The Tether Is Real
in which I complain about the new dog but am really just reminded of early motherhood
Let me just take a moment to talk about the dog.
Before we had children, my husband and I adopted a dog. We brought him home about a year before I got pregnant. Practice, as everyone says. This dog was 3 years old, from a shelter. Already house-trained, his biggest issue was barking aggressively at other dogs. We tried to address it with training with minimum effect. So we learned to easily navigate around other pooches while on our walks. Easy peasy.
He was good with our kids, but by the time I had a second child, everything the dog required felt like too much. One more mouth to feed. One more being needing something from me.
Eventually, once out of the weeds of having a toddler and infant (and through a bout of undiagnosed PPD), I came to enjoy the dog again. In his older years, he slept all day. I didn’t need to adjust anything about my schedule to accommodate him other than two walks a day (which my husband mostly did). He could be left for hours, no problem. He got along well with my mother and sister’s dogs so when we traveled, he could go to their houses.
But like all dogs, he got old. We were lucky. He kept his jaunty walk up until the very end. During the pandemic, we slowly realized, with all that time at home, that he was deaf. And in the fall of 2021, after a series of seizures left him struggling to walk, we knew it was time.
I’m not going to get into the pain of losing him. If you’ve had dogs, you know.
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Yet one of the surprising difficulties in the wake of losing him is that we took for granted how his energy affected our household. He was a grounding force, a source of endorphins when you needed them, a cuddle if you’d had a hard day.
The only good part about losing your dog is considering what new dog you have in your future. We started to look even though it was only about a month after losing our first. Then, a beagle appeared at our local rescue organization. I’ve always had a thing for beagles. He was about a year old (I won’t do puppies - see exhaustion from new motherhood). He seemed like a fit, we got him, and then we started adjusting to this new family member.
But it was clear immediately that this pooch struggles with separation anxiety. He was a pandemic puppy, and likely, his family never left him. In fact, this very problem might have been why they gave him up.
This meant that if I were to leave the house, I knew I was potentially leaving a dog who would be howling in his crate for hours.
We tried everything. Peanut butter kongs. Thunder shirts. CBD anxiety medication.
Nothing seemed to work.
My kids are 9 and 11. I have finally reached the state (post-pandemic) where they leave the house for most of the day (except on Wednesdays when one is released at 1:30 and Fridays when the other is released at 1:45). But now I found myself having to factor in how long I could leave the dog. Knowing that if I did so, he was likely going to be howling the entire time.
It triggered my PTSD from early motherhood. Because I was the one who worked from home, I was the one most affected by his needs. Everyone else left for the day. I was the one having to accommodate his schedule instead of being free to schedule my own time how I saw fit (running errands v. writing, editing, zooming at home). To be clear, most of the time I was at home, working. But to feel like I didn’t have the freedom to not be? Stifling.
“God, I wanted to say, how are you supposed to live like this, knowing you used to answer to no one? How is this the arc we set for ourselves as a successful life? But he’d never understand that. He had the life he wanted. So did I. And yet. And yet and yet and yet and yet and yet.”
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Fleishman Is In Trouble
One of the hardest parts of early motherhood for me was how confining a young child (or infant) could be to your freedom. Their needs and schedules and demands. I breastfed, thus was literally chained to my child by her feeding schedule. In those early months, they feed every two hours. There is no chance to feel freed from the blanket of responsibility if you have to watch the clock that closely.
If I was able to escape for more than two hours, I was still tethered to the schedule because my breasts were machines tuned to the timely needs of my infant. Though I was not always required to be there feeding her, my breasts would harden and start to let down unless I could find a place to escape to pump. If I chose to ignore my discomfort, I knew my milk supply would dwindle and I would no longer be making enough milk for my growing child (a situation that is sometimes out of your control and yet laced with self-blame).
“I could tell him that my thoughts are out of tune, and that the idea of music feels like an old forgotten memory in a drawer because my girl takes up every breath and every moment of my life.”
Claire Oshetsky, Chouette
Yes, it is also miraculous that your body creates the exact sustenance your child needs. But to turn yourself into their feeding machine is a sacrifice that must be honored and recognized.
Even if you do not breastfeed, you are a slave to their sleep schedule. You sneak out to do something, get fresh air, see a fellow adult out in the world, but your child requires sleep to not be a nightmare, at least two naps a day, and if you don’t get them home in time, they will fall asleep in the car and you don’t want to risk waking them to transfer them to the crib so how many hours have you spent as a mother crouched in the front seat of your car on your phone while your child naps in the back?
