At 17, I was kicked out of my mom’s house and sent to live with my dad. My father was highly allergic to animals and not open to pets. I was a lonely, angry, dog-loving shithead, so I promptly drove myself to the pound, where I found Sarah. She was all ribs and ears, sitting quietly in a kennel with a sign that read “Seven days left, please adopt me today.” I did.
Sarah was the reason I came home and slept in my own bed in high school. In college, she kept me feeling safe and comforted in my string of lonely student rentals. She greeted my husband at the door on our first date.
When I became pregnant for the first time, I promised myself that Sarah would still be a cornerstone in my life… no matter who else entered. At first I kept my promise. I took Sarah and baby Jonah on a walk every day. I sat on the living room floor and played with Sarah and Jonah. I tied Sarah to a tree and put Jonah in his bouncer outside, and we all enjoyed our yard together. But somewhere between a cross-country move, another baby, and two college degrees, Sarah took baby steps toward the omega position.
Last year, I realized how negative my pet relationship had become. Sarah walked into the kitchen, sniffed at a boiled egg our second baby threw on the floor, and then walked away. We had always joked about Sarah helping us keep the house clean, and for a minute I felt this bitter accusation: now you are completely useless. (That’s right, I’m a jerk.)
While I wasn’t neglecting Sarah on any grand scale, I knew I was neglecting her in my own standard of care. Not only that, but she had traveled through rough waters with me; she deserved to spend the last years of her life enjoying my appreciation. I sulked for while over what a terrible dog-friend I was.
Discussing pets at a playgroup, I realized I was hardly the only mother feeling like my animal had become a point of guilt-ridden irritation. I decided to slip out of my sad pants and zip up my proactive suit. (It’s handmade!) Here are some actions I’ve taken to repair my post-kid pet relationship:
1. Outsource the pains in my ass
Before motherhood, I spent years working in vet hospitals, getting paid to do dog pedicures, baths, ear cleanings, you name it. I felt really uncomfortable paying someone else to perform pet care for me. But once I broke down and took Sarah into a professional to fuss over her hygiene, I felt a huge sense of relief. I realized I’d been resentful partly because bathing and nail clipping had become a major task, involving not only those two actions but also corralling the kids while I clip her nails, cleaning up hair-tumbleweeds, and finding a place for her to dry without getting dirty again. Pet care is one of those many areas where I had to learn how to let go of misplaced pride and let others help me.
2. Accentuate the positive
If you’re feeling like motherhood has changed your ability to enjoy your pets, take time to do that wonderful thing which prompted you to get your pet in the first place. For me, as a dog ethology dork, this means working with Sarah on commands and little brain games. Maybe for you it is cuddling with your cat, photographing ferrets, or dressing your iguana for high tea. Milk it.
3. Let your pet tag along for “me-time”
Taking Sarah on stroller walks was nearly impossible, but I was passing up on other opportunities to involve her. I had unwittingly created two categories: things done with kids and things done alone. Now I take Sarah on errands, watch TV next to her, or bring the laptop to the floor while the baby naps. Now Sarah is once again a relaxing friend instead of a to-do list.
Make a big deal out of how long you’ve had your pet, how old they are, or what fraction of their life they’ve lived. Sarah is having a party for our tenth year together, but there are smaller celebratory options, too. Write something about your pet: a detailed blog entry, a funny story, a timeline of your time together, or what makes this animal different from others you’ve met. Make a photobook of them. Share it, in the name of celebrating your life together.
While I’ll never be a “my pets are my children” person, I hope to be increasingly mindful of Sarah’s post-kid life from now on. I would love to hear what pets other mamas had while transitioning to motherhood, and how they find ways to keep a positive relationship.