NO ONE WOULD DREAM of asking a woman walking her dog: So, when are you going to have another one? There isn’t the presumption that a singleton dog is lonely, or will grow up with some terrible maladjustment, perhaps diagnosable,without another dog in the family.
I never felt committed to the demographic destiny of two-point-something children. One was not merely enough; one was extraordinary. Pushing my son around in his stroller, I chaperoned his love affair with every dog in the West Village. I learned that the desire to have long woofing and nibbling sessions animates all of us. He was wild about dogs, and I was wild about him.My life was good.
But now I do have a second child—a second boy— and I’ll admit that this replication is different in a profound way, far beyond having to double the Cheerios purchases or finding myself squished between a duet of car seats when we drive on a family vacation. True,with two children, we’ve cut the adult-child ratio in half and more than doubled the worry. But having another child also means a return to dog.
Even before my second son hit 12 months, he could make the sound of every animal. The horses, cows, frogs and, of course, the dogs…woof! In our home, the humans and the animals speak one language. There is one word for all joys and all desires, one affirmative to all questions. Are you hungry? Woof! Are you ready to get dressed? Woof! Shall we go outside? Woof! Woof packed with nuance and intonation.Woof packed with possibility.
And here we are, out for a walk, my second son and I.He’s got the super-power doggy radar of a one-year-old on, now scanning a 180-degree horizon of streetscape. The alert goes off: Ah woo woo woo woof! I look around, slowly, an adult reacting in turtle-time, and I see that yes, indeed, there is a dog down the block on the other side of the street, not barking, not racing, not straining against his leash, unlike my barking toddler who is about to burst out of his stroller straps.
Don’t you get it, Mom?
I shouldn’t be surprised. I’d been around the block on dog-watch before with my first son.Yet I am surprised to find myself behind the wheels of the stroller again, surprised to find myself the mother of a second boy hard-wired to love dogs.
I’ve realized that dogs don’t need training (or re-training) as much as I do; I’m the one who has trouble learning.Why have another baby? To remember dog.To see that dog can be new again even though you think you already know her. I had to have a second child so that the daily dog walk could be part of my life again.My second baby gives his heart away to every dog that comes along, in every shape and color; he loves them for being alive, for their very dogginess. He loves them unconditionally, before he’s even met them. Before he knows anything about their personality or their achievements, before he knows if they love children or are scared of hats, he loves them. Every encounter with dog is a chance for love at first sight.
My second son my second teacher my second dog-lover my second mommywhisperer: Smile, mom, don’t worry.We’re here together. Look, here comes a dog.
I used to think I could make the decision to have a dog when I was ready: when my family was ready, when we were older but not too old, out of diapers but not into college applications.When things would be going well between me and my husband and we could divvy up dog chores without a fight.When we’d live in a big enough space.When everything was ready, then the dog would be part of the picture.
And I waited. I waited so long to get the dog my older son wanted that suddenly— at least it seemed sudden—he no longer loved dogs. It happened sometime toward the end of his preschool years, or perhaps during kindergarten, while I was pregnant for the second time. My son grew afraid of dogs. If a dog approached us on the street, instead of dragging me up to greet the dog, he ran behind me so the dog wouldn’t see him—or so he wouldn’t see the dog, I’m not sure which.When did he begin to fear the thing he once loved most in all the world? When did he realize his great love might bite him? I wondered if he had been bitten, if I’d missed some traumatic event that had left him fearful. But I don’t think so; he outgrew trains and fire trucks and dogs (he still loves dinosaurs and big mammals, but he doesn’t run into too many of these on the street).
I didn’t miss the trains, or the fire trucks, but dogs…Looking for dogs had made going anywhere fun.You could see them on the way to the doctor for shots or on the way home from a funeral. I’d looked forward to meeting up with dogs even when I wasn’t with my son; just imagining how he’d respond had made me happy. And then it was all over—the whole dog show. No more woofing, no more waving, no more doggy radar. I still noticed dogs on the street, but I looked at them nostalgically, as if I’d lost my dog.
