You will become deeply concerned about a stuffed animal.

One of the many unexpected side effects of parenting.

“One of the great unknowns in parenting is how deep one’s relationship is with your kids’ stuffed animals.”

A friend said this to me recently, and it occurred to me how true it is in my life — how suddenly I found myself emotionally entangled with two stuffed toys, a thing I did not expect to happen to me in my late 30s, a time in one’s life where your emotions are usually tied up in marriage, family, career, and scowling at your telephone, not necessarily in that order.

Here I am, though.

Their names are Monkey and Panda. (Kids can be very literal.) For all the time that we spent worrying about getting their names right, carefully sounding out the perfect rhythm of first-last-middle; considering the competing needs of cute-as-a-child-but-befitting-of-a-senator; choosing a name popular enough that the substitute teachers can pronounce it but not so popular that there would be four of them in their class, relegating them to an early life of last-initial-suffixing like you’re all different models of the same car; googling the name combinations to ensure they weren’t inadvertently shared with serial killers or European white nationalist politicians; making sure that we honored family while setting the children on their own paths as unique individuals, after all that — they went and named the monkey “Monkey” and the panda “Panda”.

Children do not lack for imagination, but perhaps that’s due in part to them not wasting it where it’s not needed. Regardless, we soldier on. 

Monkey was a gift, given to the older child while still in utero by a dear and old friend of his mother. He was summarily ignored for the first year of the child’s life, until one day he became an inseparable companion, a Robin to his Batman, a character written in to liven up the second season of his life after a shaky, unsure-but-promising initial run. Panda, for its part, was grabbed off a low shelf at the gift shop of the zoo, a zoo that does not have a panda or even really that great a collection of animals at all, but you don’t sustain a successful zoo gift shop by only selling warthogs, now, do you? We had offered each of the children one “small” stuffed animal, of the $9.99 variety, and before the sentence had fully left whichever parents’ mouth it came from, it was subverted by a barely-ambulatory and not-yet-verbal toddler wrapping the “large” stuffed animal in a hug that told us two things very clearly: this is my panda, and you are spending $24.99 on me today. 

This would not be the last time that this child succeeded in a financial negotiation, and I suspect that she will do far better in life than either of her parents. 

The animals are always with the children, and yet at the same time, they are always missing. Stuffed under a couch cushion. Left in the garage or driveway. Located in the clubhouse of their swing set by a parent who’s had to sweep the yard with an phone’s flashlight twenty minutes after bedtime. Walled inside a Lego-block tomb like a plush Fortunato, only to be sought again when Montresor has a change of heart and misses him at bedtime. Misplaced overnight at preschool, a rare but real event that forces the child’s parents to quickly improvise a grand story about the magical overnight adventures that can be had At School? At Night?!?, stories that ultimately don’t work but buy a few minutes of peace, which is all a parent can ever ask. 

For companions that the children seemingly cannot live without, they have a remarkable ability to misplace them. 

Without fail, I will be tasked with finding them. I will head out in the yard barefoot on a 40-degree night, I will remove every cushion from a sectional sofa, I will dig through the tornado’s-wake of a four-year-old boy’s room to recover the missing animal so that bedtime may proceed. I know how much it matters.

I see the way they draw comfort from their anthropomorphized friends in a way that even their parents sometimes cannot deliver, an unconditional love rooted in these inanimate animals’ inability to screw up like we do. When, in less-proud moments of parenting, I’ve lost my temper negotiating through a tantrum, Monkey is there to reassure him even before I can apologize and make amends. When a knee is scraped because the younger child lacks any notion of physics or self-preservation and Mom and Dad were probably wrong to suggest trying her new bike on that hill, Panda is there for her to squeeze. When they’re not ready for bed even though their parents are deeply ready for them to be ready, the animals prove surprisingly deft conversational partners. They are the friends who are never sick, never away on a trip, never unwilling to take on the adventures of childhood.

I worry more than they do that they will one day actually lose these animal friends. Of course, I worry more than they do about many things: about money, illness, gravity, proper nutrition, scissors, the quality of their education, the society they’ll live in and the climate they’ll inherit, whether we’re instilling the proper values in them, if we’re teaching them to be kind and patient and just and ultimately better people than we are. I worry more than they do about pretty much everything save for the possibility of volcanoes in Kentucky.

I worry about Monkey and Panda multiple times a day. I worry because for me they’re markers of a time in our lives that’s passing much faster than I can abide, of a time when their problems can be solved by a warm hug and a smiling face. 

They will outgrow Monkey and Panda someday, probably soon, the same way that I outgrew my childhood favorites, the same way that we all did. They will become strong, stable, emotionally-grounded people who can carry on mature and loving relationships with other people and living things. They will have real friendships, sharing their joys and sorrows and in-jokes and hugs. They’ll no longer need to project a personality onto 10 inches of graying polyester fluff. 

That day will come and they’ll be ready to move on. 

I won’t.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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