Pet Peeves

By Jennifer Mendelsohn



My own children aside, I am—how shall we say?—not so good with the care of living things.

Take plants, for instance. I’ve always been genuinely mystified by the way some people can tease something beautiful and alive out of nothing more than a mound of dirt. I’ve never had any such luck making anything in the garden thrive. Houseplants begin to wither the moment they cross my threshold.

And while it is a nearly radioactive confession at a time when books about the life-changing, soul-enhancing power of dog ownership regularly top the best-seller list, I’ll just go ahead and say it:
I’ve never been much of an animal person.

We had cats growing up and I liked them fine, despite being slightly traumatized by a bad scratching when I was 6 or 7. Sure, I had the requisite Weekly Reader posters of painfully cute baskets full of kittens festooning the walls of my childhood bedroom. And yes, I cried buckets when our last cat, Figaro, met an untimely end from feline leukemia.

But whatever that thing is that makes animals really resonate with certain people, that really touches them somewhere deep, deep inside? Yeah. I’ve never had that. At all.

I have such a paralyzing fish phobia that I’ve lived in Baltimore for 12 years and have never once stepped foot inside the National Aquarium. That magical thing that supposedly draws little girls to horses? Never happened to me. I never wanted to take home the class gerbil or rescue a bird with a broken wing. Never cried over the treatment of seals.

And dogs? I’ve always been more wary of them than anything, in large part because my father had been bitten by a neighborhood stray as a little boy, forcing him to endure a series of painful rabies shots. Wherever we went as a family, dogs were always dutifully whisked away in deference to my father’s apprehension. Seeing your otherwise unflappable dad be so obviously rattled has a way of staying with you.

One of my childhood best friends had a ferocious sheepdog that couldn’t be around anyone unfamiliar. I remember watching from a safe distance as her father would struggle to put him in the basement whenever I came over to play.  He would bark furiously and writhe like a bucking racehorse being forced into the starting gate. Why would you choose to have such a thing in your house? ON PURPOSE? I wondered.

And then there were my brother Eric’s two cats, Bruno and Ivan. To say they were eccentric wouldn’t quite be doing them justice. I distinctly remember the few times I was left alone in his tiny New York City apartment with them. It’s not that I was afraid of them because, well, I’m an adult human being and they were two…cats. But it always made me uneasy to be with them. In retrospect, I think that was because I didn’t quite know what to expect, didn’t instinctively know the parameters. Are they allowed to jump on the windowsill like that or is that dangerous? Are they allowed to eat plant leaves? Why was Bruno making that noise? Is that normal? Am I supposed to be doing something? What if they get out? And so on and so on.

In one of those paradigm-changing life epiphanies, it recently dawned on me: it was that very feeling—that left-alone-with-erratic-cats feeling—that I found so difficult about the baby stage with my children. I never quite felt like I had a clear sense of the parameters. They would do things—in Alec’s case, quite literally eat plant leaves—and I would perpetually be on edge. Is that supposed to happen? Is that bad? Did I just scar them for life? Hungry? Tired? Sick? Cold? Diaper?

However trying it was, that phase is now mercifully long behind us. My boys are 6 and 9, happily ensconced in elementary school. The parameters have become much clearer. They tell me when they’re hungry and excuse themselves when they need to use the bathroom. They don’t eat plant leaves any more that I know of. They can actually play unsupervised for hours. So why do I bring all this up now?

Because, naturally, they want a dog. Oh no, but they reeeeeeeaaally want a dog, you see. They neeeeed a dog.

And here I sit, squarely on the line between “That is really just beyond my comfort zone” and “This is one of those times I should put aside what I want for the good of my children.” (Noted for the record: I stifled my substantial discomfort and took care of two carnival goldfish for three whole days before they met their untimely ends.)

As much as my boys swear on a stack of Bibles they will take care of said dog, who are we kidding? I know full well it will be me out there walking Fido in blizzards and rainstorms, adding vet appointments and Petco missions onto the comically overloaded plates I already spin.

I know, I know, the dog will change me. I’ll fall in love. My Grinchy, dog-resisting heart will grow three sizes. It will be the best thing we’ve ever done for our family. But I’m not ashamed to say I’m scared. Scared that just when I’ve finally gotten a semblance of control back over the chaos of life with two small kids, it will be wrested away again, this time by a baby with four legs and fur.

And so our putative dog beckons, like a mythical challenge. Will I force myself to master a new set of unfamiliar parameters and embrace life as a dog person? I’ve countered with the offer of a cat. I’m hoping we can meet in the middle.

Jennifer Mendelsohn lives in Mount Washington with her husband and their two boys. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, People, Slate and USA Weekend. She also serves as one of Us Weekly’s Fashion Police “Top Cops.”

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