Published on March 19th, 2019 | by Abby Walthausen0
A Young Dog, an Old Dog, a Nursing Child
The night before my first child’s due date, my dog went missing. It was the Fourth of July, and even in my great girth my husband and I had decided to throw a barbeque for our friends and my brother who’d come in from out of town. We had only moved to Los Angeles a couple of months before and hadn’t expected the degree of celebration that would be detonating in the streets. Kiwi, an 8 pound dachshund, was terrified of the fireworks. And she was right — our block sounded like a war zone. She hid in the closet and behind the toilet, and at the end of the night, as the last guests shuffled out through the gate and I was more than ready to put my swollen feet up, my brother asked where Kiwi was. There was no trace of her in the apartment.
My husband and I went to some dark places that night, physically and emotionally. The topography of our canyon neighborhood was new to us and we ran up and down hills, into people’s backyards, through alleys. The hunt was something like a crash course in SoCal urban wildlife. Well-meaning neighbors told us to watch out for coyotes, as if we could predator-proof a dog we couldn’t find. Every time a bush rustled, we crouched and peered into the deep, dark foliage, but found only an endless supply of restless skunks.
Waddling through the neighborhood with a flashlight, I beat myself up from every angle. Kiwi’s disappearance seemed like the clearest possible sign that I was unfit for parenthood. My child would wander off too! He would slip out through the gate on the tail of drunken revelers and be raised by skunks, or worse! I tried to imagine myself in the near future, over the unimaginable hump of labor, holding my newborn baby with mind elsewhere, fixated on the gory end poor Kiwi was probably meeting that night. I could not imagine focusing on anything else beyond my need to comfort Kiwi and hold the poor helpless creature close.
The party that we’d thrown felt now like an exercise in pure vanity. I was tired and bloated, I couldn’t drink, few foods agreed with me, but somehow gathering people together for a big barbeque had seemed so important. Sure I wanted to feed friends and enjoy their company, but I also needed them to have one last look at me, see how pregnant I was and how calmly and with what a sense of humor I was about to give my life over to another being. I wanted to prove that I would host a party now, at the bitter end of life as I knew it, and that later, in the future unknown, it would still be me hosting. I imagined I was making a public oath that my husband and I would not collapse into the huddle of the nuclear family, that there was nothing claustrophobic in our nesting. But with all this effort to prove I would remain more than a caregiver, the tiny dog, my charge whose fear I’d ignored, got lost in the shuffle.
It was past 3 am, after the signs had been taped up and the Craigslist ads posted, when Kiwi reappeared on our couch. We still have no idea what happened or where she hid through those fraught hours. There was a happy ending, but when the baby was born — a whole ten days after his due date — I still had some guilt brewing. I was afraid Kiwi would feel ignored. In fact, I was expecting some full-on Lady and the Tramp-style heartbreak from her, or at least a little moping.
Kiwi did not exhibit the jealousy I’d anticipated. Instead, she was interested in nothing so much as gathering things saturated with breastmilk (burp cloths, onesies, shirts, the couch cushions — the house was full of dampened things), bringing them to her bed, and curling the purloined textiles into a hump-able heap. She could have cared less about the new family member himself, wasn’t even jealous of the attention diverted from her to baby. What absorbed her was the spectacle — the sounds, the smells, the taste — of mother and child mammaling before her. She had put it all together — the infant, the suckling — and from it grew this desperate desire for motherhood. The impulse to create her own offspring consumed her. The poor spayed creature lapped up the spilled breast milk and rubbed herself raw.
Kiwi was the first dog I ever adopted young. She was not a puppy when we brought her home from the shelter, but she acted like one, and she brought new youth to my older dog, Gus. He was 8 when we adopted him, 10 when we added Kiwi, and 13 at the birth of our son, far too old and blind to wonder about the new addition to the family or to notice anything changed in the ritual of the household. He had grown nocturnal with old age. Though he kept a schedule which paralleled the baby’s, the synchrony did not bring him new youth. Absorbed in the baby as I was, my husband took over care of the dogs. But no extra TLC, only time, dissuaded Kiwi from her reproductive monomania.