What I’d lost was my first baby, the baby who had a passion for dogs. I mourned his innocence and my own as a parent (and wondered if this was a little taste of what life would be like in his teen years, when I’d long for his boyhood). I missed dogs. I missed his joy. I missed seeing them kiss, dog plus baby, and getting a few slurpy licks myself. I had to shift into a different role: protecting him from dogs. Every time I saw a dog coming I had to assess whether it was old enough or reserved enough to pass us by without incident, or if it was too kid-friendly or too puppyish and might jump toward my son, reinforcing his fear. I caught a glimmer ofmy son’s uneasiness:He feared the unruliness of dogs, their unpredictability. And I had my own lesson in unpredictability, in the way time changes everything.
ONE DAY IN EARLY SPRING, I WAS OUT walking with my boys. The baby was in the stroller, and the big boy was helping me push. I wasn’t surprised to hear the dog alert go off—but it was from my older son! It was my big boy who saw the dog first, who shouted, “Look, there’s a dog!”with total delight, his fear forgotten. My big boy was seeing through the baby’s eyes, experiencing the baby’s doggy joy.
At that moment, there were three of us about to burst, two little hearts and one big one—the baby wanting his wet kiss; the big boy wanting to see the baby get all excited and happy; and me, big old mama dog, marveling at my brood, savoring the older one’s pleasure in the little one. While the big boy demonstrated how to pet the dog without pulling its hair, I gave a silent prayer of thanks.
I leaned down to stroke the dog myself, and I felt the electricity running through me: my big boy’s early dog love, his lost love, his renewed love, plus the baby’s new love, plus my own redoubled. We added up to so much more than three people loving a dog.
WHEN WE WERE A FAMILY OF THREE, I thought I knew myself, and my husband, and my son. I knew our family. I knew who we were as parents and who he was as a boy. I knew who I was (mom) and, when I gave birth again, who I’d become (mom2boys). But then comes a new baby who waves his tiny magic fist around and, presto, we are new, some other family. My husband isn’t who I thought he was, nor am I.My son is someone else, too. We are all angry, and tired, and cranky; sometimes serially, sometimes all of us at the same moment.Who is this man snapping at me, and why did I marry him? Who is that woman with my voice, snapping back? I can’t remember. And who is this older son of mine, who used to love dogs and used to love me, and now is so furious he kicks me, screams at me, throws tantrums the way he never did before? Baby toys that my big boy hasn’t looked at in years are suddenly hot property; they belong only to him and cannot possibly be touched by the baby. The baby nurses and the big boy wishes he could too, hates the little one for getting to nurse, hates himself for wanting something he’s been told he’s too old for…I am trying to embrace these people I don’t recognize, including myself, and it’s hard.
One morning, I’m out with the boys, and we’re counting dogs we pass on the way. This has become our new ritual, now that my big guy is happy to be out on the dog-watch with his baby bro. He thinks that Dog Number 8 is a Poodle. I don’t think so, I suspect it’s a Terrier, but I’m so happy he’s talking about dogs that I go along with the Poodle theory.
“I’ve heard that Poodles are really smart,” I say. “I’ve heard that they’re good animals to live with. Hey—would you like to have a dog?” I ask as nonchalantly as I can.
“No,”he answers.“I want a cat,not a dog.”
“We can’t have a cat,”I tell him,“because they make me sneeze.”
“I know,”he says.“That’s why I don’t like you.We can’t have a cat because of you.”
I don’t know how to repair my relationship with my first son. Can he ever forgive me? Can we ever begin to approximate the closeness, the seamlessness, we had before? Can I forgive myself? And will he ever completely outgrow his lingering fear of dogs?
The other day, a generous woman out walking her dog gave me the clue to navigating the street with one boy who loves dogs and one who fears them. If the dog’s tail is up and wagging, she’s happy to see you. If her tail is down, you don’t want to pet her or get close because she’s afraid and might bark or bite.
So here’s my hope: It will come to pass that we will all want a dog at the same time.That there will be a sign—tail up, tail down—telling me the moment is right, after my older son outgrows his fear and before my little one outgrows his passion. That I will be able to read my children and follow my heart.
Illustration by Donna Grethen