If you didn’t grow up with a pet of some form, it’s hard to imagine what an incredible presence they are. For me, a home is just a house without one. One of the eternal highlights of my life will be when one of my two adopted cats had kittens. I spent a blissful summer pretending to be the rich old lady from The Aristocats, sharing my home with five kitties and an old record player.
Fast forward to 2019: after three years of living pet-free, I was a little overwhelmed when my partner announced he’d acquired a puppy for us.
It is an interesting experience to be a woman of certain child-bearing age, especially one who has seemingly ticked all the other necessary boxes society says we should have by now. It’s at this point that my womb becomes fair game for inquiries about its vacant status. I turned thirty-four this year and when our dog joined our home there was a collective nudging and jostling amongst my friends and family as ‘baby practice’ Chinese-whispered its way around my social circle.
At around the same time, I coincidentally read Ann Patchett’s collection of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. One of her essays, This Dog’s Life, struck a chord with me – it was akin to reading a personal journal entry I hadn’t yet written. More than her adoration for dogs, the thing that had me practically screaming ‘Yes!’ was her exploration of society’s gaze upon her when she got her dog.
Patchett articulates it well:
I am a walking target for people’s concerned analysis. No one looks at a single man with a Labrador retriever and says, ‘Will you look at the way he throws the tennis ball to that dog? Now there’s a guy who wants to have a son.’ A dog, after all, is man’s best friend, a comrade, a pal. But give a dog to a woman, and people will say she is sublimating. If she says that she doesn’t want children, they will nod understandingly and say, ‘You just wait.’
Much like Ann, I’ve never felt particularly drawn to having children. Don’t get me wrong – I love babies, and toddlers bring me endless joy. I have two nieces, a Godson and numerous Mama friends whose children are the epitome of cute and mischief. I adore being around them, and I have been referred to as ‘the baby whisperer’ on more than one occasion, which is probably why people find my lack of inclination towards having my own a bit perplexing. I’ve yet to feel a booming biological tick in my eardrums forewarning me that Now Is The Time.
Despite the surface-level progression we have made as a society, we still seem pretty glued to specific ideas of ‘normal’, of what it means to live a life ‘properly’. I have been consuming the dialogue around the ethics of having children as I try to find refuge for a decision that many find unimaginable. My mother has labelled it as selfish, and I genuinely believe she is only half-joking. Current societal narratives see a woman of my age without children in three narrow dimensions: selfish, infertile, or having not got around to the business of motherhood yet.
What I have been exceptionally unambiguous about, is wanting a dog. And now that I have one, I feel even more confident that becoming a mother is something I am not ready to undertake. Frustratingly, all those around me see my adoration of my dog as the nail in the coffin that I’m harbouring the dark secret of really wanting a baby.
Stating I don’t want children demands an explanation. Why? People will implore, puzzled eyes shifting from mine to the dog snuggled contentedly in my lap. Contrary to this, no one dares quiz the newly expecting parents with the same question. Why choose to procreate? Does this process not also require a justification? Perhaps more so due to the impending arrival of another physical being who will one day have such thoughts of their own. Choosing to procreate is not deemed as needing a reason perhaps only because it currently fits nicely with the narrative one is supposed to follow in life. All this even though currently having children should call for far more careful consideration than not having them.
Christine Overall covers this debate in-depth in her book, Why Have Children? On not questioning the decision to have children she states:
If we fail to acknowledge that the decision whether to have children is a real choice that has ethical import, then we are treating childbearing as an unavoidable fate and a mere expression of biological destiny.
The more I insist that I don’t want a baby, and yet continue to make my dog a high priority, the more I get the ‘knowing’ nods and smiles and sarcastic ‘Sure’ comments when I say I don’t want children. The truth is I don’t have to convince anyone because I’ve already convinced the most important person in this scenario.
I’ll admit that when we bought our dog home, a part of me did begin to wonder. My mind raced with questions around what I felt so sure I believed to be accurate. Was he just a proxy? Was I hiding behind this desire for him when what I wanted was a baby? Had I just been fooling myself all this time out of misplaced fears or societal resistance?
It took less than forty-eight hours to know with absolute certainty it wasn’t the case. What my partner and I learned in those first few days is that caring for something other than yourself is entirely exhausting. I’m not talking about the care we have for our significant other, friends, or family – I’m talking about actual care. Feeding, toilet training, entertaining, trying to guess his needs – it’s a lot of work.
In no time at all we were looking at each other, dog food in our hair, dog pee on our shoes, ripped up toys in our hands, having one of those telepathic conversations couples become capable of:
If it takes this much to care for a puppy, what would a baby demand from us?
I haven’t sunk so deep into the pit of dog-ownership that I can’t recognise there are a lot of differences between raising a puppy and raising a baby (marginally), but what this experience has educated me on are the areas I still need to work on, not as a mother or a dog owner, but as a human being. All change in life has lessons to teach us and adapting to another living creature in my home who relies on me for all his care needs has helped me further consider how I practice patience and empathy. It’s no longer all about me, and this is a great thing.
It’s also helped me understand in greater detail that my decision not to have children was never all about me (I began to believe the ‘you’re selfish’ comments), and there is a deeper contemplation that this thought process is connected to. One I am still unravelling.
I don’t think I can put things any better than Patchett:
I imagine there are people out there who got a dog when what they wanted was a baby, but I wonder if there aren’t other people who had a baby when all they really needed was a dog. I thought a dog would be the key to perfect happiness. And I was right. We are perfectly happy.
Elaine Mead is an educator, writer and reviewer currently residing in Hobart, Tasmania. Her work has been published with The Suburban Review, F*EMS Zine, *82 Review, Human/Kind Journal and others. She is the in-house book reviewer for Aniko Press and regularly reviews titles for The Book Slut also. Find Elaine on Instagram: @wordswithelaine