From conversations with family and friends, it seems that most couples spend the last few weeks prior to welcoming their first child preparing the house, reading parenting books, and putting sleep in the bank. My wife, Vicky, and I, however, decided on an alternate path and bought a 14-month old, nearly 80-pound Bernese Mountain dog.
Vicky’s rationale for this decision was that we could train the dog during our winter vacation, and when she started on maternity leave, could get the dog on a schedule. Although I was hesitant about bringing a baby and dog into our life within the span of two months, Vicky’s points seemed valid, and her sob story about being denied a dog as a child was the final nail in the coffin: We were getting a dog.
While my ostensible reason for getting the dog was to support Vicky, I was also interested in trying out on the dog some of the parenting principles we had been reading about. We asked friends for advice, reflected on our own childhoods, and discussed, at length, the different ways, both good and bad, that our friends and siblings were raising their children. The foundations of our parenting philosophy included providing ample time for “awakening,” a philosophy espoused in Pamela Druckerman’s fantastic parenting book, Bringing up Bebe; creating rules and sticking to them; and not spoiling our child. We also agreed to not be blinded by our child’s anticipated brilliance and beauty.
Our actions during the first six weeks as dog owners, however, looked nothing like our decided-upon parenting philosophy and portended serious issues for how we would raise our child.
The foundation of our parenting philosophy crumbled before we even picked up Sierra from the breeder. Although we have two couches and enough comfortable rugs to host a sleepover for every animal living within a mile of our house, Vicky ordered Sierra a memory foam bed that is supposed to alleviate joint pressure for large dogs. That the dog had yet to move into the house but had a more comfortable bed than my own was an ominous sign. Much like the months leading up to our wedding, packages piled up outside our apartment during the weeks prior to our trip to the breeder. This time it wasn’t pots and pans, but an assortment of dog toys, including a squeaky football, a hemp tug rope, and a natural rubber ball.
The largest and heaviest box that arrived contained the Italian dog food. The packaging seemed ordinary, but when I took a closer look, I saw that the food was advertised as gluten-, grain-, soy-, yeast-, and lactose-free. Its main ingredients are horse meat, peas, goji extract (for its antioxidant properties), and pineapple stalks (for digestion). Although the mattress, toys, and food were over the top, the three different dog brushes (a FURminator deShedding tool, slicker brush, and grooming rake) that arrived a few days later leapfrogged our dog right into the spoiled zone we were hoping to avoid with our child.
As far as giving the dog room for the “awakening” that Druckerman espouses in her book, I have summarily suffocated Sierra from the night I picked her up from the breeder. I follow her around the house like a servant, wake her up from naps just to squeeze her ears, and talk to her as if she were a human. And her brilliance is shown not only in her knack for sitting on demand, but in her ability to turn a pile of dog poop into “the best poopy in the whole world” and a quick pee into an act of genius.
The nadir of our parenting, however, arrived two weeks prior to our son’s birth when we were walking Sierra. As we reached the end of the trail, we passed another Berner. We made small talk with the dog’s owner and then continued on our way. Before we had made it three strides, Vicky and I looked at each other, and in the same breath said, “Sierra is so much cuter.” This was followed by a critique of the other dog’s slightly odd coloring, square face, and plumpness.
Later that evening, as we groomed Sierra with her slicker brush and poured water into her glass bowls (she hates metal) that are sprinkled throughout the house, Vicky and I had a coming-to-Jesus moment: the foundation of our parenting philosophy was not only cracked but seriously broken. We had not only been blinded by Sierra’s brilliance but had reared the spoiled child that we had been preparing not to. Lucky for us, we got another crack at instituting our parenting philosophy a few weeks later. Though, after reminiscing about our first year as parents on the evening of Aksel’s birthday last month, it is clear that we still have a lot of work to do.
Tommy Mulvoy is an American expat living in Basel, Switzerland, with his wife, Vicky, and son, Aksel. When not chasing after Aksel, or keeping the peace between the family’s pets, he teaches English and Special Education at the International School of Basel.