Have I completely undermined my ethos by asking you to imagine my dog calls me anything? Here’s the deal.
I became a dog person in my early 30s when my then-boyfriend now-husband introduced his puppy to me. When I moved to New Mexico a year later, I adopted my own pup, Maddie, with the idea that she’d be my companion. She was special in that way a needy border collie can be–loving, attentive, but a bit of a pain in the ass at times with her clingy affection. I called her my baby, and in our pretend conversations–hey, we lived alone, and I’m a chatterbox–she called me Mama.
That was when I still toyed with the notion that Neal and I might have kids together. Many women will tell you that once you’ve adapted life around your dog’s schedule, it isn’t that much of a stretch to adapt to a kid’s schedule. It seemed like we were rehearsing for parenthood.
Two years ago, Maddie died suddenly, and I’m not ashamed to say that I miss her every single day. What I wouldn’t give to have her tripping me up with her anticipation of where I’d move next. Losing her was the end of an era for me, not just because she was part of my great graduate school-living-across-the-country adventure. Not just because she was there when Neal and I got married. Not just because she gave me comfort when I wrestled with the decision about having kids.
I lost her and at about the same time, lost the impetus to have kids. Health issues unrelated to fertility caused us to say no to kids. The dogs would be the creatures to receive our parental affection.
A month after losing Maddie, we adopted a malnourished Siberian husky, Oskar. He’s stop-you-in-your-tracks handsome. He requires a lot of exercise and leadership, and I’ve enjoyed providing both to him. I’ve helped him build his strength and learn to be a good pack member.
But when we started to have pretend conversations, when he first needed a way to address me, I couldn’t bear to have him call me Mama. I’m not a Mama, and even though there are days when I would give up whatever is precious to me that day to have a kid, most days I am just fine with my decision.
A dog has got to call his human something, though. So Oskar calls me Lady with Thumbs, Keeper of the Kibble, Warden of the Door, Scolder of Bears. These are the things I imagine he admires in me. He’s not clingy the way Maddie was; he’s a cool customer, this one. He knows I’m not his Mama.
When outsiders refer to me as Mama in reference to my dogs, I feel an agitation I never used to. The possibility of becoming a mother is gone, by my choice. I don’t pretend that the care I give my dogs compares to the care a mother gives her children. I don’t pretend that the responsibilities are in any way equal. I don’t want to be perceived, as I fear I sometimes am, as a woman who believes she knows about motherhood because she cares for dogs. And my heart can’t take pretending these precious pups, with me too short a time, are my children.
So I am Lady. And I’m happy in this role. I think Oskar agrees.