A few years ago, when my kids were both in elementary school, I noticed a pattern emerging in my social media feeds. Puppies. Everywhere. "Meet the newest member of our family!" my friends would share with delight, bombarding the world with photo after photo of their undeniably adorable new pet.
I quickly did the math—their children were always between the ages of 4 and 8—and realized they had clearly entered the 'I'm Done Having Babies' zone. Their puppy was a baby-replacement of sorts.
Some of them were transparent about their decision not to have more babies, some weren't so sure. One friend said something akin to, "My body wants another baby but my brain doesn't, and apparently my body doesn't know the difference between a baby and a puppy, so...."
For years I had watched one after another succumb to the puppy acquisition stage of this ambivalent new parenting territory, knowing exactly what they were doing and why they were doing it. I almost felt sorry for them. I, at that time, was still firmly planted in the land of the unknown—maybe we weren't quite done yet. No puppy for us! I felt sorry for those poor baby-deprived mamas—their longing was so obvious and the puppy was a clear replacement for the void left behind.
And then, lo and behold, after a year of getting used to the idea—we got a puppy, too. It was suddenly glaringly apparent that these animals were quite useful at filling the newborn hole—I became obsessed with her rhythms and functions, her sleeping and pooping, and I was deliriously excited to see her when I came home from work. I felt comforted and validated every time another mom (they were coming in droves at this point) shared her "new family member" photos on Facebook.
But something unexpected happened during those first weeks of falling in love with my new puppy. As I settled down in my bed to read one evening—a luxury only a mother done with the destruction-prevention-stage of parenting can enjoy—I remembered that my husband wasn't home and my kids were clearly doing an inadequate job of supervising their new "sibling." Resentment flooded me as I heard Winnie yapping downstairs. I heaved myself out of bed, muttering, and grudgingly let the dog outside.
As the weeks went by, I realized I could no longer teach a few classes in the mornings, run to the grocery store, hit yoga class and come home in time to clean up the kitchen before kid pickup. My hours were no longer my own, and after a few years of having adjusted to that perk, it stung. I had to come home within a two to four hour window and let Winnie out of her crate, play with her in the backyard and return her to her crate to pick up the kids.
As excited as I was to see her emerge from her crate, nestle between my legs, circle behind me, nuzzle some more, then trot down the stairs—glancing behind her to make sure I was following (yes, we had a reunion routine)—I felt frustrated that, just like when my children were young and dependent, the obligation fell on me as the default parent who was home more than my husband.
Winnie will not be in her crate for many more months and I will go back to feeling some of the freedom I used to, before she joined our family. I hadn't even realized, preoccupied as I was with the many things I lost as my children grew older, how much I relished my new/old life rhythms.
I missed the smell of their baby clothes, the weight of a child asleep on my body, the sound of those beautiful toddler mispronunciations and the road trip memories that actually weren't all that fun but yet, were still seared into my brain.
I missed it all so much I forgot to notice how much I loved it when my days became my own again. When I could do things like read a novel in bed after dinner was over or sleep for ten blissful hours every weekend morning, knowing my children could reach the cupboard and competently navigate their devices.
It didn't take long before Winnie grew old enough to snuggle up next to me while I read or worked in bed, before she no longer roamed the house looking for mischief like a toddler might. Soon she was able to go hours without needing a bathroom break; soon she settled into our routines and habits; soon my freedom returned.
Years ago, I ran into a mom who used to attend my toddler music classes with her daughter. "How old are the kids?" I asked. "How are you doing?"
She looked genuinely radiant as she proclaimed, "They are 7 and 10 and I have my life back again! I can't believe how happy I am!". I was a bit taken aback that she admitted this longing for independence so openly. And yet for years, I subconsciously clung to her words as a talisman of what would one day be mine—my oldest was not yet 5, my youngest merely a twinkle in my ovaries.
I had been so caught up in the series of microscopic losses that comprise parenthood that I hadn't realized how much I was enjoying my life with older children. It took the adjustment of tending to a new puppy to remind me how much I appreciated what I already had.
I'd expected that my new puppy would fill a baby-shaped hole in my life, but instead, she gently revealed that perhaps, babyhood wasn't all that appealing to me anymore. Our newest family member is the one I never knew I needed, the one who truly ushered in that sense of completeness I had been looking for.