Millennials: Pet Parenthood

Growing Up
By Meghan Lewit, January 2015, Updated February 2016

By now, I imagine everyone is pretty sick of the millennial trend piece—the repetitive cycle of laments about why those born post–1980-ish are so tragically immature. Nobody wants to admit that he or she fits rather neatly into the subject of a lazily researched cover story. But if I’m being honest, a number of elements of my life fit the prototype. I rent a ramshackle, one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. I am married, but childless. My husband and I have both changed cities and jobs any number of times, thus far opting for the freedom of a rootless existence over the grown-up benchmarks of mortgages and child rearing.

But beyond the surface facts of my life, there’s the gnawing, deeper sense that, despite having passed the threshold of 30, I am not—am not even on the path to becoming—a proper adult. After entering my fourth decade, my life still seems like an exercise in barely controlled chaos. Which is why, when we decided to get a dog, it felt like a profound, moderately terrifying step. Matt in particular was concerned about whether we were ready to take on the care of a creature other than ourselves, but I was insistent—no more putting off responsibility just because we held our capabilities in such low regard.

We reached an agreement: we would sign up with a rescue agency to foster. We’d provide a temporary home to a dog in need and see if we were up to the challenge. On a particularly crisp Friday in late September, I got an email from the head of the rescue organization—a shipment of puppies from a shelter in Puerto Rico was arriving and could we pick up one of them from her Manhattan apartment on Sunday? Over the weekend, we went shopping for essential supplies: food, bowls, a leash and harness, pee pads, a couple of toys. Confronted with even the limited inventory at a small neighborhood pet shop, we were flummoxed. The clerk asked a few basic questions: What breed was the dog? How old? What size? How long would he/she be staying with us? Any dietary needs? I realized I’d neglected to gather any of this information. Our pet-parenting journey was off to an inauspicious start.

Then we met him. He was delivered to me in the lobby of an Upper East Side apartment building, curled up in a small crate—all big eyes and gloriously floppy ears. That first night, the puppy trembled and whimpered for hours, resisting all our efforts to soothe him and settle him in. But the next morning, he started trailing me around the apartment, never straying more than a few inches from my heels. When I plopped down next to him on the floor, he crawled into my lap, exhaled an existentially loaded sigh and looked up at me with an expression that clearly read, “Stay.” And, just like that, I latched myself to this small creature for the rest of his life.

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In the weeks and months that followed, I discovered that I’m surprisingly good at being relied upon. All the things that I fail to do for myself seem to come naturally with Buddy. I may still eat sandwiches for dinner, but our pantry is always stocked with high-quality dog food and treats from a bougie Park Slope pet store. We’ve never missed a vet appointment or fallen behind in his shots. I can’t remember to take a multivitamin, but every month without fail, I give him his flea prevention and his heartworm pill. In his early puppyhood, when he went through an extended period of digestive issues, Matt and I were both up at three most mornings, and again sometimes at five, hustling Buddy outside and washing blankets and towels. We’ve developed that special parental sonar hearing, where even the smallest sound of discomfort or distress wrests us out of a deep sleep.

To be clear, I’m not really comparing raising a dog to raising a child. At a year old, my dog can sit, (briefly) stay and has learned that peeing on the duvet is the fastest way to lose bed privileges. My work preparing him for adulthood is pretty much done. But anyone who’s ever loved a dog knows that the relationship between human and canine is richer and more complex than any language we’ve yet devised to describe it. (I’m reminded of this every time I see the handwritten sign posted on the entrance to my neighborhood dog park: “Only one family in security gate at a time”—a thoughtful little missive that avoids fraught words like “pet” and “owner.”) I am keenly aware that for the entirety of Buddy’s existence, his needs will not substantially change or lessen. He will never outgrow me. He will never stop mutely pleading with me to Stay every time I leave his side.

That kind of commitment is enough to make any responsibility averse person consider the benefits of a life of unfettered independence. But the thing is, when I’m at home next to this little dog who is happy, healthy and likely curled up on the coziest blanket in the house—for a dog born in a shelter, his taste for luxury has grown prodigiously—I’m filled with a sense of pride for something outside myself. And it feels, in a small but important way, like maturity.  

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 80: Winter 2014

Photo by Matt Kaszanek

Meghan Lewit’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic.com, USA Today, Salon, the AV Club, and other publications. She recently moved (yet again) from Brooklyn back to her hometown of Chicago.