Young couples! Newlyweds! Hark, before you visit that dog kennel—you are making a grave mistake, at least if you plan to have a baby. So says Allison Benedikt, an editor at Slate—the undisputed holy land of strongly held, contrarian opinions—in a recent personal essay that has courted the passion and wrath of the animal-loving Internet.
"A friend of mine once told me that before he had a kid, he would have run into a burning building to save his cats," Benedikt relates. "Now that he has a kid, he would happily drown the cats in the bathtub if it would help his son take a longer nap." Then she jokes about killing her beloved puppy and shares her sordid story, which involves neglecting to pay adequate attention to the dog's health issues because she is so caught up in her three young sons:
It’s not that I don’t love my dog. It’s just that I don’t love my dog. And I am not alone. A very nonscientific survey of almost everyone I know who had a dog and then had kids now wishes they had never got the dog. This is a near universal truth, even for parents with just one child, though I have more.
Judging by the 4,000 comments and dozens of tweets (which, in many cases, seem to be hate-shares), Benedikt's piece has touched a nerve. It certainly did for The New Republic's Chloe Schama, a soon-to-be mother who today argued that getting a dog is "the best thing you can do before you have kids." Schama points to the myriad ways her dog reassured her that her husband was ready to tackle the challenge.
The essay certainly resonated with me, too. Not because I love my dog (I do) or because I'm planning to have kids soon (I'm not). Actually, it's because I'm the baby.
Or I was, twenty-something years ago.
In 1985, before they were married—and well before they carved out space in their starter home for a crib—my parents got a yellow lab. They named her Mrs. Cooke, after a sweet old woman who owned a bakery in town. And they loved her, welcoming her in every fashion as their four-legged baby.
"Mrs. Cooke slept on our bed," my dad told me today in an email, though of course I already knew this, "and we took her to family gatherings and functions. We had birthday parties for her, whereby we'd invite other dogs in the neighborhood. We had party hats for the dogs." (My parents have the photo album to prove this, yellowed and torn.) "When we went away on vacations," he added, "we'd call Mrs. Cooke's 'governess' to see how she was doing." Even when she behaved with staggeringly canine abandon—clawing right through a wall and into a neighboring room, in one instance, and chewing up the better part of a couch—she was still the object of their undivided affection.
Then I arrived, the first of three boys, and things speedily changed.
Actually, they changed while I was still in the womb. That was when my mother caught wind of a Lyme disease scare and decided she didn't want deer ticks infiltrating the bed. By the time I was born, Cooke had been comfortably demoted to a dog bed on the bedroom floor. She would no longer receive baths in the bathtub (that was for me) or be photographed in festive birthday regalia (also me) or be welcomed on furniture (me, me, me). And around the time my brother came home from the maternity ward, she was bumped to the kitchen. Then, another baby. "The more kids, the more commotion, the more Cooke was moved further and further away—physically, mentally, emotionally," my dad frankly conceded. Cooke's old age by this point was causing her to leave accidents around the house. So she began sleeping in the garage.
But by this time my parents had moved to a larger house and could afford to heat their garage, and my mom still doled out Cooke's daily epilepsy medication. And that's precisely the point: just because you begin to expend more energy, resources and, yes, affection on the kids doesn't mean you stop loving or caring for the dog. Really, dogs don't demand 24-hour devotion and attention the way newborns do—nor do they need party hats or bubble baths to be happy (it's true!). But they are living creatures, with health problems and regular needs, so you make compromises and find balance, because that's what parenting is. In fact, if you can't find the time to care for your dog—as Benedikt unscrupulously confesses to be true in her case—you make a tough decision and give the dog to someone who can.
Not that I, a mere millennial who hasn't touched a baby since probably 2004, am in any position to lecture you on parenting. So take it from The Atlantic Wire's culture editor, Alexander Nazaryan, a dog-lover and recent dad.
"My wife and I had a dachshund for several years before having a baby," Nazaryan related via email. "Dachshunds are not very compatible with babies, so once our daughter was born, Pookie was exiled to my parents' house in Connecticut. It's sad, of course, to have her far away, but she visits Brooklyn often."
"Plus, she taught us a lot," Nazaryan added. "Mostly about feces-cleaning responsibilities."
Allie Jones, another Wire staffer, shared a sadder story. Her parents had a black lab named Murphy before she was born. "He kept running into me when I was learning to crawl," she explained, "so they gave him to a farm." Surely it's not an easy decision to make—but when you recognize that you aren't in any position to care for your animal, why not think of the thousands out there who are?
Curious for another perspective, I contacted Steve de Eyre, a friend several years older than myself who is in the same position my parents were in some decades ago. He and his wife Emily have had a wonderful lab for six years. They take Lily for long hikes on weekends, snuggle with her on the couch, offer first-class medical care. And now they're expecting their firstborn in October.
But they're not too alarmed by Benedikt's dark tale.
"We’re trying to be proactive with preparing Lily for our son’s arrival," de Eyre wrote me. "We even bought an e-book from Australia that gives you a step-by-step plan on how to prepare your dog for the baby’s arrival. We played through the CD of baby sounds that comes with the book, watching Lily to see how she reacted. True to her (mostly) lab lineage, she basically slept through the whole thing."
Plus, Lily was adopted from a summer camp, so she's well-prepared to socialize with kids. And like Mrs. Cooke, she has matured since the puppy years.
"Lily will undoubtedly get less attention from us after the birth, but at six-years-old she’s already starting to slow down and is often content to spend much of the day sleeping anyway," de Eyre explained. "We’re so attached to her right now that if we were ever at the point where we could no longer satisfactorily care for her, we’d feel an obligation to make arrangements for her to go stay with someone who could. My mother-in-law is a dog whisperer and I’m sure would happily take in one of her 'granddogs' if we needed a break."
But will it really get to that point? What Benedikt neglects to mention is that with some supervision, dogs are great with kids—especially labs. As my mom put it, "the dog usually loses some attention from the adult but gains attention from the kids"—and even as a baby, I adored Mrs. Cooke. My earliest memories are of gazing down at her lovingly from a highchair as she waited patiently for glops of food to fall. I don't know if I ever sobbed harder than I did when my mother told me she had died (I was nine at the time). Sure, my brothers and I were never old enough to shepherd her to the vet or handle her pills, but we were perfectly suited to run her around in the backyard and help her get exercise.
The point, then, is that my parents have been where Benedikt is now—not one kid or two, but three young boys and a dog under the same roof—and, despite banishing Cooke from the bedroom, are still appalled by such flagrant animal neglect. So are my friend Mickey Capper's parents, whose story bears some loose similarities. Before Capper—their oldest—was born, they had a short-haired Chihuahua, who "brought them together."
"My parents have told me that the whole process of caring for the dog in her last hours was an early defining moment in their marriage," Capper told me, echoing Schama's essay. But the dog was bit by a spider and died before the baby was born, so they named the baby after the dog—"Mickey," like the Disney character!—and took it as a sign from God that they wouldn't be able to love a dog while caring for a baby.
I'm kidding—they'd already gotten a new dog.