My Boys and Our Butterflies

How nature brought me closer to my kids

Charlie, three, watches as one of his butterflies emerges from its chrysalis.

The last time I cried was over a caterpillar. A lovely stripey caterpillar we named Hillary because we thought she was a she and looked like a fighter. She had crawled across our back deck and under the arm rest of an outdoor chair to start the long process of turning into a monarch butterfly.

She had curled up and was close to forming a chrysalis when one of my twin baby boys crawled past, batted a big old paw at her and plop!, she fell onto the ground. Green stuff oozed out of her and, despite our best efforts, she didn’t make it.

It’s a loss we took hard. We had enthusiastically embraced of the great Kiwi summer tradition of planting swan plants — milkweed — in pots around the garden and waiting for monarch butterflies to lay their eggs and start a new life cycle.

But as a mother to three boys aged three and under — Charlie’s the toddler and is big brother to 17-month-old identical twins Tommy and Henry — our little caterpillar family is more than a fun hobby or a way to teach the children about nature.

It’s become a vital weapon in my war against too much screen time, a way for all four of us to spend time together, to have a common interest, and to get outside in the fresh air and sunshine and just be still.

My husband works two jobs and I am home six long, long days a week with the little ones. Given the logistical and emotional nightmare that is taking three little boys anywhere I tend to stay at home with them a lot.

But the trouble with us all being at home every day was that there was very little for us all to do together. Charlie, three, loves books but the twins can never sit still long enough to get past the first page. Charlie wants to run around outside but his little brothers are only crawling.

There was the temptation to plonk them in front of the television or an iPad all day, but, other drawbacks aside, it locked me out of their little world. I’d get three quiet boys transfixed by a cartoon while mama was just getting in their way.

Given we lived in a modest little house that happens to have a wonderful tree and flower-filled garden, I looked outdoors to find a way to spend time with my boys.

I saw a monarch butterfly flutter past, remembered it was “butterfly season” and took delivery of our first swan plant. That plant gave us one caterpillar and eventual butterfly, and so I kept adding plants to our collection, moving them close to the back windows so we could keep an eye on them.

Soon the boys were ignoring the television and would press their faces against the glass, squealing in delight as their stripey caterpillars grew big and fat and ate their way through leaf after leaf. Within weeks we had five, 10, 20 caterpillars, each one with a name and three little boys to watch over them.

Charlie stopped asking for my iPhone to watch cartoons and started asking me to take him and his brothers outside “to check on the caterpillars”.

Now, we sit in the morning sun on our back deck, checking to see which caterpillar has grown, or has made his cocoon, which one needs to be moved to a plant with more leaves, and which is next to emerge as a butterfly.

Mornings are now for checking on the caterpillars and not watching cartoons.

The babies crawl among the potted swan plants — a few minor adjustments have been made since the untimely demise of Hillary — and Charlie points out his favorite caterpillars to them.

I’ve learned so much too, about nature and the importance of nectar-filled gardens, the damage our fast-paced lifestyles do to insects such as butterflies and bees because no one has time to garden like we used to.

But most of all I’ve learned that yes, children actually do like to sit still. You just have to sit down next to them.

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