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Puppy Parenthood

In celebration of Blue's first birthday, I'm sharing this love letter to my puppy written last summer when she was three months old.

When my Daniel and I adopted a two-month-old puppy, the honeymoon phase of our relationship slowed to a screeching halt. Daniel claims that I originally asked for a dog, while I am quite certain that he was first to put the thought into our minds. Regardless of who conceived of the idea, our lives were permanently changed when his husky, who lived at his mother’s home in Texas, escaped from the backyard and made friends with a stray neighborhood rottweiler. A few short months later, on an afternoon in early March, eight beautiful mutts were born. From the bitter cold of our airy New England apartment, we cooed at the videos of the litter sitting sweetly on their sun-kissed laundry room floor.

Fate would have it that we were moving into a pet-friendly flat in a few weeks. This was our second official housing arrangement together but the first that was more than a temporary fix. In contrast to our last short-term lease in a historic house that was soon-to-be renovated, our new apartment felt shiny and brimming with potential. We would have access to a yard with a garden, nearby dog parks, and running trails – a rare, unbeatable prospect for its price in Boston’s housing market, as the broker assured us.

More significantly, we were set to sign our lives into a 2-year lease, a timeframe that felt like an eternity at the time of our move. Visions of life in a picture-perfect white picket fenced-in home raced through my naïve mind, and I recited them to Daniel with excitement. We struck a harmonious chord of understanding of the urgency to fly to El Paso to complete our new home with one of his husky’s precious puppies.

Three weeks after retrieving our ocean-eyed puppy named Blue, our lives had been turned upside down: our brand new kitchen floor was littered with water spills, dog bowls, dog beds, braided ropes, tennis balls, and tattered socks that had turned into makeshift toys; our freshly-upholstered living room carpet had been shred to bits and browned by failed attempts to potty train; our sleep schedule had been wrecked by barks and whines and bathroom breaks that punctuated our nights; our notion of free time had become non-existent and work became a glittering fantasy between the unending hours that Blue needed us to play.

It soon became apparent that our nascent parenting styles clashed. Everything was up for dispute – from the way to discipline our dog, to the amount to feed her, to the regularity of seeing the vet, to the tactic for scrubbing the waste-laden kitchen floor. Blue was finding a new hobby of scouting out dead animals in our backyard – an activity that Daniel assured me was good for her development of predatorial skills. I promised him it was not good for her developing digestive system. Her second-favorite activity seemed to be gnawing our legs as we sat peacefully at the kitchen table.

“Just tackle her! Show her who’s the alpha. She needs to be toughened up,” Daniel advised when I expressed my frustration. I affirmed that I could never do such a thing to my precious baby. I’d rather have her chomp off my foot than traumatize her with violence. The one fact that we could agree upon was that we both needed a breather from puppy parenting.

Gone were the days of camping out in a coffee shop for a solo writing session and spontaneous decisions to fill in for a yoga class across the city. Late-night dumplings dates with Daniel, daytrips to distilleries, and autumn excursions to cranberry bogs had become distant memories.

As my mother loved to remind me, puppy parenthood is a short step before real parenthood. I felt claustrophobic at the thought of the dirty diapers and unending baby screeches that were soon expected to fill our apartment. Was I trading my freedom for a few daunting decades of parenting? What about my bucket lists of wild experiences and career achievements?

Among our New Year’s resolutions this year, Daniel and I had vowed take our dating life to a new level by going salsa dancing once a month – a goal that seemed unambitious at the time it was set. But here we were in June, realizing how quickly life had flown by; there we were at age 26, somewhere between youth and full-fledged adulthood, beginning to comprehend how laughably unprepared we were for responsibility.

With Blue in the house, Daniel and I barely had a spare moment to breathe let alone have time alone. Yet finally, three weeks after our puppy’s unmistakable arrival, we were ready to leave her on her own long enough for an evening out. After we ensured that Blue had worn herself to exhaustion from our games of fetch and chasing her tail, we tucked her into her dog bed and drove down the street to a salsa dance club. We skipped the lessons because I had once spent a summer salsa dancing on the weekends (okay, that was five years ago, but I still had the muscle memory), and he was Latin American (okay, he was Mexican, not Columbian or Cuban, but he swore that he was a natural at salsa).