As the initial shock of the hormones that accompanied me and my son home from the hospital wore off, Kiwi calmed and returned to the role of a little sidekick, instead of sex-fiend ostentatious about her desire to conceive puppies. Confusing as all that humping was, I was charmed by Kiwi’s maternal frenzy, or perhaps even schooled by it in the same way her 3 am disappearance awakened me to some of the most primal parts of mothering an infant. If Kiwi’s behaviors dramatized the magnetic nature of the era when I nursed my son, an era during which her envy (not of my son, but of me) was well-deserved, it was my other dog, Gus, whose presence months later would help me process the end of that close bond I formed with my suckling child.
During my pregnancy, I had taken many questionnaires screening for postpartum depression. I had heard other women’s stories and braced myself. So I was delighted when, in the first weeks and months after giving birth, I found myself happier than I’d ever been. This great surge of joy made perfect sense once it happened. I moved through my apartment with a beautiful new child, all my own, attached cozily to my body. I was getting to know a great new love. The sleep deprivation had the lovely feel of a holiday vigil, as though this schedule, so alien and sequestered, was an occult re-purposing of time during which I was preparing something beautiful and exciting to unleash upon the world. Though I am an Atheist and haven’t believed in a virgin birth or an immaculate conception since my childhood, the Christmas story — its trust, its awe, the packing of people and animals together, the vigil and its nighttime magic — had never moved me more. And as time went on and night and day grew more distinct, I did unleash the child into the world.
My son and I walked Kiwi together. Gus, whose cataracts did not welcome the sunlight and whose hips resisted the stroller’s pace, stayed home to play the lapdog when we returned. I breastfed the child anywhere and everywhere, evoking all sorts of reactions, rarely from men, who looked away, but from women, who congratulated me for having a child or praised me for nursing him openly, for refusing to cover him as he drank. Or from women who reached for something — a sweater in my lap or a blanket in my stroller — to cover the intimacy I was exposing, to tent it in close. I didn’t mind any of the input. Soon enough, the child’s eye wandered from the flesh that was constantly foregrounded to observe these people passing through, or perhaps whatever cars or helicopters navigated the nearest. He learned to eat solid foods and as the months went by the stretches between nursing grew until it was nothing but a private bedtime ritual shared between the two of us long past when it was a nutritional necessity. And still the oxytocin and the prolactin kept flowing through me with a strength I did not account for until they were gone.
When I weaned my son, the shock of emotion was unexpected but also familiar. It felt like grief, but it could not be grief, I told myself. Grandparents, estranged friends, and my husband’s relatives were the only losses I’d suffered before, and they were the type felt by the mind, not the body. I had never lost someone with whom I’d been physically close, a parent or sibling or close friend or lover. But as I searched myself, I realized that this same feeling had indeed come to me before in the aftermath of losing pets. Gus had died just after my son turned one, when the boy was old enough to recognize him but too young to say his name. Another elderly dachshund had passed five years before. Their deaths taught me only a portion of what I know about grief in total, but everything I know about the physical pain of ending a relationship based predominantly on touch, softness, closeness.
Of course, the mind cannot grieve for a healthy, beautiful child who thrives independently from its mother off the varied and bountiful diet of a rich country. The mind bristles upon feeling grief instead of victory against the delicate times of infancy, though the bittersweetness is undeniable. The mind bristles, too, against the wisdom of mourning a dog — 14 years old, thyroid issues, seizure prone, in clear pain. But in the direct aftermath of a pet’s death, it’s that inability to reach for the furry being, pet until we are both soothed, until the hormones let down.
My son now cuddles sometimes, squirms away mostly, drinks whole milk or 2% or whatever is in the fridge. It’s hard to even access that feeling of despair that came those first few days of weaning, when I waited out his bedtime in the bathroom, tears streaming, breasts throbbing, and willed my milk to dry. That visceral emotion was short and unforgiving. I entered motherhood knowing that I was no attachment-type parent ready to breastfeed a roughhousing preschooler, but that knowledge was small compared to the finality of packing away that physical warmth, those druggy animal moments. When I see another woman with her infant now, I do not seek out stray milk or frottage, but the frenzy of my little dog, back when she was forced to live in the humid atmosphere of my milk and maternal love, makes a new kind of sense. She had known all along that being the baby is not the main privilege — that’s reserved for the one who feeds the child and lets it, consciously and with inevitable pain, out of the gate.