Motherhood & Words

the gerbil diaries, part I

Perhaps for some of you the word “gerbil” brings to mind a somewhat hazy (and disturbing) rumor involving Richard Gere, an emergency room, and an unfortunate rodent. Even I experienced a vague sense of discomfort when, last week, the word started being bandied about our house casually and with some frequency.

But you must banish those unsavory images (which were solidly debunked as urban legend) from your imagination, just as I have. You must do this because, you see, the newest member of our family happens to be a gerbil, and I’d like you to welcome her with a clear heart and a pure mind.

Friends, meet Nibbles. Nibbles, meet my friends.

I never thought I’d be a gerbil owner. I actually never thought we’d have rodents of any kind in our house, even though as children, my sisters and I had guinea pigs and mice (and ducks and a chick and salamanders and a snapping turtle and two parakeets and a cat and two dogs).

My parents were very tolerant of pets, and owning pets seemed to teach us responsibility. Which is why I caved. (Who doesn’t want their kids to learn to care for an animal?)

Or at least it’s part of why I caved. Here’s the rest of the story:

Last year, Stella got in her head that we should have another baby. “Let’s get a baby,” she said at least once a week.

“Oh no,” I said each time, “we’re done having babies.”

But this explanation wasn’t satisfactory, so I was forced to go into more detail, explaining that me and pregnancy don’t really mix (to which she responded, “adopt one!”). I explained that we didn’t really have room in our house for another baby (to which she responded, “You can fit a bunk bed and a crib in our room! No problem!”)

But I just kept saying, “No sweetie, we’re not having another baby. I feel so happy and so lucky to have you two girls.”

Finally, she said, “Well then how about a dog?”

So we started talking about dogs—a lot. We talked about a timeline (after Zoë turns 3) and a plan for a non-shedding, hypoallergenic dog (so D’s not miserable). We talked and talked and talked about dogs, about breeds and sizes and possible names.

And then a few weeks ago, my sister adopted the nicest cocker spaniel from the Human Society. Patch is calm and adorable and great with kids. So when Rachel said they couldn’t take Patch on their vacation, we quickly agreed to take care of him. It was the perfect opportunity to see how we would do with a dog.

Well, Patch is perfect (except for his separation anxiety and penchant for shredding things when he’s anxious) and having him was great (except for the late-night and early morning walks and the fact that Zoë kept trying to ride him and smother him in blankets). He was perfect and overwhelming, and D and I quickly realized that if this sweet dog was too much for us, we definitely weren’t ready for a dog of our own.

So imagine my delight when, last week, Stella said, “I think I want a hamster instead of a dog. Can I get one for my birthday?”

“Great,” I said. “Done.”

But after research about the frequent biting and completely nocturnal habits of hamsters (not to mention the hamster salmonella outbreak I read about online), we decided a gerbil (a creature that is slightly less nocturnal and tends to be more social) would be a better pet.


Friday, September 3

2 p.m.—Stella and I visit PetSmart and look and hamsters and gerbils. The staff reinforces our decision about gerbils.

2:30 p.m.—The begging begins: “Please, please can we get it before my birthday? I need it. I need it.”

3:00 p.m.—Names are discussed: Peanut or Nibbles?

3:30—7:30 p.m.—The lobbying for a pre-birthday gerbil begins in earnest. We finally agree that sometime the next day, we will go get the gerbil.

Saturday, September 4

1:30 a.m.—Stella is awake, in our room: “Are you sure we can get the gerbil today? Do you promise?” Kate: “I promise. Go to sleep.”

4 a.m.—To D: “Do you promise we can go straightaway in the morning? Do you promise?” D: “Shh. Yes.” (He has no recollection of this conversation.)

6 – 11:45 a.m.—Many tears because “noon isn’t ‘straightaway.’” Me: “True, but deal with it.”

Noon—We all pile into the car, go to PetSmart, sign papers, see Nibbles, decide he is definitely a Nibbles, buy appropriate (and expensive) paraphernalia: cage (check), ball (check), food (check), treats (check), bedding (check), mineral licks (check), chew toys (check). D says I have a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face. I feel as if we’ve just purchased our first house.

1:30 p.m.— Nibbles is home and seems to be adjusting. The rule is this: no hands in her cage for four days (the salesperson recommended this so Nibbles could become acclimated.)

Sunday, September 5
Sometime in the morning while I am at the coffee shop writing—little hands go into the cage and try to hold Nibbles. Nibbles tries to escape. Tail fur comes off in said little hand. There are many tears. There are many different versions of the story.

12:30—I get home from the coffee shop and notice blood in Nibbles’ cage, blood on the exercise wheel, blood on the food dish, blood on the shredded toilet paper roll. I call PetSmart. The vet is at lunch. I am told they will call me back.

2:30—The vet is not a small animal vet. They recommend a different clinic.

3 p.m.—D takes Nibbles to a clinic in St. Paul. A shot is administered. Nibbles is sedated. An amputation of the “de-gloved” portion of her tail occurs.

3:30 p.m.—I get the whole story after I assuage my daughter’s fears (“But I’ll get in trouble! I didn’t listen!”) about telling the truth. Lessons about following directions are learned. Lessons about being honest are learned. Everyone feels better.

