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Cats in the Cradle – What Does That Phrase Mean?

By: Rebecca O'Connor

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The phrase "Cats in the Cradle" is a familiar one to most everyone, but it is a phrase that brings about mixed emotions. Is the cat being in the cradle a good thing or a bad thing? Does the image bring about feelings of family and childhood or danger and death? Let's investigate some of the myths and truths surrounding cats living with babies and you can decide for yourself what this means to you.

Harry Chapin's Song

American singer/songwriter Harry Chapin's famous song has made the phrase famous. "Cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man on the moon..." The song was actually written by Chapin's wife Sandy, a poet and a writer. She wrote the words for the song for their son Joshua before he was born. She showed them to her husband but Chapin wasn't too interested in it at the time. However, once his son was born, Chapin realized the power of the words and what they meant to him personally. He recorded the song and it became the best known of all of his work.

"Cat's in the Cradle" tells the story of a father who is too busy to spend time with his growing son. Despite the fact that the father is constantly putting off quality time with his son, the son sees his father as a role model and a fine example of who he wants to grow up to be. In the end the son does grow up to be just like the father and as the aging patriarch reaches out to his son for quality time, his boy is simply to busy with his family. The refrain uses the phrase "cat's in the cradle" and these words bring up images of a young family and the short and sweet the time of infancy. However, a cat in the cradle wasn't always a warm and fuzzy image.

Take my Breath Away

Have you heard the old wives' tale of how cats can steal a baby's breath? Chances are it's a familiar story to you if you have had children. It is a story that even today crops up in forums and from well-meaning, but uneducated advice givers. Expectant mothers are often told that they need to get rid of their cats before the baby comes. But are cats really dangerous to babies?

According to Snopes.com the strength of this story may be traced to a 1791 jury that rendered a verdict in England that a Plymouth child had been killed from a cat sucking away its breath. In actuality there was likely no obvious cause for the infant's death and so the jury passed the blame onto the cat, because of course back then, everyone knew that cats might suck a child's breath away.

A 1929 article in the Nebraska State Journal also quoted a doctor who supposedly witnessed a cat actually sucking an infant's breath. He describes "the family pet in the very act of sucking a child's breath, lying on the baby's breast a paw on either side of the babe's mouth, the cat's lips pressing those of the child and the infant's face pale as that of a corpse, its lips with the blueness of death."

Today we are familiar, although still mystified, by Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). It leaves you to wonder if these children didn't die of SIDS and the nearby cat was the best explanation for the death. Cats are curious creatures and the crib is a warm cozy place. It would be easy for them to be implicated in the murder.

However, all of these evil or jealous cat stories are a lot of hooey. It is unlikely that a cat would even suffocate a child accidentally. In fact, I myself grew up sleeping with the cat in my crib. Accidental scratching is a more likely concern and mothers should always keep an eye on their young children when they interact with the cat, whether it's in the cradle or elsewhere. Of course, it's easy enough to keep the cat out of the nursery if there are any concerns. For me, "cats in the cradle" makes me fondly remember a childhood surrounded by animals. How about you?


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