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Parents, stop me if you’ve heard this: You’re at a social gathering, out of the house and kid-free for the first time in months, and one of your friends says, “It’s so good to see you,” which is usually code for where the hell have you been, we almost put up flyers. You lead in with the old standby excuse — which is actually the gospel truth — you were home with the kids.
Your friend nods, then almost immediately counters, “Yeah, I know what it’s like, with Hindenburg and Hilda at home,” before thrusting a smart phone into your face featuring dozens of pictures of their twin black-and-tan dachshunds, almost invariably in costumes. You smile, even giggle a bit when you see the same pained resignation in each photo — dachshunds dressed as fire trucks, as spiders, ashamed to be seen in homemade versions of those wacky spiked helmets from World War I. Then it happens: Your friend wraps up the slideshow, smiles and says, “These are our fur babies. We love them just as much. We think of them as our children.”
You grimace a bit when you hear it, the granddaddy of false equivalencies, then spackle a grin on your face as you sarcastically ask yourself if your friend is also planning a canine college fund or worries about Hilda the dachshund being subjected to street harassment, discrimination in the workplace or sexual assault. No, once they have kids, very few pet owners ever make the “my pets are my kids” claim again. In fact, the last time I stopped the family stroller to admire a drowsy labradoodle puppy, my 3-year-old in the front seat instantly begin wailing, “Daddy! A puppy! It’s sleeping! … Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! the volume increasing with each non-response as he manically tried to Houdini himself free from the straps. Meanwhile, the 5-month-old on the child carrier hanging from my shoulders was pushing her entire hand into her mouth, spit bubbles spilling out onto us both like a pot bubbling over on the stove. When she finally saw that she had my attention, she let loose with the bat-like gurgle-scream of her people. As I held the puppy, which was somehow still asleep, at no point did I think, “Yeah, this is just like having a kid!”
Now, I get it — to the child-free, the analogy seems plausible, even realistic. And in some respects, they have the ghost of a point — having a pet is halfway decent training for having a kid. After all, if you can’t raise a dog, you’re going to have a hell of a time with a kid. Before I had kids, I even made the fateful claim myself — but I was wrong. Here are just a few of the reasons why.
Children Are Far, Far More Difficult Than Pets
And I say this having owned pets with serious health problems, pets with behavior issues, pets neurotic enough to merit their own entries in the DSM-V. We currently have 2 dogs. One is a rescue, a terrier-poodle-mystery-mix. When we got her, she was missing most of her teeth due to abuse, was afraid of loud noises and sudden gestures and was soon diagnosed with heart failure. (Thanks to heart medications, she’s still around!)
You grimace a bit when you hear it, the granddaddy of false equivalencies.
Because of her incredibly matted and thick fur, she also bore an uncanny resemblance to either an Ewok or a tiny Bigfoot. Inexplicably, she was initially named “Serena.” I also have a dachshund, which is like choosing to live with a small sausage-shaped German tyrant, except instead of the Schlieffen Plan and (very) extended vacations to France every few decades, he has a never-ending obsession with tennis balls.
I love my dogs, and they are a lot of work (especially the doxie). Walking our dogs can be especially tricky, thanks to their constant leash crossing (they zigzag so much you’d think they were part of a World War II convoy), but it’s downright relaxing compared to taking a toddler and an infant on a walk, which is like some sort of nightmare level of Paperboy.
Now we have a strict hand-holding policy near any place where there might be traffic — but that doesn’t do much to allay my fear of cars. That’s the thing: When you’re a new parent, you develop a whole suite of phobias on behalf of your child. Each phase of development has its own corresponding fears.
