A less good dog mom

In 2007, one year into our marriage, my husband and I adopted a dog. She was a one-year-old, chocolate lab. We picked her up in a town north of Davis, California, where she was being fostered pending adoption. She spent most of her time outside in an old horse corral of red dirt. When her foster dad brought her inside, she immediately climbed onto the couch to cuddle with her blue blanket. A blue electric blanket, for obvious reasons. He told us, accurately, that she was very sweet, easy going, and never barked. He also told us she would eat anything, except eggs. This was a lie. She ate eggs.

We drove the hour or so back to Oakland with Sadie in the backseat, cuddled up with my best girl, Stefanie. Except at that point, Sadie wasn’t Sadie. She was Angel. And since that was not happening, the three of us spent the drive rattling off all the people/dog names we could think of until Sadie, and that was it. (We also gave her a middle name, Apples, which was what my husband had wanted to name his childhood dog but had been outvoted).

We arrived home with a new dog and a backseat completely covered in red dirt. I refused to let Sadie inside her new house. Instead, we walked her around to the backyard and gave her the most gloriously transformative dog bath ever. Rivulets of red dirt covered the green grass and when she coughed little puffs of it escaped her mouth. Sadie turned about five shades darker during the course of that bath. She was a dark chocolate chocolate, like 72 percent cacao.

At first, since we didn’t know much about Sadie except that she used an electric blanket and didn’t eat eggs (allegedly), we decided not to give her free run of the house when we were gone during the day. Instead, we would pen her in the kitchen with access to the backyard through a dog door. This idea worked better in our heads. After Sadie had eaten through a variety of impediments, including the backdoor, a soft crate, and part of a bookshelf, we decided to just let her have the house. Apart from her trying to bury a rawhide bone in the leather couch, this proved to be the better approach.

At the time we adopted Sadie, Matt was in business school and I was working obscene hours at a large law firm. I took her running with me in the morning. Matt checked in on her during the day. I did evening walk. Etc. We also hired our landlord’s son to walk her once, sometimes twice, a day. We were extremely eager first time dog parents.

One night, Matt had to travel for a business school competition, I had to work later than anticipated, and I couldn’t uber/tinder/amazon services someone to walk my dog because 2007, so Sadie had to wait. And she did. While slowly eating through three hardcover books, toppling the coat rack, and chewing the foam core of Matt’s bike helmet into teeny-tiny bits. She missed us.

Having no human babies, I was very enthusiastic about caring for and educating my dog baby. I did extensive food-related research and sampling before deciding on the perfect organic, easily digestible, hipster-approved brand of chicken and rice dry dog food. Leather leash, check. Charming designer collar (chocolate cupcakes on a pink background), check. Engraved name tag, check. Ridiculously expensive poofy circle bed with bolster, check. You see where I’m going here.

As for the training, I read many, many books about how to be my dog’s best friend, which I ultimately boiled down to walking around the neighborthood feeding her hotdog bits as she sat before crossing each intersection. Then, I got distracted and, basically, the sitting at corners thing became the only properly-trained dog behavior in her repotiore.

Oh, and because we were worried about her being lonely, we started taking her to doggy daycare two days a week. Like you do when you have no children and time to transport a dog across town multiple times a week. They gave her a name tag: Sadie B. Because there was another Sadie in her class.

The daycare had cameras set up so you could watch your dog and make sure she was doing okay and making friends and taking good naps. The picture quality wasn’t great but I could always tell which dog was Sadie B. because she would spend most of the day right by the gate, hopping, checking to see if we had arrived for pick-up.

Sadie’s love of hopping was exceeded only by her love of hopping into water. She loved the bay. She loved her kiddie pool in the backyard (I know). Perhaps most of all, she loved the disgusting, homemade coy pond in the yard nextdoor to Matt’s grandparent’s house in Sacramento. Wet dog plus dirt plus fish equals all the windows down all the way home.

After two years in Oakland, we moved to Denver. I flew out after a crazy month of trial work, which included me sitting on a box in our empty dining room furiously typing on my laptop while the movers carried our things out to the truck. Matt and Sadie, on the other hand, took a leisurely drive cross-country, making multiple river-adjacent stops along the way so she could swim. Did I mention my husband was her favorite parent? Which worked out, as I soon became the favorite parent of our first human child because I am the mom. I also became a less good dog mom after our son was born.

