Apparently, grizzlies are crap when it comes to the Daddy game. With a range of as much as 1,800 square miles, their biggest issue in this department appears to be absenteeism.
Dad is always busy at work, hunting and foraging, and is never really around. Which, as it turns out, is not a bad thing. As a large apex predator and opportunistic hunter, grizzlies are known to kill and eat cubs that cross their paths – even their own young. No Ward Cleavers in the Ursidae family.
I am telling you all this because, since the birth of my first son and as recently as last week, I have thought of myself as a proud “Papa Bear.” In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a big dude – 6 foot 2 inches, 200 and some too many pounds – so the analogy is not without merit. The real connection (or so I thought) is that, since the very moment my son launched into this world and I held him in the crook of my arm, I have bristled with a sense of devotion and protectiveness.
My wife was in labor for three days, and baby John was pretty well wedged in there. So when he finally came out, it was...dramatic. I am open to the idea that there may be some magical thinking here, but I swear that, when the time came, he actually shot up in the air on a plume of amniotic fluid and plopped wet and wailing right onto my wife’s chest.
Whatever the truth, the fact is that the arrival of one’s child is an awesome and absurd event. Nothing – absolutely nothing – can prepare you for this moment (and I read the “The Caveman’s Pregnancy Companion”). This thing – this child! – comes out all sloppy and screaming and totally changes your world. There is nothing pretty about it, but it is somehow the most beautiful thing you have ever seen.
Right out of the gate, my son looked more like Kuato from “Total Recall” than any chubby-butted dough ball from a Pampers commercial. Even so, I knew right then that I would scratch and spit and claw and nuzzle and coo and grunt and growl and bristle and kill for this boy. So now you see...the bear thing.
It is pretty clear from the description above that whoever started the rumor that bear fathers were cool got it seriously damned wrong. Who ever mucked it up first, they’ve since gotten a big boost from the entertainment industry. Beginning in the 19th century with "The Story of the Three Bears” and taken to its apogee with Baloo in Disney’s “The Jungle Book”, we humans have foolishly been led to believe that male bears can be domesticated and downright jolly.
Enculturated into believing the Goldilocks myth, I imagined myself as an ursine wonder, snugglin’ and rasslin’ with my boys and showing them the wild ways of bearhood. Big “Papa Bear” rambling about while his cubs tumble along behind him, eating here, and climbing all over him as he lays in the sun and digests.
I don’t hesitate to lift my cubs swiftly onto my shoulders while we walk, and I even let them sit on my head while we’re piled on the chaise watching TV. I treasure this intimacy and physicality and am particularly proud when I take them on “adventures” to explore the city’s curiosities. This is my range. And I am sharing it with my cub-kids and showing them the ropes.
BUT!! Bears don’t do that! They mate and leave and go wandering around eating until they do it again. There’s no nurturing. No playfulness. No guidance. God knows they’re not protective. Face it, Papa Bear’s a dick! So what am I supposed to do? What is my spirit animal? I certainly can’t emulate human behavior, so where does that leave me?
According to the special Father’s Day posts on numerous science and nature blogs, there are some pretty good models of fatherhood to be found in the animal kingdom. Frogs and toads, the giant water bug, the arowana – all these guys are brooders, carrying the eggs of their young on their backs or holding their offspring in their mouths for protection.
In the oceans, the lumpsucker and the seahorse are pretty committed. Hell, the seahorse father actually gets pregnant! In the Avian world, both the jacana and rhea are essentially single fathers. They make the nest, care for the eggs, raise the young, etc. The moms in this case are off cavorting in the interest of species propagation.
The marmoset? The emperor penguin? All great dads, but, I would argue, seriously lacking in stature and the rough-and-tumble, go-anywhere, take-on-the-world charge that I believe is so essential to the “Papa Bear” ethos. A proud “Papa Marmoset?” Doesn’t have the ring.
Then it occurred to me. Mama bears are actually the ones who do most of the stuff that I value: teach their young, protect them, feed them, raise them up good, play with them. They actually parent. Mama bears are there. Mama bears care.
Of course, I would never deign to presume I had the fortitude or patience to ever claim the rights or suffering of motherhood. But in this post-gender, non-normative world in which we have begun to find ourselves, I am willing to accept that I identify more strongly with the feminine in the Ursine world. Perhaps, though my expression may be cisgender, I am, in practice, non-binary. Perhaps I feel more akin to the proud “Mama Bear.”
So what is my spirit animal, in whose company can I proudly stand in all my zoomorphic glory?
To answer this, I offer you the “Mapa Bear”: proud, fierce, loyal, roaming, nurturing, playful, rumbling, and wild. All the best of what Mama brings, coupled with that swashbuckling bravado only Daddy possesses.
I am a proud Mapa Bear!
And as such, I will continue to spit and scratch and claw and nuzzle and coo and grunt and growl and bristle and kill and even die for my boys. I will care for them. I will be there for them. I will protect them. And as long as my neck can withstand the weight, I will let them sit on my head as we pile on the chaise and watch TV.
God protect those who dare get between the Mapa Bear and hir cubs!