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Professor Burt
What my dog taught me about being a mom

When I had my first child at the age of 32, I knew nothing. Or so I thought. I had never changed a diaper, never held a newborn baby—in fact, I don’t think I’d ever seen one. I hadn’t experienced a sleepless night since college, and the only bottle-feeding experience I had involved a baby woodchuck.

But it turned out I did know a few things about parenting. Things I learned from my dog.

A hundred pounds of gamboling Golden Retriever, Burt had moved in with me seven years earlier, when I was living in rural Maine—Dog Heaven, plus porcupines. The summer after my marriage, however, he accompanied my husband and me to Paris, where pine-scented coastal paths were scarce, but where a pair of soulful brown eyes could effortlessly finagle a lamb bone from the butcher or a baguette end from a sympathetic local.

At the time of my son’s delivery, the protocol for introducing an infant into a one-bedroom apartment already occupied by a giant, if gentle, dog seemed like just one more challenge to add to a long list. It turned out, though, that life with Burt had actually taught me a lot about life with a little kid. To wit:

•Get outside. Go for walks. Kick a ball. Even when it’s cold, wet and you have work to do.

•Don’t have too much work to do. Make time for tickle-fests and pillow fights.

•Money does not equal time, whether or not the reverse is true. Skip the fancy toys and hang out.

•Getting dirty and making a mess is fun. But don’t expect equal enthusiasm for cleaning up.

•Poop is really no big deal. Sure, it’s smelly and squishy. Just don’t think about it.

•Shopping is, like, so totally boring. Keep it short. Better yet, do it online.

•No one cares if you serve the same thing for dinner two nights in a row.

•When saying no, mean it. And eventually you won’t have to keep saying it.

•When passersby stop to smile at you, they’re not really smiling at you. Smile back anyway.

•You will feel guilty every time you go out for an evening. Go out anyway.

Burt taught me the joy of wallowing in filial devotion. When he charged up to greet me with hysterical whimpers of tail-thumping ecstasy, I got a sneak preview of the glow I’d feel when my son took his first stumbling steps into my arms, when he mastered the toddler hug—arms locked around the neck, legs wrapped tight around the waist, the wet kiss planted on the cheek. You get addicted to that kind of adoration, both giving and getting. And what the world at large thinks of you fades into insignificance.

Equally important, owning my dog taught me about responsibility. I worked at daily newspapers, but Burt was the only truly non-negotiable deadline. On the evening of September 11, 2001, I had to explain to my editor that greatest terrorist attack in history or not, my dog was uptown waiting for his walk. I clipped his nails, cleaned his ears and shoved heartworm pills down his throat, smearing my arm up to the elbow in saliva. When Burt needed to pee and I needed to sleep, his needs won out, just my son wins when he calls out ‘Mommy, I’m thirsty,’ at 3 AM. Or pretty much anything else.

And when my dog succumbed to illness, I was the one who had to decide it was time to put him down, to haul him up onto the table for the veterinarian to slip the needle into his vein, to feel his last breaths waft damp and cool across my palm as I stroked his whitened muzzle.

In the end, we all shared our one-bedroom apartment amicably for nine months. My son suffered his share of slobber, but he was no slouch on that end either. He lost a few cookies when Burt’s jaws gently engulfed his chubby fist, never biting down, just holding on until my son gave up. But he didn’t get squashed by an errant paw, and none of his ear-tugging provoked so much as a growl.

Now that a baby sister has arrived on the scene, it’s my son’s turn to take a lesson from our dog. Will he model his behavior on the good-humored resignation with which Burt accepted his infant intrusion into our lives? I’m not holding my breath.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 52: Jan/Feb 2009
Catherine Boalch is a journalist and teacher; she and her family live in Paris, where she teaches literature to bilingual high school students.
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