When the kid is brand new (especially if it’s your first), you live in almost constant fear, because every noise and activity is entirely unfamiliar. They might be crying because they are hungry, but it also could be a death rattle. You just don’t know, so you do what every parent does: Internally panic, then force yourself to identify the kid’s problem and solve it. When the kid gets older though — especially when they’re ambulatory — your fears multiply exponentially, because the whole world becomes a potential threat. Now you can’t let all these fears get to you — you can’t shield your kid from the world because the world certainly won’t shield itself from them — but certain fears are justified. As a parent, I’m basically terrified of cars. The reason should be obvious: physics. Cars are essentially chunks of highly refined ore moving at great speed. No matter how much he likes to pretend otherwise, my son is neither Queen Elsa nor Captain America. Despite this, he’ll occasionally snatch his hand loose on our walks, and I worry about a potential mad dash to the road. The traffic in our rural area doesn’t help as it usually consists of massive pickups doing forty down a residential street or squadrons of teenagers buzzing past in their 1997 Grand Ams, their custom exhaust kits making the neighborhood sound like the Battle of Britain was going on overhead.
There are other worries, too. The kid’s 3 and loves animals, so he runs toward every “nice doggie” even when it’s roaming free and snarling like a hyena and may or may not be off its shift from guarding the gates of hell. (We’re working on this)
You Can Talk To Your Kid, And Eventually They’ll Talk Back
Dogs can understand some commands, and cats can too, but prefer to feign total ignorance, forcing us to wait on them. Children are a wee bit different. I can guarantee the following: When you tell Mr. Waggles that he’s a good boy after bringing back the tennis ball, at no point has he stopped what he was doing, cocked his head to the side, and asked “Why?”
As I was changing our little guy, he looked at me very seriously and yelled, “Daddy! I pooped on Grandma’s face!”
Why may be the defining word of human existence; the gateway to curiosity, it’s the original spur for such endeavors as philosophy, science, and literature. For the parent of a toddler, it’s also the worst word in the English language. Why, you ask? Well, when it comes to toddlers (and from what I gather, older children as well), questions develop at an exponential rate. They ask a question, you provide an answer, and then ask for an explanation of your answer. I refer to this as “why squared;” by itself, it’s jarring enough. But this usually augurs an endless cycle of increasingly impossible-to-answer questions. It’s equal parts legitimate knowledge acquisition and a Stanley Milgram-like social experiment.
I’ve experienced this nearly constantly lately. My son will ask a question — for example, I fielded the typical “Why is the sky blue?” yesterday. I’m a huge, huge nerd, so I usually have a pretty good idea how to answer most of his questions. If I don’t, I know how to find out the answer. But even if you know the literal answer to the question — duh, it’s Rayleigh Scattering, kid — you can’t just start spouting off about Lord Rayleigh and sunlight scattering because of molecules in the atmosphere. No, instead you have to explain it at their level, and this can prove almost impossible, given that you’ll have to reveal some pretty weighty truths about the universe. The other day, my little guy had to go the doctor because we suspected an ear infection, and when he asked why we were going the doctors, I tried to explain the concept. This did not go well.
Dad: “Well, there are small animals all over the place, but they are too tiny to see.”
Child: “What?! Animals?!”
Dad: “Yep, they are all around us, and most of them are friends. But sometimes, they can be naughty.”
Child: “What did they do? Are they bad listeners?”
Dad: “Sort of, but they can make your ear hurt, so you need to get medicine.”
Child: “Oh, OK. Dad, what kind of animals are they?”
Dad: “Well, they’re …”
Child, interjecting: “Are they bears?! Lions?”
At this point, I gave up, as I had convinced my son that he was surrounded by an invisible zoo. And sure enough, when the doctor walked into the exam room, the first thing my son told her was, “I have tiny naughty animals in my ear!”
Kids Will Prank You; Pets Will Not
When your kid starts telling fibs, and then outright joking just to get a reaction, it’s a strange new world. Our little guy’s jokes started small. He’d reverse our names and then cackle like a madman, but he soon graduated to telling “pretend” stories, which he’d then announce with “I Teasing!” and a burst of manic laughter. The problem is, children have zero sense of boundaries. They have the comedic impulses of tiny Gilbert Gottfrieds, usually aiming for laughs from the most taboo subjects. An example: As I was changing our little guy (who at the time had just started potty training), and he looked at me very seriously and then yelled, “Daddy! I Pooped On Grandma’s Face!”