As we made our way to the center of the dance floor, it quickly became apparent that our rhythm wasn’t the same lighthearted, synchronized clip we had before we were puppy parents. My legs felt as though they had been encased by a pound of rust and my hips moved as though stuck in thick canned pumpkin, which I recently learned is a nutritious dog treat.

“Do you think Blue’s okay alone?” I asked, my mind racing to the endless things she may be eating at the house.

“Yes, just concentrate on the music,” Daniel replied, equally flustered.

Although the beat of the music blasted loud and clear through the speakers, our rhythm felt clunky. “I don’t think this is right,” I declared.

“What do you mean?” Daniel asked me, vexed, “Just follow my lead.”

“Your steps are off,” I retorted confidently.

“What do you mean? You’re off,” he reacted, pointing down at the misaligned rhythm of our feet.

“One-two-THREE, one-two-THREE. Follow the beat,” I gritted through my teeth as he led.

“Girl, you’re crazy, there are eight counts in music,” he said stubbornly and tried to tune me out.

“I am counting an eight count. Listen. One-two-THREE-FOUR five-six-SEVEN-EIGHT, one-two-THREE-FOUR five-six-SEVEN-EIGHT,” I replied defiantly.

“You’re overthinking it.”

“Look at the other couples around us! They’re all following my count. See?” I pleaded, pointed at the feet of the lanky first-time salsa dancer his patient girlfriend next to us. “Okay, maybe not them. What about…” I scanned the room, longingly for an example of a couple dancing at a textbook pace. The chaos of the floor was filled with equal proportions of regulars spinning so fast that I could barely see their feet and sweaty-palmed newbies swaying their hips arrhythmically.

“Everyone’s dancing at their own beat. Just try to feel mine,” Daniel pleaded.

“I can’t feel yours if it’s not right!” I fired back.

He stopped mid-step and pierced my eyes with his gaze. Coldly, he uttered with clarity, “I’m just not feeling you.”

We stormed off the dance floor and into the chilly awakening of the early summer night. I slammed my door as I entered Daniel’s car, and my mind began narrating the end to our unromantic evening. I thought, “Although it’s been less than an hour since we’d left Blue, we’d go home to find dog poop scattered across the kitchen floor, Daniel and I would be at each other’s throats as Blue gnawed our hands until dozing back to sleep, and tomorrow, the anxiety of puppy training would start all over again…”

“We gave up on dancing tonight just because we couldn’t agree on the steps,” I lamented aloud. “Do you know how ridiculous this is?”

“No, I’m not in your head,” he countered with stone-cold frustration.

With lead legs, I exited the car and climbed the steps to our second-floor apartment. I felt a visceral tightening as I braced myself for the mess that would appear behind the door. The door creaked open and…

There was Blue, wagging her tail with ebullient delight at our return. Her uncontainable happiness was evidence that all was forever forgiven. No matter that we’d abandoned her for an hour-long reprieve of off-beat dancing; or that we’d put her in the kitchen when her puppy kisses kept us up at night; or that our learning curve to puppy parenthood had been so steep. No matter how out of synch our parenting skills may have been. Her ocean blue eyes – deep with unconditional love – told us that we were enough to this puppy.

Daniel knelt down to eye-level with our dog, pretending to prepare to pounce. He launched forward to tackle her, then scooped her onto his chest to receive her puppy love. I realized that if I blinked forward to tomorrow, I could miss this moment, too. So, I swiftly threw off my dancing shoes and crouched down on all fours to join in their game that seemed to be played without rules.

As I looked from Blue to Daniel and back again, the story I’d crafted in my mind began to shift. The wrinkle of worry that had been recently etched into my forehead began to soften into a smile. Just as much as Blue needed us to feed her, care for her, and keep her healthy and safe, we needed her to teach us how to love.


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