May 6th, 2020, my precious baby was born. She had soft black hair, itty bitty fingers, and the sweetest brown eyes I’ve ever seen. Right away, we knew she was a curious, tentative, sweet-hearted little girl. After July 4th, she finally came home with us.
[bf_image id="6xrh9t8tp9svwsxcr86nbf"] Yes, I’m talking about a dog.
Marlow is my now 11-month-old German Shepherd, the result of an accidental litter. My partner and I were lucky enough to adopt her, and she has changed our lives in numerous ways. Being responsible for a puppy has meant reassessing myself and understanding that everything I do teaches her (and others, really) what is okay and what is not okay when it comes to interacting with me. For example, if I get anxious and frantic trying to handle Marlow, she will mirror that energy; but if I remain calm and continue to project my authority, she calms and (eventually) does what I ask of her. If she comes to me wanting to play and I give in, instead of making her sit and wait before initiating the play myself, I teach her that bothering me is an acceptable way to communicate that she wants to play.
[bf_image id="q7b74h37vkqsc5grgwtv"] This kind of self-reflection has been revolutionary and has turned my gaze inward, especially as Marlow continues to grow older and smarter and stronger. Controlling her (which, really, is a weird way to discuss training and obedience) isn’t a matter of physical strength (though that helps); it’s about the connection we form. It’s the obligation to educate myself on her needs and communication styles, to love her constantly and obviously so she knows she’s appreciated. If she feels good, cared for, attended to, she is all eyes and ears, ready to listen and blow me away.
Early experiences with Marlow’s puppyhood complicated something that has always been stubbornly simple for me, and that is the relationship between love and wrongdoing. I can’t pinpoint the origins of my odd beliefs that making a mistake could mean the end of everything. But when the most adorable, duck-fuzz-covered angel decides to run off into a thorny thicket after I explicitly told her not to, or continues to chew the rubber off of the dumbbells, I suddenly understand the simultaneity of anger or frustration and love. The idea of loving someone so intensely while also being unfathomably upset gave me insight into my personal relationships. It put my own mistakes into context, and I now know that despite my misgivings, I am still loved.
From all that she has taught me, though, has come something deeper. I really do see Marlow as my (fur) baby. And before you roll your eyes, hear me out. Any time my partner and I consider an outing, bringing Marlow along is always in the picture. Anything and everything we do includes thinking about the fun for Marlow. Not only do I want the best, most fun experience for her, I also want her along for my adventures. She is intelligent and understands sentences that we tell her, but she’s also clever and has a sense of humor; she gives us hilarious facial expressions and is incredibly talented at communicating effectively; she has a personality, and so it’s not a big reach that I see her in many ways as a person. I feel a fierce urge to protect Marlow whenever a male dog attempts to mount her from behind (especially because she’s not spayed, but I’d feel protective regardless). I know in my heart there is close to nothing I wouldn’t do for Marlow’s health and safety. That’s not something I have ever felt before.
Now, I have loved dogs (and cats) with what I thought was all my heart and soul before I ever owned one--so much so that one fourth of July I started crying because there were so many dogs out for the parade and I was so fucking happy. But now that I personally own a dog and am personally responsible for her wellbeing, I realize I could never have understood this level of love and internal commitment to a dog. That’s not for lack of trying, but merely because some things are only truly understood through experience. (This puts into perspective those who refer to their pets as people versus those who view pets as, well, pets.)
So when people tell me that I will never truly understand the love that comes from childbirth, or caring for and raising a human child who will grow up and talk back and know how to hurt me and love me and add a dimension to my life that I would never have otherwise--I believe that. I 100% believe that I will never truly be able to empathize with that experience without going through it myself. And I’m okay with that.
I’m okay not experiencing that joy, given my reservations around the possible harms that come with childbirth. I’m okay knowing about this other incredible kind of love and not directly partaking in it. I’m okay with all of that because a mother’s love isn’t the only kind of love, nor is it the most powerful. Don’t get me wrong, it’s powerful; parents will do wild things for their children, even if perhaps misguided at times. But the love between two friends; the love between long-time lovers; the love between siblings and family members; the love between a pet and a human--these are all capable of being powerful and immense and fulfilling. Life is not a game to “collect them all” but rather know the variety present, since experiencing them all isn’t a given for everyone.
I’m left wondering about the ways we often prioritize romantic love over others, and what we miss out on in doing that. If all of our attention is directed at one variety of love, then we may miss out on other opportunities that arise when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. In being taken by surprise by this love I have for Marlow, I feel snapped back to the world in a way, my attention expanding to pick up on other areas of love and appreciation I have in my life. Most of all, though, I feel content knowing that I have this love that isn’t going anywhere, and knowing that more love awaits me whenever I want it. Sometimes, the love around us isn’t easy to see, but it’s there. Love awaits all of us somewhere, somehow. Let go of what you expect it to be, and see how it comes to you.