Being wracked with guilt seems to be a perennial part of cat ownership, which doesn't make it any less awful when it happens to you.
When I found out I was pregnant, Milly, our nine-year-old cockapoo, was the first to know. She was sitting at my feet in our bathroom, waiting rather impatiently to go outside for a walk. As I squinted, anxious to see if a second line might appear on the pee stick, it occurred to me that I was probably more sure about getting a dog almost a decade ago than I was about the idea of having a child now.
The very first time my husband and I saw Milly, she was curled up in such a tight ball that we couldn’t tell where she began and where she ended. She was a little circle of black and white fluff that made us squeal like school children. Her saucer-shaped puppy eyes and inexplicably long eyelashes peered out from under her old-man eyebrows and our hearts went from solid, functioning muscular organs to oatmeal-grade mush.
She was our dog.
We took her home one year after we were married, and people would often ask if she was “practice” for having a child. The answer, truly and honestly, was no. We just really wanted a dog. And Milly wasn’t practice for anything at all. She was a real-time floppy embodiment of our heart and souls and from the minute she pranced through our front door she has filled our lives with an unreal amount of happiness.
So as my eyes darted back and forth from her pathetic, take-me-on-a-goddamn-walk face to the second pink line that was slowly revealing that there was a teeny human growing in my uterus, I kind of freaked out and. As I am wont to do when it comes to Milly, I asked her opinion.
“Doodlebug! What do you think about a baby?!” I expressed this to her with the same zeal I applied to treats and walks, which riled her up enough to circle my ankles and bark at absolutely nothing in general.
A little time passed and we began sharing our news with family and friends, and it surprised me how quickly Milly’s name and, apparently, her place in our universe, was thrown into the conversation. Here are a few gems that stuck in my craw:
“Oh, once that little baby comes, you’ll forget you ever had a dog!” (Correct! I will promptly erase the last nine-plus years of my life so I may better focus on the raising of my child.)
“Don’t be surprised when whole days go by and you don’t even walk her!” (I’m assuming that the person who said this spent those “whole days” either ankle-deep in all sorts of dog excrement and/or gingerly leaping over massive piles of canine mess.)
“I had a friend who gave her dog away one week after having her son. She couldn’t stand having that thing around.” (That “thing”? Couldn’t stand? Gave away? Wait, what? Find new friends, girl.)
“If you think you love Milly, just wait until you meet this baby!” (Because I couldn’t possibly find it in my shriveled, frigid raisin heart to love two adorable things at once!)
It goes without saying that being pregnant often brings about a slew of unwanted and unnecessary advice from people you know and strangers alike, but it shocked me (and grated on my hormone-riddled nerves) that people were so quick to discount our poor pooch and write her off forever. It seemed to me akin to telling parents who were about to have a second child that their first children were like the first batch of burnt pancakes. Just go ahead and toss ’em! You have new, shiny babies coming! Who needs the old ones?!
Perhaps people have had different experiences with their pets. For us, Milly is as much a part of our family as actual human family members, if not moreso. In fact, I tend to prefer the company of my dog to most people, in general. She is beloved and she’s been along for the ride of our marriage, which hasn’t always been smooth or easy. She’s lived in our apartments and houses, cities and suburbs and, despite one nasty incident involving the ingestion of a substantial amount of packing tape*, she’s made each move seamlessly.
As long as we were there with her, she found her new nooks and settled in. Her philosophy has always been, “You guys hanging out? I’ll hang out.”
Milly’s personality is, at once, fiercely loyal and shockingly contrary. There is a chance that when I call her name and pat the empty space next to me, she will stand up and pointedly walk away to the furthest corner possible. Or, she might walk right over and curl up next to me so tight and with such loving conviction that I vow never to move from that spot. I have spent many an afternoon risking severe nerve damage from various limbs falling asleep as well as borderline-fatal UTIs because I’ve had to go to the bathroom but don’t want to move for fear of losing snuggle time.
I find such great comfort in Milly. I’m not sure if it’s simple familiarity or the fact that she looks like a stuffed animal come to life, but I’ve always felt calmer with her around. Having spent a great deal of time in hospitals, a place where dogs are strictly forbidden, I can tell you that the thing I missed most, more than the comfort of my own bed or the idea of not being woken up at 3:30 a.m. to have my blood drawn, was my sweet, little dog.
When she isn’t in the house, there’s an emptiness that is completely unsettling. I’ll listen for the jingle of her collar or the clicking of her paws on the hardwood floor and, when I hear neither, my heart sinks a bit. This feeling has existed for almost a decade and I doubt it will go away just because another person enters the picture.
I fully recognize that things will change. For example, I probably won’t have time for our regularly scheduled conversations where I ask her, repeatedly, why her nose is so delicious or who made her so cute. (All valid questions, people). But Milly will continue to be, as she has been, a very important member of our small clan.
So next time you see a pregnant woman walking her dog down the street, keep all your dog-and baby-based opinions to yourself and stick to awkwardly petting her belly like the other strangers. Or, better yet, just pet her dog.
*In her defense, the packing tape had it coming. It had the nerve to deny her access to her toys and food. Not cool, packing tape.