My first child was born in May 2003. We named him Rusty. Not only did he have a playful and adorable personality early on, he was also quite the looker – beautiful blond hair and matching golden eyelashes. What a treat he was! How we eagerly awaited his arrival! We dedicated so much time, money and love to his development, socialisation and obedience…
My first child was a dog.
I am amazed at the level of attachment you can build to a mutt – a hairy, smelly, four-legged creature. Your rational self says, “It’s just a dog”, but your heart gets taken. Rusty was our family from the day he tentatively entered our towel-protected back car seat as a 12-week-old pup. Fences, vet bills, daily walks, a fully insulated kennel, puppy pre-school followed. We did it all.
Three years on, we brought our baby girl into the world in what can only be described as a miracle. Joyous, excruciating and so many other words that don’t begin to bring justice to the world that is parenthood. Emma brought a new life of routines (and frequent variations to routine), challenges to us as individuals and as a couple, a world of new friends and experiences, and boundless love.
And did this baby girl love Rusty! Those beautiful first sound-words we cherish and hope we’ll never forget: Emma had one for Rusty. A high-pitched crescendo of amazement rang from her mouth each time she caught a glimpse of him through the window. A low grunt her first attempt at a bark.
I’m almost certain the feeling wasn’t mutual.
Over Rusty’s life, he’d developed some intricacies to his personality, which at first seemed minor, but had become faintly more serious over time. A quick pounce at the builder, a protective jump at the laneway fence, a defensive snap at a tail-wagging friend. We passed it off as, “He’s not real good with strangers”, or, “He’s just ultra protective of us”. All reasonable arguments.
We both knew he was unpredictable, and we were excessively cautious of his interactions with Emma. Advice had told us to let them interact, to get them used to each other. But our guts told us to take extra care. So, our lives started to revolve around this puzzle of a dog-personality: Emma could go outside, but couldn’t walk around freely. Emma could talk to Rusty through the window, followed by plenty of encouragement for Rusty to ensure his interactions with Emma were ‘pleasant’. New fences were planned to allow the two to play in the yard, but in separate areas.
We even bought a new car. This is not unusual for new parents, but for us, a necessity was a cargo barrier to protect the kid – not from flying bags, but from the dog! Surely we should have been focusing on other safety factors – airbags, braking systems – but our rulebook was skewed.
Our lives were totally dictated by our first-born – Rusty.
At the time, these were subtle decisions. To keep life flowing, we made these changes to keep everyone happy and safe. But happiness is known to each of us alone. Happiness can be a veil hiding guilty and secret thoughts. How happy were we? How happy was Rusty? What joys was Emma missing as she discovered her walking skills, only to be cooped up inside for most of her days?
Is there a support group for families with aggressive dogs? I for one felt totally alone and hopeless in a situation that held no long-term joy. I couldn’t imagine living this life of restriction, fear, and uncertainty for another decade or more. I wasn’t sure how tainted Emma may become through her initial experiences of pet ownership.
But Rusty was our family. He hadn’t done anything so terrible that warranted drastic action – he was just misunderstood. A reasonable argument.
I was angry. I thought studies had shown that owning a dog equalled better health and wellbeing. Didn’t pets aid positive mental health? Was it unreasonable for me to expect a good 15 years of runs in the park, backyard barbies with friends, and family picnics by the lake? Instead, I began to dread our walks. I started to see a split-personality occasionally bordering on viciousness. I blamed Rusty for being such a disappointment, only to be plagued by guilt when he nuzzled into me for a loving scratch. He was my Jekyll and Hyde.
And I felt we were risking our little girl everyday.
The worst thing about being an adult, is being responsible. Responsibility sucks. We had to make a responsible choice, and ease Rusty’s burden of fear and anxiety – a mental illness that drove him to respond aggressively, even though we thought his heart was pure.
We had to let our firstborn go, to protect the love of our lives, and to bring some freedom to our future. Putting Rusty down presented the deepest mixture of emotions I have ever felt – a convoluted mix of guilt, sadness, failure, disappointment, shame and relief. The emotions are still raw, and I expect this responsible choice will in some way haunt me for years to come.
I miss the beautiful dog I choose to remember – his howls of delight, his speed and determination at full flight, his amazing intelligence, his playful nudges, his dream-twitches as he lay in his basket at the end of an exhausting day.
But his departure is slowly revealing new, simple joys: Emma explored her own backyard for the first time the other day. I smiled a little as I heard her howl with her own voice of delight at what I hope she felt was freedom.
*Names have been changed
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem