I heard Kirstie Alley say something wise once. (I know, unlikely beginning...). I think she was speaking to Oprah about the way that people can pretend to share your interests and values early on in a relationship ("Oh, I love dogs too!"), but she's learned that it's actually pretty easy to tell whether they're telling the truth or not.
If you love dogs, you have dogs, she says. If you love to cook, you cook. If you really love kids, you've got some kids (infertility being an obvious reason that this might not always be true).
I've been thinking of this recently as my kids have become more interested in the idea of having a pet, and we've given them all the reasons that we won't get one -- not enough space, too great an expense, too much mess for me to clean up, too much responsibility for them at such a young age. And it made me realize, I am not a dog lover. A dog liker, yes. I can scratch ears and rub tummies with the best of them. But if I were truly a dog lover, I would have a dog by now. I know lots of people with less money, less space and/or younger children, and they have dogs. One friend in particular comes to mind, who lives in a tw0-bedroom yardless apartment with her husband, daughter, and two dogs, one of which is a German Shepherd.
Yesterday I was on a walk with one of my friends and we ran into a group of retirees that, among them, had at least half a dozen little white poofy dogs on leashes.
"Look, it's a little white poodle convention," I exclaimed to my daughter. One of the women turned the stink eye upon me and said, "There are no white poodles here."
"Oh," I said brightly, trying not to be intimidated by the stink eye, and maintain my light, neighborly tone. "What kinds of dogs are these?"
"These are Bichon Frises and Maltese," she said. I recognized the steely, measured tone in her voice. It was the same tone I used to use when people would point to my infant daughter, dressed all in pink, and ask me how old my son was. "She is six months old," I would reply.
Okay, it seems a little silly to me that my mistaking her dog's breed would elicit the same irritation I felt at a person mistaking my baby's gender. But that's because I am a baby -- and not a dog -- lover. Recently a childless friend's beautiful Golden Retriever startled me by licking me in my open mouth. I'm talking tongue to tongue contact here. I was slightly horrified. But the Golden's owner remarked, without a trace of irony, that at least it wasn't as gross as if my child had licked me in the mouth.
Now, my children have actually puked into my mouth. They have peed and pooped on me. My friends' kids have peed and pooped on me. My nieces have spit up on my good clothes more times than I can count. It didn't bother me nearly as much as that canine French kiss. In the reverse, my friend would be totally grossed out by sitting on my mac-and-cheese-smeared sofa even though he doesn't mind at all that he sits daily in dog hair. Isn't that interesting?
Recently I was chatting up one of the three year old boys who attends daycare in the house across the sidewalk from me, when my neighbor said, "You really love children, don't you?"
Hmm. It took me by surprise, because I had had a rough day, and at the moment didn't really like my children very much. But of course, he's absolutely right. Even when I was a child, I loved any kid smaller than me. I have cousins who were born when I was a teenager and I couldn't get enough of them. At my MOPS group, people are always making fun of me because I carry around other women's newborn babies all the time.
I've thought of both my neighbor's and Kirstie's comments a lot since. I really do love children. That's why I had some. Even though I was 26 and living in a yardless two-bedroom apartment, and I knew (at least partially) that kids would be expensive, messy and a huge responsibility -- way more than a dog -- I got pregnant on purpose! It's an obvious but profound thought to reflect on during the days when I'm tired of folding tiny pink clothes, sweeping up Cheerios or exasperated as I drag a writhing toddler across the street for school pick-up in 89-degree heat.
During the latter scenario, I've seen childless dog owners look at me in bewilderment, the way I have often looked at them when I see them pick up loose puppy stool in a blue plastic bag with their hand (their hand!!!). But on reflection, I see that we are really the same. We do it all for love.