My partner has a dog, I’m trying to learn how to love him

bowl of dog food with paws next to it

By Lauren Apfel
@laurenapfel

I have always believed, for the most part, that people can be divided into two types: night owls, morning larks; feelers, thinkers; inbox zero; inbox 32,451. And then there are those of us who are pet owners and those of us who, well…aren’t.

When my partner bought her dog to live with us during the pandemic and I, something of a neat freak and maybe even a control freak too, began the process of coming to terms with my hairy and four-legged new normal, I expressed concern to friends. To prove the binary, half of them were appalled by the idea of a dog in the house. The other half were appalled by my reluctance.

We survived the long months of lockdown with the dog in residence. I leaned into it and turned a blind eye, largely, to the countless number of hairs that fell from dear Alfie’s body like leaves in a robust autumn wind. To the random barking. To the inscrutable stares from the garden door, that might have meant he wanted in, but also might have meant he wanted to stay out. During that time, there were seven of us to care for him, including my partner’s teenage daughter, it was all hands on deck. Now my partner has moved around the corner and she’s away for a few days and I am dog-sitting Alfie—all by myself.

Pet parenthood, it turns out, does not come naturally to me.

I was raised with pets. We had animals in our lives, in our beds, from the earliest days. The cat was only shooed out of my sister’s crib when its fleas were found dancing on her little baby body. We joke now that my mom loves her dogs more than she loves us, that kind of joke with the hard-edged nugget of truth lodged firmly inside. My mom is bewildered—and more than a little disappointed—that none of her three children has ended up with a pet. 

I liked the dogs we had when I was growing up well enough, especially our miniature dachshund, Strudel, but I never had proper responsibility for them and as I got older I developed a rather strong aversion to pet hair. When I had my own kids, one after the other after the other, I cleaned up the shit and the puke and the spilled milk with little joy but little fanfare either, and over time they grew out of it. That’s the thing about kids: most of them aren’t helpless forever. I wasn’t a baby person, I took no pride in deciphering cries, the way I take no pride in deciphering barks. I began to enjoy my children so much more when they morphed from bundles of physical needs into more sophisticated, verbal beings who could articulate, in actual words, what they wanted in a given moment. 

My partner and I, however, have very different child/pet rearing inclinations. It’s funny to witness this play out so late in the game, we never saw each other as new mothers, how each of us handled the early chaos of baby- and toddler-hood. She’s laid back, Alfie has no schedule to speak of. No hard and fast rules. Sometimes he can sleep in the bed, sometimes not. Sometimes he is fed food from our plates, sometimes not. Sometimes the cat is allowed to prance insouciantly across the dining room table, sometimes not.

With my own kids, I believed consistency is queen. Perhaps I had to embrace such an approach with four kids and twins to boot, and this is why they were all raised to the steady beat of routines and boundaries. I imagine if I ever had a pet, the same would hold true, the way I imagine my partner was laissez-faire about her daughter’s infant sleep schedule.

I’ve come into my step-dog’s life at a point where he is fully-formed in his habits. You know the deal about old dogs and new tricks. I’ve come into my step-daughter’s life at a similarly fixed point and it’s an intriguing experience to take on responsibility for somebody you haven’t had formative input into raising, who hasn’t been exposed from the beginning to your values, your priorities. Be it a dog or a child. You learn to care for them without the intimacy born of so many years spent learning and shaping each other. It generates a different kind of relationship, for sure. 

Would I embrace the care of my own dog with more gusto? Tolerate its mess, its foibles, bend to its whims, the way I do, inevitably, with my own kids from time to time? Or would my dog be a different beast by virtue of the fact that it was mine? Or perhaps some people, to return to the binary, are just not wired to love animals enough, to derive enough pleasure from them, to compensate for the responsibility they entail.

My children are away this week with their father. In an alternative world, I would be deliciously free from the weight of caring for any living thing other than myself. I am thrilled the four of them are past the stage where they need me to feed, water, walk, and wipe them. It’s been a long time coming. But I love my partner—my night owl, feeler, inbox 32,451 partner—and of course I want to love the creatures she does. So here I am throwing kibble to Alfie, one piece at a time, because it’s the only way I seem to be able to get him to eat anything, as I count down the hours until his other mother comes home.

Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She is a non-pet-owner, a morning lark, a thinker, and an inbox zero type of person. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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