Excuse Me while I Walk My Dragon: a Nod to the Weirdness of Motherhood

Washington Post photo by Theresa Vargas.
Nacho, a bearded dragon belonging to Vargas’s son, enjoys spending time outside.

I was sitting in a beautiful hotel room in a country filled with picturesque volcanoes, lakes and beaches, and all I could think about was the lizard on the ceiling.

It lurked in a corner. Lizards don’t lurk, you might be thinking. But this one did, at least in my mind. It stood about five feet from where the ceiling covered the bed, and while logic (and my future husband) told me it probably just wanted to hang out in the corner all night in hopes that a snack might fly by, a voice in my head warned me otherwise. It told me that lizard was just waiting for us to turn off the light and close our eyes before it walked over, took a leap and plopped down on my sleeping head.

That’s what irrational fears do to us. They make us play out worst-case scenarios in movie-quality detail until they feel probable.

I slept that night cocooned in a sheet from head to toe.

I’m not proud that lizards used to terrify me. But in my defense, I am drawn to the same temperatures as those long-tailed creatures and during my travels, I have been surprised in the worst ways by more than a few.

Once, I opened a box of cereal and found one sitting inside the bag, alive. Another time, I pulled up the lid of a toilet seat and found one looking up at me. (I will forever be grateful that I turned on the bathroom light that night). The most disgusting and unfortunate (for the lizard) encounter came on a day when my husband offered to make me toast. The smell of smoke told us breakfast was ruined before two pieces of bread popped up, with a cooked lizard attached.

But you wouldn’t have suspected any of that – that I had long feared lizards or that my nerves had been tested by bold ones – if you had seen me walking through my neighborhood on a recent afternoon. In my hand, I held a leash, which led to a harness that wrapped around the tiny, scaly chest of a bearded dragon that sat on my shoulder.

If you’ve never heard of bearded dragons, all you need to know is they are lizards that are native to Australia, and as their name suggests, they have a “beard” of spikes that puff out when they feel stressed, threatened or flirtatious.

The bearded dragon I held that day is named “Nacho,” and he is my 10-year-old son’s months-old, much-loved pet.

Before this year, I never imagined that I would voluntarily hold a lizard, let alone take one for a walk. But that’s what motherhood does to you. It changes you in ways that go beyond the stretch marks and C-section scars. It makes you fearless when it comes to things that once terrified you and terrified of things you didn’t know to fear.

It also makes you do ridiculous things that your pre-mom self would have definitely responded to with “Nope.”

On Mother’s Day, we often focus on the heartwarming and hard parts of motherhood. Those are important to acknowledge. I have shared in earlier columns the struggles my own mom faced and how my “almost daughter” made me a mother before I had two boys. She did, and I always think of her at this time of year. She stopped growing inside me too soon to survive but long enough to make me realize what it meant to be a mom and how hard Mother’s Day is for so many people.

To honor motherhood, it’s important we talk about all of that. The losses. The frustration. The exhaustion. The fear. The doubts. The wins. The sweet homemade cards.

But this is not a column about those things. It is a nod to the weird parts of motherhood. It is an acknowledgment of all the absurd, silly, wondrous situations our pre-mom selves could have never imagined us embracing. It’s an excuse to laugh and marvel at the ways our kids have shoved us out of our comfort zones, sometimes screaming, and transformed us in the process.

What do you do now that would have surprised your pre-mom self?

“Excuse me while I walk my dragon,” is not something I would have ever imagined myself saying before I had kids.

My older son has loved creepy crawly creatures since he was an infant, and as soon as we noticed his fascination with bugs and reptiles, I made a conscious decision to not transfer my irrational fears to him. I knew he would have enough real things to fear. When he showed a fascination with cicadas, I bought him books about them. When he started caring about spiders, I stopped killing them. I also took him to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to hold their bugs.

So, when he started asking for a bearded dragon about three years ago, I didn’t discourage him. Not outright. I made him do research on them to make sure he knew what he was asking for. I wanted him to learn about their diet, how big they can grow (the size of a small dog) and what cleaning up after them involved (cause there was no way I was going to wipe up the digested aftermath of crickets and mealworms).

Then I waited. I hoped his interest would wane. It had to eventually, I figured. But it didn’t.

This past Christmas, he finally got his bearded dragon. He received the tank on Christmas morning as a gift and he picked out Nacho the next day. Since then, my son has spent every day showering Nacho with attention. The first thing he does when he gets home from school is clean Nacho’s tank and give him a bath. He then spends time with Nacho perched on his back, shoulder or head. Nacho chooses the spot.

It took a few weeks before I could bring myself to pet Nacho, then a few weeks more before I could put him in my hands without wanting to instinctively toss him. But now, I hold him as comfortably as I do our pet cockatiel.

I was also the one who bought him that leash. He enjoys spending time with us outside on sunny days, and I can’t bear the thought of him running away.

Weird how things change.