It’s been a rough couple of weeks. I traded a cold for a bout of the stomach flu, and at 36 weeks pregnant my energy is already pretty low. A nagging but bearable ache in my ribcage became much less bearable overnight; I rolled out of bed yesterday morning (and these days, “rolling” really is the best word for the action that gets me from reclining to upright) to excruciating starbursts of pain on my right side, pain triggered by coughing, calling to my husband in a loud voice from across the house, blowing my nose, or bending at the waist. Even clearing my throat produces a twinge.
On top of all that, I had to meet my accountant about getting my taxes started. She praised me for my honesty as we went through my meager list of possible deductions. She told me that I’d be surprised by the crazy things people try to claim, and I confessed to her that I don’t have the courage for that kind of creativity. I left her office sort of wishing I did.
I came home from the tax appointment panting with exhaustion and discomfort, and my dogs—as ever—raced to my side. I paused in the kitchen long enough to fill a glass of water, then returned to the living room and dropped onto the couch, the dogs following me the whole way, tails wagging, faces lift. Seated, I was joined by Martha, who looked at me keenly, nosed my face a bit, and then pawed my arm. I accommodated her by scratching her chest. Bishop, at my feet, leaned against my shins. I scratched his head with my free hand. Those are the actions: wagging, looking, pawing, sitting. Here’s what was happening inside of me, as I played my part in that transaction: I was relaxed, comforted. I believed—whether this was true or not—that the dogs saw my pain and exhaustion, and it caused them anxiety. I won’t go so far as to say that they were trying to make me feel better, but in communicating to me what they recognized—“I see pain, I don’t like this”—they did make me feel better. They reached out to me physically in a way that soothed and reassured, even if they were guided by instincts and self-interest rather than altruistic intent.
Dog lovers are all too quick to bloviate about what our dogs “sense,” “understand,” or “feel,” a habit, I know, that wearies everyone else. I used to have a friend who would give me a hard eye roll each time I spoke lovingly of my dogs; love, to him, wasn’t an emotion one should bestow upon an animal, and there was no greater ridiculousness to him than treating an animal like a person. That’s a common sentiment, I think. Some people have an angrier version of the stance than others, but many are affronted at the notion that a dog (or a cat, or a parakeet, etc.) could occupy so central a role in a person’s life. Those people, it seems to me, see love as a kind of finite supply, a big wheel of cheese, and by giving a lesser creature some of that cheese (ha!), a more deserving human isn’t being fed.
I find myself thinking about this subject of love—love for dogs, love for people, and whether one kind of love can really ever cheapen or diminish another kind—for the obvious reasons. In a few weeks, my husband and I will have our first child. In the ten years we’ve had Bishop, our enthusiasm for him, and later also Martha, has been met frequently with the advice, “Just wait until you have kids.” We’ve gotten it from all quarters—folks in our parents’ generation who’d no sooner let a dog live in the house than they’d move themselves out to the barnyard, sure, but also, and more troublingly, from people a lot like us: people who lived for years with only pets, in some cases loving those pets well enough to even have professional studio photographs taken with them, only to realize, once their “real children” were born, that a dog’s just a dog. Silly us. We’ve actually been deranged for the last five years and had no idea! Thank God this child arrived to restore our sanity and realign our misplaced priorities.
That attitude is the cousin of another I encountered in my child-ambivalent years, articulated this way by one person: “I didn’t really finish growing up until I had children.” Or that comment’s cousin: “I didn’t know what love was until I had children.” I’m walking around with a fully developed, viable fetus in my womb, a to-be-baby the size, one website tells me, of a head of Romaine lettuce, and I’ve suffered and sacrificed to get him to this stage, and I feel love for him already, and I don’t doubt that the relationship I have with him will be powerful and unique, unlike anything I’ve experienced before. But I’m 34 years old. I’ve lived nearly half a life. If I’ve spent all this time not knowing what love is, kidding myself about powerful connections with my own parents, brothers, a 17-year relationship with my husband (who always makes me think of this quote from Winnie-the-Pooh: “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you”), and yes, even my dogs, how terribly depressing. And no, I don’t think mid-March ushers in my actual adulthood, or that my childless friends are children. And no, I don’t think I’ve been practicing love on my dogs all this time the way I once practiced motherhood on my Cabbage Patch doll. I don’t want to be the person who could stop giving a damn about her dogs because she had a child. I don’t want to be that kind of role model for my son, either.