I think this is what makes early motherhood so anxiety provoking and so rage inducing. You are not in control of your own life but at the mercy of the needs of others. And that shit is draining.
This is what was triggered by my new dog. Feeling like I had only short segments during which I could be away from the house to do whatever I needed, instead of swaths of time that I could manage in whatever way I saw fit (which is what I imagined it is like for those who go to an office and work a traditional job. Who knows if this is now true given that we all seem to be working from home these days, or that maybe some bosses are like needy dogs, always wanting attention? Plus I know, all those pesky meetings, via Zoom or in person. But let me just think that the grass is always greener, okay?).
My dog made me feel tethered again, like I could not stray too far. Like my freedom had been squelched. Who’s the one on the leash these days?
Now, after about a year, we have figured out a solution. We have hired someone to take him on hikes on three mornings a week. He seems to settle down okay in his crate when he has gotten two hours of vigorous exercise in the morning. It isn’t a perfect solution, but I’m not pulling my hair out at his neediness anymore. Throw money at the situation, as they say, and I am lucky enough to be able to do that. For now.
But I know I am likely not the only one who struggles against one more being requiring things from them no matter how much joy they bring. Women are the ones who tend to take jobs that are more flexible (so they can continue to uphold the other unpaid roles expected of them), thus they are the ones who end up managing all the detritus required to keep home life running. The needy dog, the leaking sink, the grocery delivery, the pediatrician appointment. Anne Helen Petersen’s recent exploration of the inequality of leisure time between the sexes was so on point about how women learn to take on hobbies that can be done around the house, or require less time, and thus they take small chunks of time to themselves (an hour yoga class here, a dinner out with friends there) vs. the golf days and fishing expeditions and other outside of the house activities that men pursue and feel entitled to. As Amy Shearn so comically yet accurately said in my interview of her, Not all men! Not all marriages! But the general rule applies.
Lately I’ve been thinking about all the work women do to create the warm, cozy, special magic that is family life. We do it all the time, but especially during this time of year. The scheduling of Santa visits, the matching Christmas pajamas (something I avoided until the pandemic hit), the tickets to the Nutcracker, the baking of cookies, the decorating of the house. Not to mention the gift purchasing, the Santa mirage of ensuring stockings are stuffed, presents are displayed, a bite is taken out of the cookie, and the milk glass is not full. The holiday cards which require a photo shoot in October. Is any of this necessary? No. But you take it away and it is like you go from technicolor to black and white, a reverse Wizard of Oz.
We all have things that we care about and probably spend too much time managing. I realize I spend a good bit of time, for better or worse, helping ensure my children have books that they want to read. I’m constantly requesting books from the library, picking them up, returning them, tracking when a new series has a new book out (FYI, Keeper of the Lost Cities, which literally sustained my children during the pandemic, just came out with book nine!). Obviously I am a reader myself and part of me likes this work. But it is work. It is work that I do on my own. They would be fine if I didn’t do it. They would likely read less, though. And I know what a gift it is to have a good book to escape into at the end of a hard day. Why would I not want to provide that for my children?
But it comes at a cost. It adds to the mental load. It is one more reason that I am overtired, overburdened, and sometimes, frustrated by the needs of the dog.
So at the end of this hellish year, during this stressful season, let me just say: mamas, I see you. I know that sometimes you feel trapped by what society and marriage and motherhood expects of you. I know you desire more space and help and a break. What we do is work. It is a lot. And it is okay if you sometimes need to lay something down. Especially this holiday season. Maybe a few less things in the stockings. Maybe a few less cookies baked. Maybe skip the holiday cards. Maybe grant yourself more naps and snuggles and days curled up on the couch.
And if you have a dog, see if someone else will walk him.
What It Really Takes to Breastfeed a Baby. Tiffanie Graham and Catherine Pearson, The New York Times, November 30, 2022.
She Wasn’t Ready for Children. A Judge Wouldn’t Let Her Have an Abortion. Lizzie Presser, The New York Times, November 29, 2022.
I’m pulling together the best articles on motherhood recap for my final post of the year. And my paid subscribers will get my favorite books of the year. If you aren’t a paid subscriber yet, consider becoming one for just $5/month or $50/yr. It helps me keep putting together this newsletter.