On April 18th, 2019, a stray cat gave birth in my backyard. As first, I panicked — my favorite pastime — and then I googled “Help stray cat gave birth in backyard,” surprised to find that to be a common query. The internet said to set traps and take the cats to a shelter, so we filled a crate with treats and cat food, awaiting the cat’s acquiescence.
It didn’t take long to realize that Mama Cat wasn’t going anywhere near that crate. And even if she did, no rescue in the area could take them anyway. Apparently it was “kitten season,” and rescues in our area were already filled to the brim with neonatal kittens, unable to accept any more.
Then Mama Cat did something strange — she took the kittens, one by one, away, grasping them by their necks and sprinting out from under the fence. But after three kittens, she stopped, never returning for the last two.
We waited. We left food out. But by 1 a.m., it had started to rain, and we were left with no choice but to bring these day-old kittens inside. I had worried that this might happen, so earlier that day, I had purchased syringes and formula, and spent an hour on the phone with a feral cat expert, frantically taking notes on how to care for neonatal kittens — which is no small task. You see, for the first few weeks of a kitten’s life, they can’t eat or go to the bathroom on their own. Their mothers customarily handle this, nursing and licking them to stimulate their genitals. But as a human being, one has to rub and massage said kittens’ abdomens with a hot compress to assist them in urinating and defecating. This process must be repeated every two to three hours for the first two weeks.
That sounded not just unappealing, but impractical. My husband, Ian, had a job, I was a full-time graduate student, and we lived in an apartment in New York City with two rescue dogs. Plus, Ian’s allergic to cats, neither of us had ever had cats, and we didn’t even really like cats! This was absurd. We couldn’t keep them; we didn’t have the time or space.
Or so we thought.
After just a few hours with the kittens, we fell deeply in love, even if they resembled small, wet zombie rodents who always smelled. And from that day on, we were dedicated to raising these tiny cats, and giving them the life their mother couldn’t.
That meant we had to change a lot about the way we were living.
First, we had to prioritize: Yes, keeping the cats alive and healthy was at the top of our to-do lists, but I still had school and Ian had work — plus the rest of our regular responsibilities. Together we had to decide, then communicate to each other, what was most important to us, and how we could work as a team to ensure each other’s success while adequately caring for the kittens at the same time.
It was daunting. And scary. It took a lot of open, honest, and direct communication — “I have a huge project due Monday afternoon, could you take the morning shift?” “I work early on Thursdays, could you take midnight to 6?” — but it worked. Together, we formulated a plan that worked for us.
For the first time ever, my responsibilities were literal living creatures that could die without me. And I must say, it’s shocking how much you can accomplish when the stakes are higher. I used to think I “didn’t have time.” But I learned that when you can’t waste time, you don’t.
Which brings me to my next kitten-induced life lesson: the importance of sleep. For the first few nights, neither of us got more than two hours of sleep a night — sometimes we got none at all. It was incredibly challenging, and it wasn’t sustainable. So we started taking shifts: Ian worked early and my classes were later, so I went to bed at 7 and did the shifts from 2 in the morning on. Ian took over when I left for class, feeding, expressing, and cleaning until 2. And of course, there were naps — lots of them. I learned to squeeze sleep in at every possible moment — in the two hours between feedings and cleanings, the half-hour between leaving for class and lunch, and so on. By this point, people had offered to take the kittens off our hands, but we loved them too much to let go. And now I’m an expert napper!
It wasn’t always fun. Both kittens were diagnosed with severe eye infections, and one developed colitis. So on top of everything we were already doing, we had to throw three forms of antibiotics administration into the mix. But we thrived because we did it together, and on enough sleep. And now, we’re blessed with two five-month-old kittens and two dogs, who all get along swimmingly.
I always knew there were good reasons to have pets — companionship, responsibility, the positive effects they have on mental health — but I never imagined two tiny cats would make my heart grow three sizes, transforming my marriage, productivity, and communication skills along the way. But life always surprises you, and sometimes that surprise comes in the form of two little kittens who show up in your backyard uninvited one day.
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