Mama Bear and Her Tiger Babies

Disclaimer: Please note this post makes strong reference to and assumption of animals in nature.  All of my knowledge of biology, zoology, and any other "ology" comes from passively watching The Wild Kratts while I do the dishes.  I am clearly making this up.

A friend recently asked me a thoughtful question over lunch, "What is it like parenting children who are not your own?" She asked this with the kindest curiosity I've experienced. 

The illustration I used that day, and have used to describe the unique bond and challenge of this particular dynamic is one of a mama bear and her tiger babies.

I am the mama bear, and I have a bear cub.  My bear cub was born to me and has been with me from the very beginning. He lives in my cave, looks like me, was taught to hunt and fish by me, and has an unbreakable bond with me, his mama bear.  I undoubtedly have strong mama bear instincts of protection and care for my cub.  I will fight for his well being no matter what.  

I also have two other cubs who live in my cave.  They are tiger babies.  I know that they are not my cubs.  I am not the tiger mother.  They weren't always with me, they don't look like me, and they don't always hunt and fish in the same way that my cub and I do.  But they are my tiger babies.  I have bonded with them, I love them deeply, and they live in my cave a lot of the time.  My instincts of protection and care for these tiger babies is no different than that of my own cub.  I will fight for their well being no matter what. 

When the tiger babies are in my cave, there is no contrast between how I treat them and how I treat my own cub.  My heart forgets that they are not only mine.  I love all three of them for who they are as individual cubs, but they are a unit together in my heart.  They have the same access to fish, berries, and the warmth of my cave.  They are part of the bigger bear family too.  We climb trees, hunt for salmon, and play in the river all together with no distinction between bears and tigers.

But there are times that my heart and my head conflict.  It's hard when the tiger babies leave.  This catches me nearly every time. It still surprises me when I realize that they have stripes and I do not.  In that instant I'm forced to remember they are not mine.  My head reminds my heart that they are tigers, and have a tiger mother.  Even though I feel like they are my cubs, they are not only mine.  And so my role as the mama bear is different.  

I've begun to use this illustration at times as a way to communicate with my husband when I'm feeling the dissonance and discouragement of being a mama bear to tiger cubs.  There are often times that, because I forget they are not my own, I struggle with a decision to lean in or hold back.  It's become a helpful code for me to express how I'm feeling, when no other words describe the very strong mother instincts and love I have toward his daughters.  

My son recently overheard me refer to the "mama bear and tiger babies" and asked about it.  I shared this with him, just as I have with you and he understood.  His response, "Mom, you know this is called a symbiotic relationship, right?"  I laughed. And then Googled.  Yes, in fact this could be an example of a symbiotic relationship. (Thank you to the Wild Kratt Brothers and their very strange educational programming.)  This discussion also brought debate of whether Eric was a Bear or Tiger.  TBD.  And then quickly turned into opinions being offered in preference to otters and beavers.  

While not cubs and tigers, I believe this example can be used well to represent the interactions of people in community with one another.  We need one another - mama bear, her cub, and the tiger babies - and can and will grow because we are figuring out how to live in harmony together. (And we love you, Eric. Even if we're not sure what species you are in this depiction.)