I don’t think I could have set out to become a parent if I didn’t believe that my child would survive me. I wonder if any of us could. And so that’s one kind of love: a love that assumes, perhaps stupidly and tragically, that its object will always be there—that, the day I die, my child’s heart will still be beating, and the knowledge of that will give me hope and solace as I go on to whatever is next. Bringing a dog home, for most of us, is another kind of entanglement, strange and wonderful and deeply sad in its own way. We almost always expect to survive our pets. Our lives contain theirs. And yet some of us give ourselves over to that loving, knowing it will end in heartbreak.
Bishop, who will be 11 this year, is showing his age. A black cocker spaniel, he has the breed’s characteristic hearing loss, which I blame myself for—I should have cleaned his ears more often—and dozens of warty bumps all over his body, benign growths that appeared in the space of a little over a year. His chin is gray, and the insides of his ears. He’s had several bad teeth removed (and I blame myself for those, too). And his behaviors have changed some. He’s anxious, adamant about routine. He won’t snuggle as much as he used to, preferring the floor to the couch or the bed, sometimes rising in the middle of the night to pace, pull tissues out of the bathroom trashcan, and let himself outside to bark at the property across the fence from ours. I remember how he reacted when we brought Martha home as a puppy six years ago; he was surly, depressed. I wonder if the baby’s presence will have the same effect on him. I wonder if he’ll live long enough to occupy a place in our unborn child’s memories. I want that fiercely, for the both of them, for me.
My husband and I were married for four years before getting Bishop, and those were good years, love-filled years. Getting Bishop only deepened that love. We shared in the joy and the risk of taking care of something that needed us, and that sharing bonded us even more strongly together. It happened again when we brought Martha home. How funny to watch the household dynamic subtly shift—I had my loyal dog, the dog who put me first in his affections, and now Brandon had his, and the dogs had each other. Bishop might not deign to cuddle with Martha, the way the cute animals on Buzzfeed are always cuddling, but the two are a pack, nonetheless, and each seems lost if the other is temporarily taken away to the vet or groomer.
In a few weeks, the household dynamic will change again. I don’t kid myself that a son is the same thing as a pet (though I often greet Bishop, coming home, “Hello, dog son”). But neither do I think my son will profit if I siphon off the love I’ve been nurturing for these two animals for 10 and 6 years, in order to love him “better.” I don’t think it works that way. In fact, I imagine that seeing the dogs sniff the baby and tentatively lick his hand, as they’ve done with my good friend’s new daughter, will only endear them to me more. And when my boy is big enough to pet the dog, to be taught kindness and respect toward an animal, to learn to value an innocent creature in the way that my husband and I value them—well, you see where this is going.
Bishop will need us even more in the next few years. I’m anticipating that difficult changes are ahead, difficult emotionally and practically. I look at the stairs up to our bedroom differently. I run my hand across Bishop’s back, counting the warty bumps, and remember that I’ll have to tell the groomer to be extra careful, there are new ones this time. I wake in the middle of the night to see him at staring at the bed, unsure of how to spring up in the darkness, and I hunch down, lifting with my legs, to get him back up to the foot of the mattress. By the time I return from the bathroom, he has jumped down again and settled into a pile of dirty laundry. Two hours later, I’ll awaken to the sound of his toenails clicking downstairs. Two hours after that, as dawn light filters through the window, I’ll awaken again to him jumping into bed, finally, content until Brandon rises to take his shower. None of these changes is easy on me, but they’re harder on him, and I owe him all the love and care I can give him, in his suffering more than ever. They say, “A baby changes everything.” But a baby cannot change that.