He’s a toddler, and there had been near-disasters in diaper changes before, so this was at least somewhat plausible, and I was horrified. He immediately broke into a grin and yelled, “I Teasing!” Since then, he has joked about biting kids at daycare (not true), the dog biting him (not true), and worst of all, being really, really tired and wanting a nap (sadly, not true). Often, this bad behavior is simply to elicit a reaction or get attention — we realized that our little guy was misbehaving when we used our cell phones or computers, so we’ve now banished such devices until after his bedtime, helping solve the issue.
Sometimes, however, it’s an almost perverse sense of curiosity. For example, it is one of the great ironies of parenting that you have to spend months teaching your kids how to use the toilet and once you do, you need to prevent them from throwing things into said toilet for no reason almost every day for the next several years. And as you fish out the various objects, they attempt to understand why you’re so frustrated, almost inexorably leading to a discussion of gravity-powered plumbing systems with someone wearing a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse t-shirt.
When the doctor walked into the exam room, the first thing my son told her was, “I have tiny naughty animals in my ear!”
Your Dog May Bite, And Your Cat May Scratch, But Your Pet Will Never Gong You In The Head With A Fisher Price Toy Just To Get A Reaction Out Of You
You know that old saying, “What can’t kill me makes me stronger?” First of all, that’s completely untrue. I’m pretty sure a terrible muscle-wasting disease does not, in fact, make you stronger. And neither will being cold-cocked by some Fisher Price firepower.
It’ll hurt though — that plastic is sturdy enough to survive atmospheric reentry — and if your kid connects, it’ll probably elicit a litany of swear words longer than an ocean liner. Perversely, when you get hurt, you have your child’s complete attention. I don’t know why this is. If I want my kid to stop what I’m doing, all I need is to fall down. Pratfalls will make him laugh, but only an actual fall (and the resulting grimacing and half-cursing) will make him stop in his tracks and stare. At moments like that, it wouldn’t matter if Anna, Elsa, and Olaf and 57 trolls appeared and spontaneously broke into “Let It Go.” He wouldn’t care.
Given that you don’t want your toddler to turn into the ringleader of the Pow-Pow-Powerwheels version of Hells Angels, you might attempt to avoid using a swear word even after you’ve already loudly exclaimed its first syllable. In my experience, you use whatever words come to mind: SHeep! Mother’s FUdge rounds! If you pull it off, your kid will just think you’re being silly. If you swear in front of them, there’s a 99.95 percent chance they will repeat it for the better part of an afternoon.
Even When Your Dog Has Been Bad, You Still Like Them
The saying “I’ll always love you, but I won’t always like you” is apt for marriage and parenting, but not for pet rearing.
It’s hard not to like a dog. Even when they’ve done something bad, they don’t do it on purpose. Sure, they might look guilty for a minute or two, but they’ll quickly forget about it, as if to say, “Oh gosh, I didn’t mean to shit on the sofa. Hey, I have an idea, let’s play fetch! Also, do you know what your face needs? Dog Saliva!”
When it comes to your kid, you’ll always love them, more than anything on the planet. But believe me, there will be times where you won’t like them all that much. When a kid is in the terrible 2s (and beyond!), misbehaving is a veritable pastime, and they do it in large part just to see what you’ll do. You can see this in their expression. I’ll tell my son not to do something — standing on his chair at dinner, say — and he’ll make a big show about standing up very slowly on his chair, and then he’ll look back at me and smirk, as if to say, “What now?”
Once this phase starts, these challenges to authority happen, at least initially, all the time. While I’m sure it’s some crucial phase of social development, it’s also maddening. It’s like living with a tiny Aaron Burr challenging you to a duel here, now there, now at the dinner table about whether or not he’ll eat all of his yogurt. Your cat, I can promise you, will never do anything similar.
Brett Ortler is the author of a number of non-fiction books, including Dinosaur Discovery Activity Book, The Beginner’s Guide to Ship Watching on the Great Lakes, Minnesota Trivia Don’tcha Know! and several others. His writing has appeared in Salon, at Yahoo! as well as at The Good Men Project, and on The Nervous Breakdown, among many other venues. A husband and father, his house is full of children, pets, and noise.