Should you have a dog or a baby?
I read somewhere that childless women of a certain age should consider getting a cat or dog as a focus for their maternal energy. That advice seemed vaguely threatening to me. Like, what if you don’t? Will the unreleased ‘maternal energy’ build up until, one day, passing a Mothercare, you’ll simply explode? Well, pass the puppy. Who wants that kind of embarrassment, not to mention death?
Me, evidently, because I find the thought of having responsibility for another creature so intimidating — how to understand their limited communication skills when they’re trying to convey that something’s not okay; the pressure of making sure there’s a tin of something in the press to shove their way when they’re hungry; not to mention having to pet them continually, to reassure them that you really, lovey-dove them, the little inarticulate fluff bunnies. It’s just like having a husband, I imagine.
Maybe it’s a measure of my commitment phobia that apart from never being able to even imagine being settled with a spouse and kiddies — let alone ever having been close to achieving it — the thought of having responsibility for so much as a small, loving animal fills me with panic. And that’s not casting veiled aspersions on vertically challenged chaps; it’s a way of saying I admire people who can do the pet thing.
Like my sister. I’ve mentioned before that she’d been looking for a house for years. I kept saying ‘wait’, as I perused the evidence of ongoing price fall. Eventually, she found a property, in the area she wanted, at a price, amazingly, that she could afford. The kind of place that, as one of our friends pointed out (in a uniquely Irish combination of congratulatory moroseness), ‘you’ll be carried out of in a box’. I say ‘amazingly’ because it’s the kind of modest semi-D that at the height of the boom went for three times the price she paid for it. I wrote about that very house here, actually, wondering if she was ever going to make the purchase-leap. Happy to relate, she did. Yet, after all that, and the upgrading she undertook, I still looked at it and thought: this isn’t an end in itself but a grounding for a life. It takes more than four freshly painted and plastered trendy walls to build contentment. So, in acquiring her house, my sister got what she wanted, and then she got what she really wanted: a dog.
I was soon recalling what the American author Elizabeth Gilbert said about having a child:
‘Will your unreleased maternal energy build up until one day, passing by a Mothercare, you’ll simply explode?’
‘Having a baby is like getting a tattoo on your face. You really need to be certain it’s what you want before you commit.’ The first few weeks after he moved in, OMG, she was in shock. Shock-like-there’s-suddenly-a-baby-in-my-life shock. ‘I don’t think I can take the responsibility,’ she’d worry to me, as her terrier-cross mutt stared needily up at her, all the time.
On her first day out walking him, he got threatened in a park by two free-roaming Dobermans. As her new charge strained and trembled on his lead, she didn’t know what to do; she felt as frightened as him. Even talking him for walks became a source of anxiety. My sister was further unnerved when Patch (he has a name) had endless contretemps with dogs in the park near her new home and shocked that her little cuddle mutt could be so aggressive — like having your bonny baby pull out nunchucks and turn a heart-warming walkabout about into a scene from Love/Hate.
Gradually, as he has settled into his new home, with his new mistress, he’s become more secure, confident and self- contained, and his sweet nature is the same inside and outside the house. See the way I’m talking about him? That’s dogs for you — their loyal, licky delight always at seeing you, their happiness if you tickle their tummies, the way they eyeball you and draw you into their doggy reality. What extraordinary animals, so attuned to communication with another species — us. (I’m straining not to make the ‘just like men’ allusion again, honest.)
Patch could easily be a movie mutt with his one- ear- up/one- down/ head- sideways way of looking at you, and eagerness to do any trick you care to teach him for a treat. ( My favourite: his version of the ‘high five’.) He gets his own ‘Hi, Patch’ greeting from Una’s neighbours now. Through him, she’s got to know all the other dog owners in the area. Down the park they have long chats about canine psychology while marvelling at their intelligence as they run around sniffing each other’s butts. (The dogs, not the neighbours.)
The DSPCA have just launched their Adopt, Don’t Buy Christmas campaign, so if it’s maternal urges you’re trying to thwart, a gift you’re giving, or you’re simply, like my sister, a softie for dogs, remember the rescue-centre route. Patch is a rescue dog (Una got him through dogsindistress.org). He’s a gem. I look at the pair of them together now — and see two best friends.
The Nualas, Hawk’s Well, Sligo, 30 November