Monday, October 15, 2012

Pets vs. Babies Round Two: Shock and Awe

I'm not sure what the numbers are, but I'll bet an enormous amount of pets are relinquished every year as a result of a new baby arriving in the family.  More than once I've heard the saying that "Once you have a baby, your dog becomes just a dog." I had to wonder how these people define the word, "dog." Pets are family, not objects to be discarded the moment they become inconvenient. So, why do so many people make the seemingly quick and heartless choice to ditch the family pet?

On September 5th of this year I gave birth to our beautiful daughter, Sophia. Coming home with her a few days later marked the beginning of a brand new perspective on life for me. It also gave me a new perspective on the issue of why animals lose their homes after the arrival of a new baby. I hate to say it, but I actually began to understand the thoughts and feelings that lead up to such a sad decision. I also felt that if others were better prepared, we might see a few less pets being turned over just because a child was born. Or, when finding a new home is unavoidable, we might see a little less guilt from responsible pet owners who weren't able to make it work. Yes, you read that correctly. I believe that in some cases, a responsible pet-owning mother might make the decision to part ways with a beloved furry family member. Animal lovers tend to pass judgement pretty quickly on things like this (I know this because I'm guilty of it myself). This is because we see so much cruelty and unfairness toward the creatures that we love. But it is important to consider that there are always exceptions. Not every person who gives up a pet is a monster.

What most people don't always acknowledge or understand about pregnancy and birth is that they launch an arsenal of physical and emotional changes to a woman that can't completely be described with words. Every mom feels things a bit differently and personally, the feeling that shocked me the most was the powerful drive to protect my baby from any and everything that could be considered a threat. The intense attachment and love were very much expected (though still so much bigger than I ever could have dreamed) but there was also that almost primal instinct to guard her as well. And that instinct reared its head most noticeably when it came time to mix my human baby with my four-legged ones. Even now, almost six weeks later, it sometimes manifests itself as an almost debilitating form of anxiety.

Keep in mind that none of our dogs are even aggressive or have presented any signs of trying to use the new baby as a chew toy (though of course I would never leave her unsupervised with any dog; this is a rule all parents should abide by) yet I still had other worries.

Thanks to a good friend generously offering to watch over the younger two dogs, Cricket (the oldest) was the only canine home when we arrived with Sophia.  As expected, Cricket was extremely interested in the new addition. We allowed her to briefly sniff the baby's feet, but that was the extent of their interaction at first. Cricket is easily overstimulated and the excitement had her all over the place. She hadn't seen us in days and now we had this new tiny creature making weird sounds. Those sounds drove Cricket nuts! I had played baby noises to the dogs throughout my pregnancy but dogs aren't stupid and a real baby making noise is a completely different affair compared to noises coming out of laptop speakers. Every time the baby cried, Cricket had to pop in and inspect the situation. She seemed to be genuinely concerned and usually calmed down once she got a good glimpse of the baby. Of course, there were plenty of instances when she wasn't allowed in the same space as the baby. Sophia would be in one room wailing and Cricket would be in the next room doing the same. There were moments when I wanted to wail right along with them. After some time, she did get used to the baby's noises completely and doesn't react now. But at the time it really grated on my fragile nerves.

Then, there was our almost two-year-old, half blind, half deaf bull terrier, Obi-Wan. Obi is a great dog. He loves everyone he meets and is one of the most affectionate dogs I've ever had. But he's also crazy in the way that most bull terriers are crazy. His play style is reminiscent of the old Atari game, Pong. Except in this version, Obi is the ball and he moves at warp speed, taking out and/or bouncing off anything in his path. (Bull terrier owners have dubbed this behavior "hucklebutting.") This is normal behavior for a young bully, and I have worked on installing an "off" switch. The problem is that hucklebutting episodes can come out of nowhere so by the time you realize what's happening, he's already bounced off at least a couple of walls. This means that right off the bat I was terrified that Obi would go into crazy mode and slam into me while I was holding the new baby. All of a sudden Obi, my best friend, was at the top of my list of severe threats to my child. Trust me, that kind of paranoia will make you look at your beloved dog in a very different light. As a result, we have taken several measures to keep the baby and Obi mostly separate to ensure everyone's safety. It took weeks and weeks for me to stop feeling like I was an irresponsible parent just for having this dog in the same house as my daughter. In fact, I didn't feel very comfortable with it until the past week or so, when we rearranged things once again and found a better routine/balance to reassure to me that Obi and Sophia won't come together by accident. I do realize that I've probably overreacted to the situation, but the fear isn't something I can magically turn off.

