Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tell Me Again, Why Did We Want a Dog?

I confess, I have had a few moments this week where I’ve questioned our decision to get a dog. I haven’t wanted to vent about this online because I am aware that my friend, Fergie’s old owner, will likely read what I write, and I don’t want her to think I am actually having second thoughts. Questioning does not mean regret. I just think we’re all going through a necessary adjustment period where things are a bit more tiring and stressful than they will be down the road. We are getting to know each other and figuring out a new routine.

Routine. Anyone who is involved with the full-time raising of a baby will tell you that we are constantly yearning for and clinging to some fragile sense of routine. At least I am. And why? Because babies are constantly changing on us, and we are constantly trying to figure them out—what works, what is the ideal sleep schedule, how and when to cram in chores, phone calls, emails, feedings, etc. The often-spoken truth is that once you light upon a routine that feels fluid and works for you, your baby inevitably is ready to switch it up on you.

Cedar is thirteen months old. For the past many months his napping schedule has not really changed (although it is showing signs of the need to change soon). But for now, the rhythm of his naps and my corresponding planning of our days unfold with a consistency that I am reluctant to give up.

Mornings are the most mellow time of day. We wake around seven, nurse in bed for a while, then rise to change diapers, make tea and toast, check email, and entertain Cedar with books and toys. By 8:30, Cedar’s ready for his second morning meal-- oatmeal and fruit, blueberries the current favorite. Then, we change diapers again, get ourselves dressed, and putter around the house doing dishes, folding laundry, listening to music, and looking at books and toys. By 10:00 he’s sleepy again, so I heat up my tea, get my books and journals ready, and proceed to bounce him to sleep, then hold him while I sit in the big recliner and read, write, make lists, and enjoy my 80 minutes of rest.

Yes, I still hold Cedar while he naps because this is the only way that I can count on getting a solid block of time to myself—not to mention restorative time for Cedar. Otherwise he’ll only nap for 35 minutes at most, and that is not enough time to do much of anything but pop around like a crazy woman trying to get random things done. It’s much better to be rooted in one place by his weight, and “forced” to do “non-productive” things, like reading and writing.

Anyway, I digress. So now, it is not just Cedar and I doing our thing together all day long, but me, Cedar, and Fergie—our big, sweet, five-year-old Doberman. Now, picture the same aforementioned routine, but with Fergie nudging her long nose onto my lap as I hold Cedar for his naps, or Fergie’s long limbs stepping gingerly around Cedar as he crawls around her toes. Imagine me with a diaper bag slung around my shoulder, with Cedar in one arm, Fergie’s leash in the other, trying to get the big-ass stroller out of the car and unfolded into place. And imagine both Cedar and Fergie pulling and leaning against my body, seeking my attention, when all I want to do is sip my tea, eat my toast with almond butter, and take a few minutes to myself first thing in the morning before I devote the rest of the day to their needs.

Okay, I know, not a huge deal, but I’m just saying that I’ve had my moments where I’ve asked myself whether I really have the energy to be the mama all day to not one, but two. Granted, dogs are much easier to care for than babies; I can go on a walk with Fergie, and have a freeing sense of solitude that is very different than when I am walking with Cedar. But now having to walk the two of them together, it is definitely more tiring.

Exercise. That’s the key component to caring for a dog, especially a big dog. Going into this whole endeavor, I knew this-- I knew that adopting Fergie would force me to go on more walks, and I knew that there would be times where this would feel like a major drag, while other times where I would be grateful for it.

Matthew and I have committed to taking Fergie out about three times a day—he walks her around the block in the morning, I take her on a longer walk during the day, and then one of us, usually Matthew, but on occasion the whole family will go out for a short walk in the evening. By some people’s standards, Fergie is getting gold star treatment. But I’ve also read books (like by Cesar Millan, “The Dog Whisperer”) which suggest that what we’re giving her is more like the minimum for what an energetic dog needs. Fergie does have a lot of energy, but she is also pretty mellow, so I think we will find the right balance.

Cesar also writes about how you should adopt a dog that has a similar energy level or lower to your family. Well, if this is the case, I think we got a dog whose energy is probably a little higher than what Matthew and I have been used to. But I also don’t think we’re in over our heads. We both want (and need) to exercise more, and this is already happening. Also, we’ve already gone on several family walks during times which I’m pretty sure in the past we would have begged exhaustion. As the four of us set out with our energetic new companion, I like this feeling of the new pack we’ve created. I’m remembering the feeling of walking with a dog. A dog is energy, a dog is enthusiasm, a dog is a vital spark of life.

And yes, a dog is also work. A dog is needy. A dog is another being getting in my way, needing to be fed, wanting my attention at the same time that my baby is demanding my care—and, let’s face it, between the two of them, the dog will always be number two. That’s just the way it is. I have love to give Fergie, I have time, and I have energy—but these have very real limits. These are the limitations that have caused me to question, in moments, whether adopting Fergie right now was the wisest thing to do, and these moments have occurred when I’ve felt tired and stretched and when I’ve realized that as the mother of a baby, I can never offer Fergie the same kind of devotion that, say, a childless person might be able to. I try to imagine what it would have been like to adopt Fergie before we had Cedar, or to adopt her when I was single, and I am sure that my devotion to her would be ten-fold of what I can give her now.

