Hinda Mandell, PhD is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Her essays have appeared in USA Today, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A surprise acceptance for a new arrival.
January 15 2014
“He’s worse than a baby,” my husband liked to say about our dog Nigel when the Hairy Son was acting particularly needy and pining for our attention. Of course, this was before we had our actual (human) baby this past summer and learned that Nigel—our 11-year-old Lhasa Apso— is indeed not worse than a baby.
In fact, there’s no comparing Nigel to our daughter Mirabelle. Nigel doesn’t cry inconsolably. He doesn’t wake us up throughout the night. He doesn’t suffer from gas pains. He doesn’t require a car seat or diaper changes or burping or the application of diaper cream.
In other words, Nigel’s a dog—and a fairly self-sufficient one—but it took having a baby for me to realize it. I was so focused on how he would react to a baby interloper invading his house that I didn’t once consider how the birth of my daughter would change our relationship.
Before Mirabelle burst onto the scene in June, Nigel was my one-and-only baby. He came into my life when I was in my 20s and childless. So I did the natural thing: I infantilized and coddled my 16-pound pup beyond measure. He was my entertainment. For a good laugh, I’d put my glasses on him or make up silly songs and dance him around the house. I wasn’t particularly good at setting boundaries.
Nigel’s been with me throughout eight apartments, four jobs and grad school. I’ve known him significantly longer than my husband. Nigel and I pose together on my Facebook profile photo. And before we replaced them with pictures of our daughter, there were photos of him throughout our house. A custom-built set of stairs leads up to our bed so Nigel has easy access to a comfortable night’s rest.
Before Baby, I never thought of Nigel as a dog. That label sounded too ordinary for my adorable, grumpy, Ewok-like creature. It was no coincidence that my preferred nickname for him was “the Son.” But in the chaotic weeks immediately following the birth of our daughter, Nigel became a burden. As I tried to care for the many needs of my vulnerable five-pound baby, even something as simple as putting kibble in his bowl seemed like a chore.
Nigel’s heft (in comparison to Mirabelle’s delicate, light-as-a-feather form) and the longevity of our relationship let me take advantage of him. I felt I didn’t have the time, wherewithal and emotional capacity to shower him with the love he was accustomed to. Yet it may have been the sturdiness of our Before-Baby relationship that gave Nigel canine insight into my suddenly strange, distant behavior. He knew I’d return to him. I just needed time, which he was kind enough to grant me.
To understand why I’m so grateful to Nigel for his patience during this turbulent newborn period, you have to understand his personality. While I love him to pieces, I could not objectively describe him as a compassionate, outgoing creature. Rather, he’s stubborn, bossy, insistent, inward-focused and a bit obtuse … or, “worse than a baby” (but not really). Part of Nigel’s personality originates with his breed, and part is due to the way I’d babied him for so long. I did not have faith that he could generously share my attention with another creature.
Nigel’s vet, JoAnn Levy of Canfield Vet, Dog and Cat Hospital, had more hope than I did. Nine months pregnant at Nigel’s well-dog checkup, I mentioned that I was concerned about how Nigel would receive an infant into the fold. When she asked how he acted with other newborns, I told her that he was actually quite curious about them, an eager sniffer when friends’ babies come to visit. Dr. Levy concluded that Nigel would be fine with a baby in the house.
I doubted it could be that simple. After all, our baby would be a permanent fixture, not just an entertaining visitor available for an exploratory sniff or two.
When I adopted Nigel almost a decade ago, his original owner made me promise two things: First, that I would never let Nigel roam off-leash. Second, that if I were to have children one day, I would not exclude Nigel from our growing clan. The previous owner knew that a newborn demands an extraordinary amount of attention at the cost of nearly everything else, even a beloved pet. While the previous owner was looking out for Nigel’s best interests, even she couldn’t imagine that this finicky dog would in fact have more patience than all of us—would in fact turn out to be a full-fledged comrade in Operation Baby.
We were not short on advice on how to introduce Nigel and the baby. My sister-in-law suggested we leave her in her car seat (on the floor) and let Nigel “find” her so that she’d be his little charge. A friend suggested that I shower Nigel with affection when my husband brought the baby into the house for the first time. To familiarize him with “eau de Mirabelle,” we even brought Mirabelle’s first hat with her scent all over it home from the hospital. We implemented none of these plans.
Instead, we were already home with Mirabelle when our friend, who was looking after Nigel during my hospital stay, returned him to our abode. I was carrying Mirabelle in my arms. Nigel was happy to come home and I made an overly enthusiastic scene to welcome him.
That was probably the most attention I paid him for about two weeks.
Something surprising happened during those two weeks. Nigel did not sulk at the lack of attention or act jealous of the baby. It’s unlikely he was thrilled with his new circumstances, but he quickly took his place on the couch, head between his paws, observing it all. At night, Nigel remained on our bed as time and again, I leaned into the baby’s crib to pick her up, feed her, soothe her, rock her.
He appeared to have resigned himself to the situation and did not act out. He did not attempt to leave our bedroom, where he’s always slept. This was his family and he was staying put.
A few times in the middle of the night when the baby’s cries grew in volume, I took her into the living room, where we retired to the rocking chair. The Hairy Son, who was accustomed to lounging on our king-sized bed, plush sofas, lush blankets and down pillows, took his place on the hardwood floor by my feet as I rocked the baby. He did it to keep me company.
One night a couple of weeks after Mirabelle’s introduction to our household, Nigel returned to my radar. It was 9 pm. I was exhausted, but Mirabelle, in the throes of the “witching hour,” was alternating between two states: fervent eating and fervent crying. Bedtime was nowhere in sight.
Except for Nigel. As he does every night, he went into our bedroom to retire for the evening. This simple act gave me hope that one day (with luck, sooner rather than later) my daughter would learn a nighttime routine as well. I thought to myself that if my Hairy Son is smart enough to know when it’s bedtime, then surely our Hairless Daughter will grasp this one day, too.
That night, for the first time, I viewed Nigel as an independent being and developed a sense of respect for him. He was not a creature to be coddled and infantilized. He knew the ropes. He gave me hope that from chaos can come order. It just takes time.
Yet even though I appreciated Nigel’s patience with me and our new situation, I didn’t understand it. How could a dog who would ordinarily growl at anyone trying to move him from his spot on the couch be so docile with a vociferous baby invading his space?
I called Dr. Levy, his vet, for some answers.
“Once a new baby comes into the family, they see that baby as part of the pack because that baby is so attached to you, his beloved human,” said Dr. Levy.
“They often become better behaved because they have a younger member of the pack to protect and include.”
But I still didn’t understand why Nigel wasn’t acting jealous.
“They have a job now,” said Dr. Levy. “They kind of get that you’re taking care of the newest member of the pack.”
I’m happy if Mirabelle gives Nigel a renewed sense of purpose. But I’m truly grateful for the sacrifice he’s made.
Mirabelle’s in daycare now. Mornings are quiet; I work at my computer on the couch with Nigel by my side. When I take a break and glance up from the screen, I often find myself looking at Nigel and thinking, Thank you.
Calm’s returned to our house. Though the pecking order is different, Nigel remains his strong self. But it took having a baby for me to realize that.
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