Neither dogs nor exchange students are the same as having your own kids

annie-9314When a friend at church choir said that his 50th wedding anniversary was June 22, I mentioned that that was the date I married my first husband. After practice, he came up to me at the piano. He said he hadn’t realized I had had a husband before Fred. He asked if I had any children from that marriage. “Nope,” I said, covering the keyboard and turning out the light. He started to walk away, then turned back to tell me I could always host an exchange student. He and his wife have done that for years.

“Sometimes I can barely tolerate my dog,” I said, successfully going for a laugh. But really, why would I want to take in someone else’s teenager, only to send them home at the end of the school year? That is nothing like having a child of your own. Besides, as a stepmother, I’ve done the taking care of someone else’s kid thing. It is no replacement for your own.

Meanwhile, there’s the dog. A bear has been prowling around our streets lately. Neighbors have seen her—they think the bear is female—in their yards. As my chiropractor neighbor adjusted my spine yesterday, he told me his wife had found the bear with the chickens. One of the chickens died.

“What about the fence?” I asked.

“The bear just mowed it down,” he said, cracking my neck.

Since he’s uber-Christian, I didn’t say the word that came to mind. I had hoped my chain-link fence would keep the bear out of my yard.

Last night, Annie started barking around 9:30. She would not stop. She would not come in. Something is out there, she insisted. She’s too big to pick up and carry in. I lured her in with cookies and covered up the doggy door. She was so desperate she pulled the cover off. Racing around the yard barking, she ignored the treats I offered. “I’ll give you 10 if you’ll shut up!” I yelled.

Around midnight, I looked everywhere with the big flashlight, then sat holding my dog under the stars. She was shaking and panting, every muscle taut. I tried to explain to her that it was okay to go off duty and go to sleep. I tried to explain that the neighbors needed to sleep and that the bear might hurt her. But no. She couldn’t rest. She ran off to bark some more.

When I dragged her in and blocked access to the door, she whined as if she were in incredible pain. Lax dog mom that I am, I got out of bed and let her go. Perhaps with the fence, Annie’s high-pitched barking, and the complete lack of anything a bear might want to eat, the bear would not bother us. I hoped gun-toting neighbors would also stay away.

I don’t know what time Annie stopped barking, probably when it started to rain. Now she’s conked out on the loveseat. This morning, I see no sign of the bear, but in her anxiety, Annie shredded the lounge cushion. Nuts. In the middle of my dog’s barkathon, I wanted to a) go sleep at a motel, b) give the dog a sedative, c) never get another pet, or d) trade Annie for a cat because cats don’t bark. But this morning, I love my dog too much to do any of those things.

I hope if I had a baby, I would be willing to stay up all night when she cried and do whatever it took to keep her safe and happy, even when she turned into a teenager. In return, by the time I reached the age I am now, I would have a younger adult who (I hope) loved me and made sure I was all right. Someone who would call and say, “Hi Mom. How are you?”

I will never get that from an exchange student or a dog. My friend means well, but as a father of three with several grandchildren, he doesn’t understand.

As for that first husband we don’t talk about at church because Catholics frown on divorce (I got an annulment!), he got married two more times and never had any children, but that is ancient history.

What kind of lame things do people suggest to ease your childless emptiness?

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Dog who is NOT my baby visits the vet

Last week I wrote about my dog Annie and how she’s not my baby, not a substitute for children. Well, my not-baby and I went to the vet yesterday. Annie has been limping pretty badly on one front leg and one back leg. She also has a lump on her left front shoulder that seemed to have grown since our last vet visit. I was afraid of cancer. I also feared she would need knee surgery. Not that she showed any problems as she jumped around the waiting room greeting everyone.

It was a long visit, involving an extensive exam, blood tests and biopsying the lump. Good news. The lump is a benign lipoma—fatty tissue. The knee is fine. It’s her hips that are wearing out. And her weight making it worse. Ms. Annie is now on a diet because “Mom” has been giving her too many treats. Time for “tough love,” the vet says. I have some new drugs for me to hide in her food and a bill for $285. Feels like parenting, but I am still not my dog’s mother.

I was proud of my baby, no, friend, no, companion, no, partner, at the vet’s office. Huddled between my legs in the waiting room, trembling with nerves, she behaved perfectly. She didn’t even try to murder the two poodles who came in and whined the whole time. She just barked once at each dog to let them she was there.

She poured on maximum cuteness as she pulled me down the hall trying to greet every doctor and aide that we passed. In the examining room, she set her massive paws on the counter where she knew the cookie jar sat. “She’s so cute,” the vet’s assistant kept saying. I know. Her body might be 8 ½ years old and her joints starting to go bad like mine, but she’s a puppy at heart and she loves people. Thank God that lump was nothing life-threatening.

Now, how do I convince her that carrots are better than cookies?

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In other news:

I have been chosen to be one of the speakers at the NotMom Summit happening a year from now, Oct. 6-7 in Cleveland, Ohio. I’ll be on a panel discussing aging without children, but there will be lots of different topics related to childlessness. Check out the website and “like” the Facebook page to keep up with plans for the conference. You might even think about going. Another Oregonian, Kani Comstock, author of Honoring Missed Motherhood, will also be speaking. I just got her book yesterday. I look forward to reading it and sharing it with you.

