Having a dog again after years without one has brought up many of the same emotions I had as a new mother. There's excitement in watching him learn. There's joy in the moments when his playfulness comes out. But there's also frustration when he behaves in a way I didn't expect. You'd think I would find these feelings, as a mid-lifer rather than a young parent, more funny than anxiety-inducing.
You would be wrong.
When Sirius chews on my computer wire as I'm trying to write, pokes me in the back of the leg with his toy while I'm walking with a cup of hot coffee, or climbs up on the furniture to look out the window, I use the commands I know he understands.
"Drop it. That's not for you."
But when he seemingly ignores me or gets even more persistent, I question my ability as a dog owner.
He recognizes the words. He knows what they mean. Why, then, does he sometimes obey and other times not? I mentally review our morning. We've walked. We've played. He pooped. He's been fed. Now he should be lying down so I can work. So what's the problem? What am I missing?
I'm not saying every new pet owner would feel the same as I do. In fact, I think the anxiety stems from my philosophy about caring for a dependent. As a mother, like many expectant mothers, I had read all the books and prepared as best as I could. And like many new mothers, I found all that preparation helped only a tiny bit.
Why isn't the baby sleeping? Why does he cry so much? Is he sick? In pain? Hungry? Suffering in some invisible way I can't see? I've done everything I'm supposed to do. Why isn't it enough?
What am I doing wrong?
Did I consider the fact that this was a new creature in my house and the world, one who was learning how to be a part of our family, how to express himself and understand us at the same time? No. As a new mother, I believed the answer to all these questions was that I was inadequate.
But why? Why do so many mothers feel this overwhelming sense of inadequacy, failure and guilt? I don't think it's hormones, sleep-deprivation or lack of knowledge. Nor do I think it's because of social media, parenting magazines or random strangers on the street offering unsolicited advice.
I think it's because we care.
We care so much about the well-being and happiness of this new life in our home, we are so devoted to its health and ability to thrive, that it is not merely a job. Yes, it's work. A lot of work. But it's work that matters. We have a desire to nurture, teach, comfort and help this baby blossom. We want him to grow up and make the world as wonderful as he's made our lives.
Wrongly, we think that if we do everything we're told we're supposed to do, the baby (or in my case, new dog) will sleep well, eat well, suffer minimally and be generally happy all the time. Perhaps it's because we haven't learned to think of this new life as an individual with wants and needs it can't yet fully articulate or express. Or perhaps we underestimate just how complex the role of caretaker truly is.
As a mother, this underestimation turned out to be a good thing for me. Did that naïveté drive my anxiety? Probably. But it's also what kept me going each day, mulling the questions in my mind and looking for new potential solutions. It's what gave me the courage to keep trying, even when I felt like I was failing. It's what forced me to listen to my baby tell me what he needed, rather than insisting he take what I was offering because I'd been told it should be enough.
All change is uncomfortable. Without that anxiety, I don't think I would have grown as much as I did. Listening to the needs of my kids made me question what I could do differently, or better. It made me a more empathetic person, and a more critical thinker. It also helped me realize what I could accomplish when I really focused on hearing them, instead of just going through the motions. It convinced me that no one is a failure if they are willing to keep trying.
Now, in mid-life, Sirius has rekindled all of those feelings of inadequacy in me. Sure, I could do without the anxiety this new dynamic has brought on. But what it tells me is that I'm not done growing. I may be doing it wrong. But Sirius seems happy to help teach me for as long as I'm willing to keep trying.
It started me thinking. What if everyone cared enough to try to understand, not just babies and dogs, but each other? What if we started listening when others tell us what they need from us, instead of just giving them what we've always given them?
As my kids taught me, respect means letting others be heard. Caring means ensuring their needs get met. We all deserve that. But it will only happen if we, and others, are willing to listen and learn.