Jenna Fox: I Am a Coyote Mother

Genetically clever, coyotes adapt to their surroundings. In cities they sneak out of storm drain dens and dine from urban dumpsters. In prairies they chase organic, free range fowl. They’ve stretched their borders from the frigid fringes of the Alaskan tundra down to the heat of Panama. Where wolves have ‘failed to adapt’ to the encroachment of humans, coyotes have survived, thrived–natural selection at its finest.

 

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I AM A COYOTE MOTHER

by Jenna Fox

 

The fog was low and thick as I rounded the corner toward my son’s daycare. We’d left the house earlier than normal, but he was happily burbling in his rear-facing car seat. On an isolated stretch of road, flanked by swaths of yellowing aspen and birch, with western hemlock draped in mist, I saw the lone coyote. He crossed the road with a steely-eyed gaze, oblivious to my presence.  Easing up on the gas, I glanced in the rear view mirror, and saw him trot off into the autumn-red underbrush. This image lingers in my mind.

As an anxious girl, yips and haunting howls came to me at night, penetrating my tumultuous dreams. I began weaving stories in my mind about dens under my bed, and sharp teeth trying to eat me, Red Riding Hood Style. Our suburban Seattle backyard, bordering undeveloped cemetery, was a forested wildland. After school, I’d gaze out my second story window and knew that they were out there. Occasionally I’d get up the courage to say, “Mommy, Daddy, there are wolves in our forest,” but being prone to imaginative wanderings, my stories were brushed off.

I coped by constructing an elaborate bedtime ritual, which included meticulously positioning a life size blonde doll, dressed in one of my nightgowns, at the edge of the bed. I’d make my dad say prayers with the doll, tuck her in, like me. My plastic decoy. A sacrifice, to the big eyes, the big teeth, under the bed. If they were hungry, they would eat her. I would have time to escape, before they realized their mistake.

One Saturday, as my dad flipped Mickey Mouse pancakes on the griddle, he casually turned to us at the table, and said, “I saw a coyote this morning while running through the cemetery. Looks like Jennifer’s wolves are real.”

Validation. At last. And now I knew what they were. Coyotes.

When I was twelve, my younger brother and I, under the guise of ‘walking the dog,’ got closer to our coyote neighbors. Trespassing into the cemetery forest to explore, we came across a sunlit meadow. Patches of golden-brown, black, and reddish fur, soft on the eyes, and plentiful, filled the entire clearing. Was it springtime shedding? A coyote barbershop? Their bedroom?

Spooked by the idea that they could come back, my brother and I picked up our pace, jogging nervously back down the path. We never actually saw them, but their invisible eyes followed me, as we exited back into the safety of our neighborhood. They were close. I got closer. I learned.

Genetically clever, coyotes adapt to their surroundings. In cities they sneak out of storm drain dens and dine from urban dumpsters. In prairies they chase organic, free range fowl. They’ve stretched their borders from the frigid fringes of the Alaskan tundra down to the heat of Panama. Where wolves have ‘failed to adapt’ to the encroachment of humans, coyotes have survived, thrived–natural selection at its finest. Facts filled my brain, as I studied coyotes from the pages of outdated Funk & Wagnall’s encyclopedias on my parent’s bookshelves, and pestered rangers on camping trips around Washington State.

At sixteen, when my career ambitions were to be a park ranger in the Mt. Rainier National Park, I took an elective high school English class called Myth and the Modern Hero. There I was formally introduced to the concept of archetypes. The trickster. Coyote. Across the landscape of literature I saw coyote adaptability: creators, messengers, shape shifters.  But with our culture’s discussion of mother-animal archetypes, like the (in)famous Tiger Mother, and the contrasted Otter, Eagle, or Elephant Mother, it’s surprising to me that nobody has talked about the Coyote Trickster Mother.

“I know that legally since you just offered me the job, you can’t rescind it, but I want to let you know that I am pregnant, and before I say yes, I want to make sure that your office environment actually is supportive of mothers,” I said, with a new found assertiveness.  The baby wasn’t planned, but already I was adapting to motherhood. Picking my way across the landscape of my career, I accepted the job, knowing I could survive. Then, our life and territory expanded. With my ever-growing belly, we bought a modest house, tucked safely south of the city, and began to domestically thrive.

A flash of tawny fur trotted in front of our ten foot picture window. “Oh my gosh, Kyle, I think I saw a coyote, it’s as big as a German shepherd” I shouted, as I dashed outside barefoot, leaving our new baby in his swing. It was springtime, and at the end of the driveway, I gingerly stepped across the dewy gravel, grateful that I was, for my neighbor’s sake, at least wearing pants.

She stood motionless at the intersection, long legs, low hanging black-tipped tail, and honey eyes that looked both ways before crossing the street. Sensing my presence, she calmly looked back, acknowledging me with prolonged eye contact. My breath caught in my throat. I see you, I thought.  I am no longer afraid. We are the same.

Last night, my strong-willed four year old watched vintage Loony Toon cartoons on his dad’s X-box, and when they finished, he  said, “mama, can I have face paint like road runner?” After hastily sketching a road runner likeness, which passed the bathroom mirror test, he responded, “oh mama, it looks so good. And now you get to be the coyote!” So I bumbled behind him, hid in doorways and clumsily dropped pillows boulders, while he shrieked around the living room yelling “beep, beep,” until bedtime, when he collapsed in a heap next to me. We snuggled in for stories and backrubs before sleep.

I am surviving in a world that is constantly changing. I take many shapes: bedtime wrestling champion, memory maker in charge of seasonal magic, or no-more-chocolate-chips-today enforcer. I delicately respond to the emotional landscape presented in my son staring back at me. I go from laughing, or ‘playing the fool,’ to the disciplinarian, and back again in the course of a few moments. My creation exists outside of me, with a stubborn mind of his own.

Sometimes I feel cagey and panicked when confined.  During the school year I juggle working motherhood, by wearing leggings and cursing in lectures in front of “at-risk youth” at the community college, and making the twice-a-day daycare commute. In the stifling non air conditioned Seattle summers, I watch the toddler splash in our ‘pool,’ really a plastic tub from Target. Friends say, “I admire your ability to adapt. You always seem to be trying something new with him. I wish I could be so flexible in my parenting.” I respond, “It’s just about surviving.”

Before he weaned, I spent endless hours on a twin mattress on the floor, laying burrowed in blankets. Sweaty, chubby, toddler hands reaching for my neck in a tiny stranglehold, slurping greedily at my breast. When I’m honest, sometimes motherhood feels like smotherhood, and I want to chew off my own leg, running off into partially mutilated freedom.

I hold a sacred power inside, part human, part animal, an instinctual I-would-kill-for-my-offspring feelings. I may blend into the crowd, unassuming, or stand out, on the side of a foggy road early in the morning. I am a trickster mother. A coyote mother.

 

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Jenna Fox is described by her community college students as “sympathetic, but with a blunt sense of humor.” She writes from her home in Seattle, where she’s raising a family and a co-existing with a twitchy dog. Her quirkiest accomplishment was spending a year walking barefoot.  

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