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Speaking of sharing, here are some articles you might want to read.

“Being Childless Feels Worse Than Being Single” by Rachel Kramer Bussel, published Sept. 22 in the Washington Post.

“Women Who Rule the World Still Asked, ‘Why are you Childless’” by Stefanie Bolzen, Sabine Menkens and Peter Praschl on Sept. 22 at Worldcrunch. You have probably heard it before, but why are women who are elected to lead countries chastised as “less than” for not having children? Does anyone dare say that about men?

“The Case for Including Childless Adults in Your Parenting Village” by Louise Fabiani, published Sept. 27 in the Washington Post. The childless aunt or uncle, biological or not, could be a great help with the kids. Why not let them in?

I welcome your comments on any or all of this pot luck post.

No, I am not my dog’s mother

annie-9314Back in 2008, I published one post after another about my puppies Annie and Chico. This was my motherhood experience, I believed. The pups were exactly the size of human newborns when my late husband Fred and I picked them up from a nearby breeder. For that first year, I was obsessed with those furry critters. There was an element of mothering, the feeding, the cleaning, the shots, the classes. I even had a puppy shower, hosted by my church choir. I was a raggedy mess as I neglected my poor husband because it was all about the puppies.

Reality woke me up. Fred’s Alzheimer’s became so advanced in 2009 that I had to put him in a nursing home. Now the dogs were big enough to knock me down. Chico started jumping the fence and fighting with neighbor dogs. After months of chasing him and threats from the neighbors, I gave him up to a shelter. So it was just me and Annie. Did I think of myself as her mom? Yes, but I don’t anymore, even though I devoted a whole chapter to dog-motherhood in my Childless by Marriage book.

Annie, now eight and a half years old, is my friend, my companion, and my responsibility, but she is not my child. I continue to live in a home that is much too big for one person with a yard that I can’t quite keep up because of Annie. I hesitate to travel because she doesn’t travel well and I hate to leave her. She is a constant responsibility, but no, she’s not my baby. She’s just Annie, an aging yellow dog with arthritis.

Does she help fill the gap where children would be? Some. Get a dog or a cat. It helps. A cat or a little dog stays baby-sized forever. But it does not take away the sting when I get to hold someone’s infant for five minutes then have to give her back because she’s not mine and I will never have one of my own. Last week I had that chance and it felt good until reality kicked in again like a punch in the stomach. No children, no grandchildren. Ever. I hate it.

But a dog does help. When I got home from my travels, Annie leaped in joy. We collapsed together on the loveseat as she wiggled all over, licked my face and let me know that I had just made her the happiest dog in the world. I probably wouldn’t have gotten that kind of greeting from my kids.

No, my dog is not my child. But she is a precious gift, and I’d glad she’s here.

What about you? Do you have pets? Do you think of yourself as their mother or father? Do you know people who do? Let’s talk about it.

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Want to read some of those old puppy posts?

“Sounds Like Motherhood to Me”

“Sometimes Even Puppies are Too Much”

“Puppy Love is the Best”

 

Giving My Fur Baby a Bath


My big yellow dog sat patiently in the tub as I scrubbed her from nose to tail, taking time to wash her private parts and her ears, all the while talking to her and loving the feel of her under my hands. It did not matter that I was getting all wet or that an elbow injury I’ve been suffering with hurt worse. I was bathing my baby dog Annie, all 80 pounds of her.

We had had less pleasant bathing experiences, like the time I tried to wash her with a garden hose and she ran away or the time I tried to wash her in my bathroom and I wound up in a tub full of fur and stink while she remained on the floor dripping water all over. Usually I just wait until she happens to be staying at the kennel and let the people there bathe her. But sometimes a dog just has to have a bath. This time I took her to Moondoggy,here in Newport, a doggy daycare and spa where they have a place dog owners can wash their own dogs.
It was perfect. Annie walked up three wooden steps into a big tub. A worker helped me loop “seat belts” over her neck, showed me a shelf full of different shampoos and scrubbers and left us to our fun. It was fun. Even Annie seemed to enjoy it. The water was the perfect temperature, and nobody was in a panic about how to wash this giant dog.
When my late husband was around, we washed our dogs in a metal tub in the back yard, one of us holding the dog while the other scrubbed. It’s not as easy with only one set of hands. But Moondoggy worked.
I couldn’t help thinking about how this is a lot like bathing one’s baby. Of course we wouldn’t put a halter around their necks or douse them with flea shampoo, but there’s that same physical closeness, that intimate touch, the loving with our hands that feels so good. I have never washed a human baby, probably never will. I suspect they’d be a lot more slippery and more responsive when I talk to them.
But Annie is my baby dog. She was eight pounds when we brought her home, about the same size as many human babies. My friends gave us a puppy shower. I showed her off to everyone, and I kept track of every milestone. (“Today she doodled outside!”) Now she’s five years old. Every day I’m at home starts and ends with Annie, taking her outside to “go potty,” feeding her, medicating her various infections and ailments, walking with her, talking to her, and loving her.
I wish I had human children, but God gave me this canine child/friend to take care of. It’s not so bad. Do you have a four-legged baby, too?

