Go ahead, it won’t bite you. Well, not very hard anyway.
Everyone knows that a child’s early years are the most crucial developmentally of her whole life. This fact seems to scare the hell out of most new parents. We’re constantly worrying that we’ve managed to screw up our child in some profound, irreversible way, the kind of issue that won’t be pinpointed until the kid is on a therapist’s couch in 25 years trying to make sense of what went wrong.
Therapist: What about your childhood?
Hannah: I don’t know . . . My parents took me to Australia and Asia for seven weeks when I was a baby.
Therapist: Ah, that explains it.
Therapist: The neurons in your brain were at a crucial juncture, and by taking you out of a safe environment and replacing it with an unknown one, your ability to love and be loved was forever compromised.
Hannah: No! Is there anything I can do about it?
Therapist: Blame your parents for the rest of your life.
At birth, the human brain is not even close to finished. It’s got 100 billion neurons, but most of them are not connected into any kind of network. It’s like an expensive computer that’s not plugged in. The brain basically starts working when a child experiences the world and forms attachments to other people. Forming these connections are the main tasks of brain development.
That’s what makes this trip so interesting. As everyone keeps reminding us, Hannah won’t remember a damn thing about all this. But her brain will be hugely influenced by it and various parts of her personality will take shape on this trip, whether she likes it or not.
I’m thinking about this right now with regards to Chester, the Rees’ family dog. Chester is big, old, mellow, and has no space issues whatsoever. He loves to sneak up, slowly, and lick and slobber unsuspecting bystanders—especially Hannah, who cannot run, or even crawl, away.
Chester alternately fascinates and terrifies Hannah. She wants to see him, touch him, smell him, and she understands that he is somehow radically different from the humans that surround her. But when he comes within five feet, it’s freakout city. She goes batshit crazy. One week of forced interactions with Chester seems to have solidified her fascination with—and phobia of—dogs. If we have “expanded our daughter’s horizons” on this trip, we have also, I suspect, created a child who will grow up to hate animals. Just like her father, who distrusts and fears them for no real reason other than the fact that they are not humans.
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The last known picture of this monkey, which was devoured by an emu shortly after.
On our third day in Melbourne, her potential animal phobia was deeply tested. We were walking through Southgate, a redeveloped area along the Yarra River, when we stumbled upon a temporary petting zoo. It smelled funky and looked dirty and the sight of hay bales made me sneeze. My first instinct was to keep walking. But various moos and squawks and baahs got Hannah’s attention; soon she was practically leaping out of the carrier on my back toward the pen and I was forced to stop.
Sarah, who adores animals, was thrilled. “I love Australia!” she said. “You’re walking through this city, and suddenly there’s this full-fledged zoo. Let’s go!” As she unbuckled Hannah, I thought: This should be interesting.
Sarah carried her into the pen, which looked like the cover of Pet Sounds. So much so that I couldn’t get “Sloop John B” out of my head. For the next 45 minutes, Hannah frolicked among chickens, pigs, lambs, goats, ducks, llamas, calves, and emus. Hannah would reach out to pet, say, a goat, but when the thing showed any interest and came closer to Hannah, she buried her little face in Sarah’s shoulder. Eventually, she buried it less. Soon, she didn’t need Sarah at all.
Sarah made me come into the pen (I had been taking long-range zoom photos from across the plaza), and Hannah, who was having a blast, loved having me in there. She seemed eager to introduce me to a chicken that had taken a shine to her. When we left, an overwhelming relief spread through me: I guess where animals are concerned, Hannah takes after her mother. We had not screwed her up. Also, I couldn’t wait to wash my hands.