If I haven’t been writing as much this fall, it’s not just because of general busy-ness, midlife angst, or lack of inspiration. There is a new ball of fur — and neediness — in my life.
“Are you the mom?” a woman asks me, as I chat in the stands at a kids’ sporting event. “I saw her with her dad the other day. She’s so adorable.”
“Congratulations!” other people squeal.
Yes, I’ve become a mom again. To a 13-pound baby girl black Labrador Retriever. ‘Congratulations’ is probably giving me too much credit, as all I had to do was drive to a farm in the country, pick out a wiggly fur ball, write a check, and take her home.
And I’m not alone. Several friends have gotten dogs this fall. That’s not the only thing we have in common. Our youngest children are now in middle school, old enough to take care of their basic selves and to help out a little around the house — but still young enough to beg, “Why can’t we get a puppeeeee?”
Not surprisingly, the majority of training Pepper has fallen to me. I insisted on training her to sleep in a crate, instead of plopping down under the dining room table. I research brands of dog foods and safe chewable treats. I take her to puppy training. I compare notes with other new dog owners. How much does your puppy nap? How much does he eat? Does she come when called?
One part of training a puppy is socializing them with other dogs, especially other young dogs. I love these, because it’s an hour of loosely controlled chaos, where the pups chase each other around, wrestling, and learning how to play nicely with each other.
That was one thing we didn’t do with our previous dog, Amber. She was a little too old to attend these events and came to us with a past we could only imagine from her fear of people and other dogs. So it was extra important to me to do as much as I can to train Pepper while she is young and impressionable.
The bonus is that Pepper is so tired afterward these socials, she falls right asleep.The one problem is that these events are usually in the evenings or on the weekends, not during the week – when I desperately need Pepper to rest calmly at my feet while I work at my computer.
When I find out there is a puppy social on a weekday morning, I rearrange my schedule to attend. Think of all the work I can get done afterwards! We arrive at a big box store that sells pet supplies. There is a big fenced off ring in the middle of the store, complete with a doggie jungle gym. The instructor gives us coupons to the store and there are new treats to try.
“A little?” the woman cringes.
As I look around this indoor dog park on that morning, I notice something. There are an awful lot of middle aged women in yoga pants. They are at the age when their kids are no longer sticky bundles of neediness. Maybe they work part-time, maybe they are full-time moms. I am suddenly transported back to the days of playgroups at the park, of taking my toddlers to a mall playground on a rainy day, of sitting at circle time singing inane songs about a clown. I feel smug because I’m not nervous about letting Pepper join the scrum. I feel disgusted with myself because if taking your babies to playtime is a privilege, worrying about your dog not doing well at playtime is a laughably first world problem.
A few weeks later, Pepper has come out of her shell. Way out of her shell. At four months old and 30 pounds, she likes to play with the most active dogs in the group; her current favorite thing to do is wrestle with a pit bull puppy named Molly. I start to feel self-conscious because Pepper is noticeably energetic. Every time I hear a yelp or bark, I’m on edge. Was that my puppy?
I hear the instructor calling out my dog’s name. Everything sounds like my dog’s name. Pepper? Or was someone talking about what they’re cooking for supper?
“When she starts to get overexcited, just pull her away from the other dog and calm her down,” the instructor tells me. “If they both seem like they want to keep playing, then release her.”
“She’s actually very gentle,” another woman tells me, as she feeds Pepper a treat. Actually? My dog is not bad, I want to yell. What I really want to prove is that I am not a bad dog owner.
“Things come and go in phases,” she tells me. “Like kids.”
Maybe this woman isn’t judging me. When I was out with my babies, I often felt like everyone was criticizing me. If I let my kids whined and acted up, I was being an indulgent mommy. If I dragged them home kicking and screaming, I was a harsh mother. I’m sure some people were truly judging me. But how much of it was my own insecurity and confusion and expectation that I mothering — heck, life– would be easy and without failure?
I choose to accept her words as encouragement, not a passive aggressive jab. Maybe I do deserve just a little bit of congratulations.