled to do their thang, and your children are allowed to be bored once in awhile and learn that the world is sometimes humdrum.
5. You are allowed to avoid something if it makes you uncomfortable: I like to expose my kids to different situations and try to answer all questions with aplomb and realistic explanations, no matter the discomfort it might inspire on my part. Despite this, I am the one in charge, and if something really makes me uncomfortable, I am allowed to steer clear of it even if it might enrich my children’s understanding about something. This lesson was driven home to me one zoo visit after I reluctantly followed my son into the Mouse House because he wanted to see and learn about “the mouses” and also because I thought that I could maybe conquer my phobia through immersion therapy like I used to watch on those old episodes of Sally Jesse Raphael and Maury. It didn’t work. So on the following visit, as we approached that exhibit, I shouted, “Is that Spiderman over there!?” and nimbly steered the stroller in the opposite direction. It just wasn’t worth another PTSD episode, and my kids can learn about rodents when their father can accompany them to that one.
6. You realize you’ll do anything to make your children happy: I purposefully bought membership to the zoo to avoid those ridiculous fees they tack on to the really fun exhibits, but nevertheless, when we passed by the camels–the only exhibit ineligible for member discounts–my son begged for a ride, and I decided to pony up. The camels all had Biblical names, and as we boarded, I thought we could pretend we were in Israel. It was only when my son asked, “How come we’re not moving yet?” and the camel’s handler cheerfully responded, “Jonah’s just finishing up using the potty!” when I realized I had paid a whopping $25 to sit on a camel as he pooped. I was a sucker, but my son was thrilled. I’d do it all again.