Friday, January 10, 2014

A Dog Would Be Easier, But I Still Choose Children

Like most parents, there have been times in my life when I've struggled to understand couples who choose not to have children.

Of course, with previously poor picks in husbands, there were times when the only reason I could see to be married was to to produce a child within bounds that my family found acceptable. Once I found a true partner, I came closer to understanding the choice some people make to remain childless. In fact, there were times when I could find the same tinge of envy they might feel (or not) when looking at someone else's baby's pictures.

Those little voices that whisper in our minds about different choices we might have made often chose different sides of the debate.

One little voice might envy them their ability to travel, to decorate without worrying about how fragile or sharp an object might be, to have time to explore their hobbies, to sleep at night without worrying about a child's needs, not having to worry about someone else's future.

Another voice would remind me of the things they are missing: a child's sticky fingers wrapped around my own, smearing sunscreen on fat baby wrinkles, listening to a little one breathe at night, watching a child with my eyes perform at a band concert or walk across a graduation stage, seeing a person who grew inside me fall in love, get married, and produce little people of her own.

Regardless of those voices, I know I chose the path I sought without any regard for all the pitfalls. Even knowing where it has taken me, I would not go back and undo my decisions. Although the family I have will always have a piece missing now, the pieces that remain bring me enough joy to offset the pain.

At the same time, when accepting condolences from childless couples who instead have dogs, I've had to admit that the dogs are easier. That just as there has always been that little voice envying childless couples their freedoms, a little voice says "Hey, you love dogs. Wouldn't it have been easier to have dogs instead?"

Dogs, for those of us who truly love them, are much like little (or not so little) four-legged, non-vocal, furry children. For many people they become surrogate children when the human children move away from home. We lavish them with love, share our homes, praise their accomplishments and care for them in many ways like children.

But while we have to worry about illnesses and accidents and know that we can expect to outlive them, we're spared many of the responsibilities and pains that come with children.

We don't have to worry about their friends. Heck, we control who they hang out with in ways we can never control our children once they reach a certain age. Peer pressure and the desire to have the right clothes and toys means nothing to our dogs. Clothes are generally unwelcome and toys just a bonus. No need to plan ahead for college or to worry about them moving back into a nest we had grown used to having empty because they aren't going to leave home.

We can prevent unwanted pregnancies. A quick trip to the vet and they won't even have a sex drive, let alone out of control hormones. (Humping totally aside.) No awkward conversations about natural urges or birth control either.

We don't have to worry about their success or failure in the world. Their world is pretty much our home and a little bit of socialization and training can assure that they succeed. There are no jobs, bad influences, broken hearts, drugs, depression and failures to hurt them. All they have to do is listen to us and we can assure their lives are good.

Yes, there is heartache. When they are sick, no matter how old they are, they cannot tell you what really hurts and a good diagnosis and proper treatment are up to your vet. Managing a chronic condition is entirely up to you as they won't help take care of a bad leg or back.

Then there is the ultimate pet owner's heartache of making the decision to help a pet out of this life. I've made that decision too many times and know I'll do it again. I've sat holding animals I've loved for their entire life or even for a portion of it, letting them feel my hands and smell my scent as I told them I loved them while a veterinarian administered a fatal dose of medication. I've also had a dog die unexpectedly while undergoing treatment, and just knowing I wasn't there for her made it even worse.

Yet that pain, multiplied 100 times over 100 days doesn't touch losing a child.

When I've lost a dog, I've been able to go out and get another. No, they're not a replacement, but in a few months they begin to fill up the blank spaces in my life where the other dog lived. It's the natural course for loving a dog. Last May I had to help my Jack Russell Al out of this life when a sudden cancer overwhelmed his body. I held him in my arms while he breathed his last and brought him home and laid him to rest. A few weeks later I rescued another dog and Willie, while far from being Al, means there isn't a blank space where I'm used to seeing him.

There are no replacement children to be had. I can't go out and find one who looks about the same and bring him home. Even if I could, if there was some way to find that mother-son connection again, I'd face the same painful gamble that his choices wouldn't be good and his life not turn out the way he and I would have wanted.

There would still be the possibility that we don't admit to ourselves as parents, but accept the day we bring home a dog, that one day I'd be standing beside another grave.

No, I don't really wish I'd never had children. Or stopped at one and got a dog.

The challenges and heartache included, I've found parenting and grandparenting to be my choice and the choice, even if the clock were turned back and I had foreknowledge, that I would make again.

But for those who have made different choices, I will admit that sometimes I feel a bit of envy. If other choices would have made me just as happy, I could have been spared this pain.

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