Pre-Fergie, Cedar and I would go on a long (hour or more) walk every other day or so. But there were also days where we were busy or it was miserable out, and we didn’t. Now, the walk must happen no matter what. Now, we must structure our day around the walk, instead of letting the walk fall into free empty pockets. Maybe I’ll grow more flexible about this in time, but right now, it feels important to me to commit to giving Fergie enough exercise.  And so, my routine-seeking and -planning mind plots away. Maybe I can give up some of a.m. routine time and go on a walk in the morning. Or else the walk will just be the main thing we do during our 12-3 chunk of time (between naps), unless I am willing to hurry hurry hurry us along, feed us on the go and feel very tired by the time I make it back for Cedar’s second nap. (You might think three hours is plenty of time to walk and go somewhere else, but everything takes twice as long when you have a baby). Otherwise, I’ll feel slightly guilty all day if I make Fergie wait until 5 o’clock for her main walk, even if I let her outside throughout the day.

I am not a hurrying kind of person. I love the leisurely pace of my days with Cedar. Not having to hurry also helps to balance out some of the tiredness of having to constantly, ceaselessly be “on” with him. I like being able to set him in his high chair at lunch time and let him eat his peas and rice puffs--one by one by one-- while I eat, sweep, do dishes, and bustle around tidying at his side. I like having plans or social outings with other adults and babies most days, but I also like having plenty of down time. I am not the type of person who can easily go from one play date to another—one is plenty for me. And although I’ll go crazy if we spend too many days alone, I will also go crazy if we go too many days without a day to just be mellow and alone. And by alone, I mean Cedar and I, bopping around, going to the library, the grocery store, the pond, listening to music, doing our thing. (Lest this sound too idyllic, trust me, it’s also very tiring.)

Now, enter Fergie. There have been days already where I’d really rather not arrange my day around her walk—when we already have plenty going on to keep us busy. Yet there have also been days when I’ve been grateful for her canine company. That extra bit of energy jingling by my side as we pack our bags full of snacks and treats and journey off to the park. An adventure. That extra bit of entertainment and love filling our home. That giant breathing ribcage to lean my head against at the end of the day and say goodnight.

Fergie is a really sweet dog, and her presence is seeping into my skin day by day. But it wasn’t love at first sight; as a breed, I’d never been drawn to Dobermans—they don’t inspire that furry, goofy, cuddly response that say, Labs or Retrievers do. Yet I’d also heard that Dobies can be great family dogs—gentle, smart, loyal, mellow (if they get their exercise), and not huge shedders. Of course, this same loyalty can translate into over-protectiveness, and I don’t need to tell you about some of the more negative stereotypes that Dobermans carry. I see people tense as we pass them, and although I am confident that Fergie would never bark or lunge at a person unprovoked, I try to resist the impulse to draw in her leash or move away from the people we pass so as not to make them nervous. Dobermans seem to be one of those breeds that people either love or hate. Many dog lovers know enough to know that Dobies can be sweeties, but most everyone else kind of shudders or reacts with surprise when they hear what kind of dog we’ve adopted.

When I walk with Fergie and Cedar, they kind of balance each other out: big, “vicious” dog + cute, innocent baby= neutral response to the smallish, Asianish woman wielding the leash and stroller, smiling her hellos. I admit, I kind of like the attention Fergie attracts, or at least I’m curious about it, curious about what kind of looks people give us as we pass. And although I abhor the idea of someone getting a dog to compliment or enhance their image, I admit, I do feel just a tad more bad-ass with Fergie (in her metal pinch collar) by my side. Maybe it’s a refreshing anti-thesis to having my identity so tied to carrying a baby for this last year. Maybe I have just been craving some kind of change. Now, my steps are carried forward with a newly jubilant and purposeful stride with a dog—a bad-ass dog (but really a sweetie) by my side.

Fergie is incredibly gentle, having grown up around a small child and other animals. She is not at all aggressive towards humans, cats or even bunnies. But I still like to keep a close eye on Cedar and Fergie, as she towers over him and he crawls underfoot—all in a small carpeted space crowded with toys where they both hang out most of the time. (And did I mention we live in a 810 square foot house?). Actually, I’m more concerned about Cedar hurting Fergie than vice versa, as he is fond of grabbing her fur or at her face (not a good habit). Fergie’s already demonstrated a non-plussed tolerance of all this, but I don’t want her to get hurt or to take any chances that she might someday get annoyed enough to react differently. I don’t really feel this will happen, but I know it is a good thing to be cautious for now when she is still so new to our family.

“Tell me again, why did we want a dog?” I asked Matthew one night last week after a particularly exhausting day. I was only half joking. “It was your idea,” he said with a glint in his eye. When I shot him a look he added, “Because we want to be a big happy family?” Better, but in that moment, I wanted something more, something to assure me that we hadn’t just irresponsibly followed some whim. There was a small sinking part of me that feared that the naysayers may have been right. In particular, one Facebook post from a friend: “Everyone I know who has a baby and gotten a dog regrets it. Harsh but true.” Ouch. Would I too become one of those people, drawn by the allure of “a big happy family,” a T.V. image of a couple, child, and dog bounding for the woods together (that doesn’t show the difficulty packing, the long drive, the wet dog smelling up the tent)? It occurred to me that none of the people who’d encouraged us to “Go for it!” and “Get the dog!” had a baby. Was this really not the ideal time?

But then I had a little epiphany the other day while I was walking Fergie. It hit me that the things we most value in our lives, the things that are the most rich and give us the most pleasure, are the things that take the most effort, energy and devotion. This might not be an original or profound thought, but it came to me with a steadying clarity and assurance.

Ultimately I feel so fortunate to have adopted a dog whom has been raised by a friend, a dog whose history I know, and who has been nothing but a source of love and great companionship for her past owners. I can’t really imagine a better situation. If this opportunity hadn’t come about, I don’t know when I had the energy to raise a puppy, and I don’t know if we would’ve felt comfortable adopting an adult dog with an unknown past until Cedar was much older.

Of course
it is more tiring and stressful right now. But something tells me that it won’t take long before I can’t imagine Fergie not being here. Something tells me that she was meant to be with us, and I know she will reveal who she is to us more and more so every day.   

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