Motherhood freaked me the fuck out. I had heard of postpartum depression, but nobody mentioned postpartum anxiety, which would have helpfully explained why I was spending naptime checking the expiration dates on and then cleaning all of the cans in our pantry. I put “empty the dishwasher” on my to-do list and then panicked a little about it. Also: nearly dying whenever Henry touched a grocery cart handle or restaurant high chair; nursing only in the nursing chair, with the nursing pillow, at the nursing time (I would walk away mid-conversation to make this happen); buying multiple weather-related carseat covers appropriate for Alaska; vacuuming everyday; preferring never to leave the house; and crying. Crying all the time.

I spent five months on maternity leave. Sadie was there through all of it and I am so ashamed that she often bore the brunt of my fear. I started running again too soon after having Henry and would take Sadie with us. Me, the baby, the stroller, the dog. Running. It was so plainly a terrible idea and yet, when the inevitable happened — Sadie pulled, I staggered, the stroller tipped, and Henry fell — I let loose all of my guilt and fear and rage at that fear on Sadie. As it if were her fault, being a dog who pulls at a leash.

I yelled when she made a mess because I did not have cleaning up Sadie’s mess within the scope of my abilities most days. I put her outside. I told her to go, to get away from me. I told her she was a bad dog.

But she wasn’t a bad dog. She was such a good, sweet older sister to Henry. One of my all time favorite moments — which should have set off red flares of anxiety — was when Henry was eating one of his first solid foods, a mum-mum, and he shared it with Sadie. One slobbery bite for Henry, one slobbery bite for Sadie. And so forth. The video of this on my phone is shaky because I could not not laugh. And Sadie only ever snapped at baby Henry once, when he pulled her whiskers, which I thought was totally justified and scolded Henry, not her, for what had happened. We taught Henry to give Sadie gentle touches, and she dutifully let herself be gently touched.

Gentle touches for Sadie.

We had our lovely moments. But not enough, not nearly enough. And then the twins were born.

Having twins blew me apart, as extensively chronicled in this blog, such that even now, almost four years later, I am still picking up my pieces and fitting them back together. I lost my mind and with it my moral compass. Apart from my children and my marriage, I wanted to burn it all down, and some days nothing seemed worth saving, least of all myself, least of all my dog. My dog who seemed to do nothing but decimate our lovely wooden interiors and puke on the carpet. My dog who brazenly stole food from my toddler’s hand as it was moving towards his mouth. My dog who needed to be fed, walked, let outside in the middle of the night, and taken to the vet to have her teeth cleaned. She was like the fourth child when I had wanted only two. I seethed at her.

Sadie asked less of me than anyone else and yet I resented her the most. Except when I didn’t. Except when I would catch myself about to point and yell and say bad dog and would instead crumple to the floor, wrap my arms around her neck, and whisper cry my apologies into her ear. I’m so sorry, Sadie. You are such a good girl. Such a good girl. And she would nuzzle right back, as if to say none of the horrible things I had done made me less worthy of her love.

As the kids got older, things got better and better between us. They could never be what they were, with the hotdog bits and weekend outings to the bay just to see how big of a stick she could carry back to shore, but I tried to love her as best I could no matter how many bagels she stole from the breakfast table. I walked her, brushed her, and let the kids feed her too many treats. I made sure she had all of her check ups. I scratched her just right behind her ears. I helped her get up when she was stiff after a nap. I placed and replaced the carpet strips on the back stairs so she wouldn’t slip going outside.

About a year ago, Sadie developed a fatty tumor on her right hind leg. Nothing to get excited about. But it kept growing and eventually the vet recommended we have it removed, just in case. They came to do bloodwork on a Monday and she threw up. Labs came back normal and surgery was set for Wednesday. She threw up that morning, surgery was canceled, and she stopped eating. Friday’s ultrasound found cancer in her liver and spleen. I drove to meet my husband at the hospital, shaking with grief, tears and snot streaming down my face, making no effort to wipe them away.

We spent about 30 minutes with her before ringing the little button to let the doctor know we were ready even though we weren’t ready at all. She came. She explained what she was going to do with the white vial and then the pink. My husband couldn’t stay. He had loved her best of all and was too heartbroken to be in that room at the end. I stayed.

I stayed because I am her person and you need your person when it is time. I held her close and we touched noses as if to say I’m sorry and I forgive you and I love you and I will miss you. Then, she was gone. I may have been a less good dog mom after becoming a human mom but I was there for her. I loved her. Always.

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