“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.