New e-book helps people decide: Baby or Not?

For a lot of readers here, it all comes down to having a baby or not having a baby. That’s the topic at Beth Follini’s Children or Not blog, which I have been following off and on for a couple years. She is a life coach who specializes in helping people struggling to decide whether they will become parents. Now she has published an e-book called Baby or Not: Making the Biggest Decision of Your Life. I just ordered it at Amazon, and I’ll let you know what I think. Meanwhile you might want to click on over to the blog and read it for yourself.

On one of Beth’s posts, she talks about another writer who is seeking interviewees for her own book project. I’m seeing more and more books about childlessness. When I started writing on the subject, there wasn’t much to read. Obviously people are talking much more about it now. They’re writing books and articles and forming groups. This is a wonderful development. I think people without children will be much more accepted in years to come than they have been in the past.

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My dog Annie turned five years old on Saturday. My sweet baby is an adult. I didn’t bake her a cake, but I did sing “Happy Birthday” to her and spoil her with treats all day. Yes, she’s a dog, but when I think about how much time and energy I spend taking care of her, entertaining her, and making sure she’s cared for when I’m away from home, it feels a little like motherhood. Among the many childless women I’ve talked to, most seem to have close relationships with their dogs or cats. I have a long chapter on that in my Childless by Marriage book. Is it an alternative form of parenting? What do you think?

Longing for the Sleeping Child

As darkness descends over Highway 20 on my way home from Albany, it’s pretty, with soft gray and medium gray sky, gray-green trees and shrubs, people heading home in their cars. Annie is curled up sleeping in the back.

A warmth rushes through me. I have had this feeling before with a sleeping dog. I think how sweet it would have been to have a child like that. They would have been more energetic earlier, but how wonderful it would be to have them sleeping beside me now.

I could have watched them grow from babies to children to adolescents to teenagers to adults, watching the changes, watching them learn, teaching them everything I know about life. Finally they would be companions and helpers in my old age. They could carry on family traditions, keep the photo albums, take my name and my genes into the future.

All it takes is a sleeping dog to make me feel the pain of childlessness again. I missed something so huge, so vital. It’s like four part harmony was offered for the song of my life and I only played the alto and bass, with no melody.

It just kills me. I feel like I have to do something about it. I know there’s nothing I can do. It’s too late, but I can’t accept it. I wish this were a sleeping child in my back seat right now. My children would be adults, but my grandchildren could be riding with me through this gorgeous night. Instead, I reach back and pet Annie’s soft gold fur. Her tail flaps, and I see her eyes glowing at me in the dark. Thank God for dogs.

Minus one baby dog

Last weekend, things reached a crisis point with my dog Chico. He not only can jump the outer four-foot fence in our yard, but he learned on Saturday how to get over the six-foot fence (the one the fence guy said no dog could escape). The minute I let him out, he was over the fence and gone. Often I could see him roaming just beyond the fences, but he wouldn’t come and he wouldn’t stay. Meanwhile, I was getting reports of Chico terrorizing my neighbors’ pets. Some of them have guns and are not afraid to use them. Of course, anyone could sue me or get me in other big trouble if this giant black lab/pit bull mix went after them, their children or their pets.

I hobbled him with a harness while I went to church Saturday evening. Two hours later, nothing was left but the metal rings. Chico and his sister Annie ate the harness. They’re equally good at destroying any kind of collar.

People have suggested new fencing, keeping him on a chain, or putting a weight on his collar. I can’t afford a whole new fence, and I can’t abuse him just to keep him here.

Crying hard, I took him to a kennel to stay for a while until I can find him a new home. I still have Annie, who is smaller and has not learned to jump the fences. Yet. I will selfishly hang on to her as long as I can. I raised both dogs from eight weeks to 21 months. I took them to school, walked them, kept their shots up to date and made sure they stayed warm and safe. I love them both. But with my husband gone to the nursing home, I’m on my own, and I can’t handle both big dogs. These are the first pets for which I actually called myself their mom. I talked about them all the time, loved to show them off, sent their pictures all over the Internet. But they are dogs, not children, and reality must prevail.

I put an ad in the paper today to find a new home for Chico. It was hard not to cry. I raised him to almost two years old. Except for his need to run and terrorize other dogs, he’s the sweetest pup. He’ll be a great companion for someone. In dog years, he’s a young adult. Time to send him on to his next adventure.

This would be a good time to have human adult children and grandchildren to help me, keep me company and put things in perspective, but I don’t have them. Now that my husband isn’t here, my stepchildren have chosen not to contact me. So it’s just me and Annie now. She’s the cute puppy in my photo, except she’s all grown up.

Is there a conclusion to this story? I suppose the moral is that no matter how much we love them and treat them as our children, they are still dogs, and sometimes we have to let them go.