4 p.m.—D and Nibbles are sent home to recuperate. Nibbles is tired, but fine. I look at the vet bill and try not to cry. “We have the most expensive gerbil in town,” I say. D has a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face. I pour myself a glass of wine.

The following days are spent cleaning up Nibbles’ droppings to prevent a tail infection. They are spent washing hands and trying to regain Nibbles’ trust. They are spent wondering whether a gerbil is truly less overwhelming than a dog, or even a baby.

Posted in


I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. notshoppingattarget on September 8, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    oh god! love this story! can't wait for more installations. you are hilarious. welcome nibbles!

  2. Joy Riggs on September 8, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    This is wonderful, Kate! It all sounded so familiar, the lessons pet ownership provides (for moms, dads and kids), and the emotions that are involved.

    I never thought I'd administer banana-flavored medicine to a hedgehog. I never thought I'd cry at a rat funeral or miss those darn little creatures so much (our rats, who were brothers, died within a day of each other this summer). Parenting takes us to some pretty bizarre and meaningful places.

  3. Sarah on September 8, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    This is hilarious! And very sweet. Good to get the inside scoop before we consider adding a pet to our family. 🙂

  4. Amber on September 8, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    Oh dear. I laughed, I cried, I laughed again. Poor Nibbles, poor girls, poor Kate and the vet bill. I hope Nibbles gets better soon. She sure is cute.

    We have mice which have worked out quite well. I like than even more than I thought I would and they are much easier than a dog.

  5. Emmie on September 8, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    Wow. What Amber said. I'm a little afraid to read Part II…

  6. Lisa on September 8, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    Hmm, I guess you should've just had another baby! 😉 That was hilarious; I loved it!

  7. Andrea on September 9, 2010 at 7:11 am

    Oh, my, I think I'd take the baby…this was traumatizing and exhausting just reading about it (of course I'm the one who nearly broke down in tears of nervous exhaustion when M's great-grandfather gave him an unsolicited goldfish for Thanksgiving–back when I only had one kid!) Good luck!

  8. Only You on September 9, 2010 at 9:01 am

    Love this! Oh my…but, the wonderful thing is that your girls *are* really learning about responsibility and consequences. Unlike their usual playing now a live creature is involved. I already know how busy you are so can only imagine how much more this added to your day(s). Hopefully in time the girls will become expert and everything will settle.

    My husband and I are not pet people but our son wants something – maybe a small fish tank. Maybe we can deal with that, but then again I also thought that gerbils and hamsters would be "easy."

  9. Karna Converse on September 9, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    Memories! I, too, was never going to have a rodent in my house, but after watching my sons kill 4 goldfish and 3 hermit crabs, I gave in to my daughter's pleas for a guninea pig. She took care of it for about three years before she tired of it. Ginny lived with our neighbor for another year. It was a great experience for her though!

  10. cath c on September 9, 2010 at 1:54 pm


    i had gerbils as a kid. you don't want that story, though. it involves a cat.

    that richard gere + gerbil + ER story started in my youth as rod stewart.

  11. Life As I Know It on September 9, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Watch out…we started with a hermit crab, graduated to a gerbil, and just got a dog a few months ago.

    But our gerbils have needed no trips to the vet (yet).

  12. Elizabeth on September 10, 2010 at 1:17 am

    Oh My God. That is just too much.

    We had a hamster for a while called Peanut, and when it died I felt like I had died and gone to heaven.

    I hope for happy times for you and the gerbil and your two-only girls!

  13. Andria on September 10, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    Ah, urban legends….I always thought the gerbil story was about George Michael. I hadn't heard the Rod Stewart one!

    Poor you, Kate…though a well-told story! I was on the edge of my seat! I think animal care is stressful. We accidentally fried some worms in a homemade worm house this summer, and it was very traumatic!

  14. jen on September 11, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    nice meeting you today (on our way out!) … so funny, though … my oldest daughter's name is stella too!

  15. Toby's Mom on September 12, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    Hi Kate,

    Loved the gerbil story! Too funny! I didn't know you could take gerbils to the vet. I had many gerbils as a child (along with hamsters, and guinea pigs, and rabbits, and fish, and a dog, and a bird, and a horse, for goodness sakes, not to mention all the wild animals I "rescued") and all the gerbils died young. Probably because my parents told me there's no such thing as a gerbil vet, which I totally believed until just now. And, um, yes, a gerbil does sound like more work than a dog. But, would you have such great material with a dog? I think not.

  16. Kara on September 14, 2010 at 10:00 am

    Oh MY! I hope Stella has been saying over and over, "You are the BEST mom ever!" At least you know you'll continue to get great writing material out of her:-)

  17. kate hopper on September 16, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    Thanks for all your support, you guys. I will not tell Stella (or Zoe, who has also begun requesting a baby sister) that there were a few votes for a baby here.

    Nibbles is recovering, slowly. More on that in the next installment.

  18. Cindy N. on September 28, 2010 at 9:07 am

    I vote for a mini-lop. Had mine (Monet) for 7 years. He was litter trained, licked my ankles, slept on the bed with Jeff when I was gone and visa versa. He'd run to the door when we got home, and cuddled with us. I think he thought he was I dog – cuz he'd let me take him for walks. I miss him. He was my first baby…