Earlier this summer a lone dark-gray wolf appeared in the field behind our son Reed’s house. Wolves typically function in a pack. Within the pack a distinct hierarchy exists in each gender. An alpha male and an alpha female dominate the average pack of six. Between the alpha, the strongest and wisest, and the omega, who ranks last, wolves establish order among themselves. Pups and yearlings remain subordinate for about 2-3 years when they leave to find another pack or start one of their own. During our 50 days of sequestering with Reed in Canada I have observed just how the pack phenomenon works in human families.
Number one necessity for any pack is the food. Canadian wolves prey on caribou, elk, white tail deer, and moose. Our Canadian pack simply shops at the No Frills market. Fully committed as a contributing member of this pack, I volunteer to do the grocery shopping. But I prefer to shop at Metro. The pups quickly discern the difference in brands of fudgesicles, ice cream, tomato sauce, and even bread. Complaints are aired.
Reed, the residing alpha male, shakes his head in wonder that I only purchased two packs of chicken and burger, and one bag of milk. Yes, milk comes in plastic bags that fit into small pitchers. The corner of the bag must be cut with scissors in order to pour the milk. I still work to master the perfect snip. Paul compensates for my inadequacies by stocking the garage fridge with frozen treats and root beer. He keeps a basket full of snack-sized chips. Paul rises in the hierarchy.
As the alpha, Reed takes responsibility for the pack’s meals. He does his cooking on the weekend, a protein, a starch, and roasted vegetables. After work during the week, he can heat his own meal and prepare whatever the pups prefer with little fuss or mess. At my own house I was the alpha female of the kitchen. With all good intentions I now assume weeknight cooking. It soon becomes apparent that I use four times as many implements as Reed. For one vegetable I might use a colander, a pot, a serving dish, and a storage container. If we have three or more courses, dirty pots and pans litter the countertops. Now that we are five for dinner, more dishes, flatware, and glasses fill the dishwasher. Unfamiliar leftovers jam the fridge. A phrase comes to mind: pack disruption.
Division of Labor
The division of labor defines our new ranks in the Canadian pack. Just as he has in other summers, Paul mows the grass, hauls recycling to the dump, completes minor projects and repairs. Above all, he partners with Reed for musky fishing expeditions on the St. Lawrence. Where Paul once took the lead on tactics and tackle, Reed now dominates. Paul is the beta to Reed’s alpha. The beta, second in rank, shows commitment and loyalty to the pack, reinforcing the alpha’s decisions.
My responsibilities could be met by most teenagers. I clean up after myself, empty the dishwasher, do some laundry, play with the girls, make meals when necessary. The role of Delta wolf, third in command, might suit me. They are considered the messengers of the pack. Deltas require an even temper. They take charge of caring for the pups when the alphas and betas are busy. Most fun of all I spot the girls from the boat when they ride the tube on the river. I should accept my rank as Delta.
But my Sigma, tutor wolf, tendency emerges. I set up financial incentives to keep the girls reading over the summer. Outright bribery only works for Rayna, who values the cash. Britt, who just had a fabulously well-gifted birthday simply says no. My system only aggravates tension between the girls who both strive to be the alpha female. I feel myself sinking below Wiley, the family dog, as the Omega. Paul advises, stay in your lane.
Wolves are the top predators in their habitat. On rare occasions inter-pack conflict arises over territorial disputes Fortunately, Reed’s house is roomy. Paul and I can establish ourselves in peripheral locations. I occupy a cozy guest room that I call The Nook and Granny. Paul uses the Wink-Wink Apartment that was our initial basement quarantine space. Plus, we hang out as much as possible in the boat garage. I call it my office and have all my reading and writing supplies on hand. Around 3:00 daily Paul mixes me a vodka tonic at the fully stocked 40-Acre Shoal Bar. When the pups miss us, they come out for a snack. We use beer bottle caps to play Blackjack with Rayna. At least once a week we hold a picnic there and cook on the grill. In our boat cave we reclaim our ranks as alphas.
A wolf pack’s hierarchy promotes smooth functioning and social serenity. When members know their place, squabbles are few. Only when new members arrive does the struggle to establish rank occur. I expect plenty of families find themselves in a multigenerational home during this pandemic. Don’t become a lonely wolf. If you have been called to merge with another pack, use your strengths, find your place, and contribute to the common good.