The last dog is our foster border collie, Kota. Kota is completely blind and honestly, Kota is also pretty perfect as far as I'm concerned. I don't even know why I'm including him in this blog post. He is the picture of how most people want their dog to behave with a new baby; so gentle and easy-going. Someone needs to remind me why he's the one we're adopting out?? (Because he's a foster dog, we have very limited space, and he deserves to be the center of someone's world if I can find that for him... If you're interested in adopting the best dog ever feel free to contact me. :)

Getting back on topic...
On top of the intense roller coaster of emotions and the instinct to protect the baby from my own beloved pets is the fact that I have no time. This is a statement I would subconsciously brush off when I heard someone else say it in the past. Now that I'm on the other side of the situation I know that it's true and I really believe that time limitations must be a huge part of why so many new moms throw in the towel and give up on their pets. When you bring home a baby you barely have a few minutes to take a shower, have a meal, do the dishes or even go to the bathroom. Yes, this is true even when you have a significant other around to help. The popular advice to "sleep when the baby sleeps" sounds really good at first but in practice, it's just a little off, especially when you have pets (or, I imagine, other kids). When the baby sleeps, you have some big, fat,choices to make. You could sleep but then again, a shower really sounds great. You could get some laundry done (which somehow triples in quantity with the addition of the Tiny One). The dishes, which have also multiplied quickly, are an absolute must if you're bottle feeding. I won't even get into how time-consuming and insanely, enormously, completely stressful it is to add breast feeding/pumping into the equation. Especially if you're one of the many people who end up having challenges with this. And let's not forget that there is no telling how much time you have before the baby is up and in need of your constant attention again. You might have a couple of hours... you might only have ten minutes.

All of this leads to The Guilt: The terrible, unbearable, consuming cloud of guilt that constantly builds as you look around your house and realize that you're basically half-assing (no, 1/8th-assing) everything. It can feel so out of control...with no end in sight. How on earth do you average two hours of sleep (or something resembling sleep since you feel the need to constantly look over to make sure the baby is still breathing during the night) and STILL not get anything done? Almost 24 hours of being awake and nothing to show for it. Cue emotional breakdown #239.

At some point you realize that you've barely even pet your dogs in days. They have become something you barely have time to feed, water, and let in and out for potty breaks. They're confused and might as well be at a boarding kennel rather than in their own home at this point. Again, more guilt. You start to feel as if they would be better off somewhere else. How will you ever have a relationship with them again at this rate? How long is this kind of treatment going to continue before it becomes cruel to keep them? Maybe they need to go live with someone who doesn't utterly fail at this whole multitasking thing?  Next emotional breakdown in 3...2...

There are also many women who experience an incredible amount of anxiety in addition to what's considered normal. There are those who go through postpartum depression and in those cases, how they feel is unfathomable by anyone aside from themselves or someone who has gone through the same thing. These people are sometimes barely able to function enough to take care of themselves, let alone a baby. Let alone a dog.

While I was very lucky to have a friend that could help prepare me by sharing her own pet/baby experience (as well as others that provided general support) I think it's safe to say that most women receive pretty black-and-white advice. They're either pushed toward the route of giving up their pets or they are berated for even thinking about it. I believe there is a grey area we can find that is far more helpful: Be understanding of the stresses involved. I'm not saying that everyone who gives away their dog because of a baby is doing the right thing but I do believe that most new moms are very ill-prepared for the emotions they are going to feel after the baby is born (or even during pregnancy). Some of them probably end up making a rash decision based on feelings that are actually temporary. We need to be able to tell our friends or family members that it is completely normal to feel the way they are feeling. They WILL be overwhelmed. They will feel like the worst pet owner ever. They will even have to make decisions that put their pet on the back-burner for a while. Under most circumstances, I believe that pet is still better off at home with its human family than being sent somewhere else. However, at the end of the day only the new mom can decide what she can or can't handle. My hope is that with support, we will see more of them at least make an effort to find balance rather than choosing to immediately give up.

What it comes down to is that if someone is willing and able to make the situation work, we can help them along by being an ear to listen and a source of encouragement. Maybe even offer tips as someone who has been there. Don't make a new mother feel guilty if the most she can manage for a while is to offer her pet its most basic needs. New moms need to know that this is expected and that it won't be like this forever. (In my case, I've needed to hear this over and over again). And if a new mother decides that she can't handle it, there's not much more we can do aside from offer advice on finding a better home that doesn't involve dumping the pet at a shelter.

For me, things are settling down very slowly but surely. Every day presents its own challenges and as I tackle each one I learn something new that I hope to eventually share with others. This is easily one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life, but it is well worth it. And I feel that eventually I'll find a balance that will keep everyone in my family content. I've been informed that as soon as that happens Sophia will learn to crawl and we'll have to do it all over again. :)

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