The Greatest Guilt Trip On Earth

Before I had kids, I had have a list of things I swore up and down I’d never do.  Some of these things include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. Drive a family vehicle. We all know that four-wheel drive ship sailed long ago.
  2. Let my children watch too much TV. That, I’ve been pretty good about.
  3. Go to a circus.
I hate the circus. I mean, when I was seven it was pretty swell, especially when my brother and I got to ride an elephant before the show began. I can still describe to you the feeling of being so high up in the air, and my surprise at the coarseness of the animal’s hair.  I also remember wanting the animal to hurryupandgofaster, which could very well have been the basis for my habit of collecting speeding tickets as an adult.  Ahem.
But as an worldly adult with a conscience and a heart of the bleeding variety?   No way, man.   It was always one of those givens for me, kind of like, I’m never going to knowingly eat a cricket, or agree to jump out of an airplane without a parachute.  I was never going to patronize a circus.  I thought they were unnecessary, and dirty, and above all, unspeakably cruel for the animals trained to perform.
And then I had kids.   Actually, I stuck by this vow, with David happily on board, until about a month and a half ago.  I’m told you before how Saoirse’s obsessed with Clifford–the books, the show, the stuffed animals, anything with that big red dog (Ha. I just accidentally typed “read.” Get it? Because he’s in a book?).  Well, one day she sat down to watch the show (I didn’t say I was adamant about not watching TV at all.  It’s just a lousy half-hour, dude.  On PBS.) and the stinking episode was about an elephant at the circus.  Hoo, boy.  From that fated morning on, SK talked nonstop about the circus, and about a dog helping an elephant, and can I go to the circus one day, Mom?  Actually, it was more along the lines of:  “Mom, let’s go the circus.  Yesterday.  Quinn and Daddy, too.  We have to go to the circus yesterday.  No, today.”
At exactly that time, a big circus started advertising around the area.  I ignored the signs.  No, I still said to David, we’re not doing it.  I’m not going to one of those things.  He continued to agree.  But Saoirse was still asking us about elephants:  Were they big?  Were they friendly?  Did they ever get colds?  And whenever she had her Clifford time, she repeatedly asked for the circus episode we had on DVR.
So.  Late, late one night, after many cocktails (yeah, right.  More like half a beer before I realized I was too tired to finish it.  I hear my brother gasping at the horror now…), I ordered tickets.  Look at it this way, I told myself.  This is just an opportunity to spend some quality time with Saoirse.  I asked my mom to babysit Quinn and marked the day on the calendar.
So to the circus we went.  David had to meet us at the arena–he was the only audience member there in a shirt and tie, and I can tell you that much, but darned if he wasn’t the handsomest, too–but I was already soaking up the happy time together as Saoirse was practically skipping while we held hands on line at the door.  And for two and a half solid hours, that child did not move from the edge of her seat, back ramrod straight, one hand loosely holding a chunk of cotton candy–she never even touched it, so I did–until I peeled it from her sticky, blue fingers.  I took a lot of pictures, thinking that I’d make a photo book for her, but I’m not so sure.
Saoirse, at her blessedly innocent three years, had an absolute ball.  She had this little half-smile on her face the entire time, and didn’t want to leave, even after all the confetti had fallen to the floor and the flaming cannonball man had been doused.
But I feel like, at 34, I’m still that young woman who had PETA newsletters sitting out on her coffee table among the Glamour magazines and E. Annie Proulx books (What did you expect?  I was 22.  I won’t tell you that I also was a card-carrying member of Greenpeace and donated a good chunk of my measly $22,000 salary to adopt a manatee in Florida.  Stop looking at me like that.  I loved Maisy.).  Except that I’m not a PETA devotee anymore and I’m currently cooking up some chickens for dinner, but the tender spot for animals–and the basic, moral desire to protect the innocent–still lurks in there.
All I can tell you is that cotton candy is still mighty delicious, especially when it costs 12 dollars a bag.  And your child will adore you forever if she’s surprised with one of those light-up spinny wand toys that she keeps eyeing in the other kids’ hands but never asks you for.  If I can give you some advice, though, it would be the following:
Do. Not. Read. Water for Elephants, or see the movie Water for Elephants, or learn ANYTHING ABOUT Water for Elephants immediately before attending a circus.   Because you will not ooh and ahh over the elephants doing curtsies or the tigers jumping over each other. No.  All you will notice is how undernourished the horses look, and how unnatural it is for zebras to be running around in choreographed circles.  You will be hyper-aware of the bull hooks (do they still call them that?) the trainers use to poke under the elephants’ jaws and the whips that are wielded over the tigers.  You will realize that you cannot pretend these tools are only for show,  and your bleeding heart will start pounding out of your chest so hard you will have to work very hard to not tear up like a damned fool in the middle of the Greatest Show on Earth.
And, if I may, it’s also not a good idea to, after writing a blog post about what you witnessed at the show, google the words “bull hooks and circus,” because the first page that pops up will be congested with videos of animal abuse at the hands of trainers from the very circus you attended that day.  This will not fill you with a happy feeling.
Oh, my.  You know, the people parts were really good.  There’s no end to the entertainment in watching people dance with death on a high-wire, or do jumping somersaults on top of a moving cage 30 feet in the air.   I would’ve paid good money to see that on a normal day, and you could’ve returned the elephants back to the grasslands to run around with their zebra friends and I wouldn’t have minded at all.
So, I don’t know.  I don’t know if I’ll ever go again, but like any parent knows, we tend to break a lot of rules–finanicial, nutritional, in this case ethical–to surprise our children with a little out-of-the-ordinary.   Because in a couple years, Quinn could start asking to go swim with some dolphins…
Before I had kids, I never thought I’d live in the suburbs.  But then I got older, started a family, and realized that living in a place that’s a) safe, b) affordable and c) has a yard wider than than a weed-and-rat covered patch is kind of nice. And I never thought I’d have a dog, but my hairy, sweet beast of a husky showed me that rescuing a canine for your dog-loving husband actually works out for you, too.   Heck, I never thought I’d want to have kids, and, well…you know how that (happily) turned out…
The circus is a different matter, though.  In a few days it’ll blow out of town, headed to a new place for the entertainment of the old and young alike, and I’ll probably put together that photo book like I’d planned.  Because Saoirse will love that she got to see elephants in person.  And I will love the memory of doing something special with her.  So on the people end, it’s a positive.  On the animal end, though? That’s a toughie. Let’s just say I won’t be joining PETA in good conscience again anytime soon.


  1. Alyssa Jollimore | 31st May 11

    I’m really glad you shared this! I actually wanted to go see Water for Elephants until my animal activist friend told me how terribly they treated the elephants in real life and that I shouldn’t be supporting it. I like that you included your own personal photos and I can see how it can be tough for you to watch something like that. Nice of you to bring your daughter to a place that she really wanted to go. She’ll probably remember that for the rest of her life.

    • Leah | 31st May 11

      Thanks for your note, Alyssa! I wouldn’t recommend Water for Elephants if only because Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon make for a really odd couple, but that’s another matter entirely! SK keeps asking if we’ll go to the circus next year, but I think we’ll have to see. Maybe once can be enough, right?

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