Ten years ago, I gave in to the children’s pleas and promises and acquired a small dog. I’d never been a dog lover and hadn’t owned one before, but the vet assured me that a border terrier was a safe bet. We called her Maisy and the children loved her very much, but never took her for walks or fed her or picked up after her. Of course not.
Now the kids are grown, Maisy is still going strong, and they still don’t look after her. But the creature I got for the sake of the children is now the smallest member of a pack of hounds that mill around my feet like boisterous shadows and take up hours of my day.
There is an explanation. As my children approached their late teens, I realised my house would soon be empty. Like so many women entering their 50s, instead of grabbing at the freedom offered by an empty nest, I acquired yet more responsibilities. The need to look after things can be stronger than reason. It is, in my case. My nurturing instinct, anticipating the end of my mothering career, switched allegiance to four-legged kids. I acquired a large, neurotic lurcher. Sacha howled when I left the room, leapt on to tables and peed all over the house, buckets of urine staining the carpets. Still not content that I had enough to keep me busy, I adopted a rescue mixed breed from Spain who arrived with puppy mange, fleas, and no tail.
The thing I hadn’t anticipated was that my offspring, three now in their mid-20s, would not leave home. Because of a lack of finances and extortionate city rents, four young adults have chosen to stay put in their childhood bedrooms. So here I am with a tribe of kidults and a pack of hounds. (The two cats keep out of the way.) Kids in big boots and dogs with big paws clomp up and down the stairs, shouting or barking. They untidy the living room, drop unmentionable things on the carpet and destroy furniture. I never have a moment alone.
Sensible friends have taken up gardening. It satisfies the nurturing desire and doesn’t jump all over you, ruin clothes and curtail your social life. But I don’t have green fingers. And I love the dogs. They bring joy and meaning to my life, just as children do. Of course, there is a difference between two-legged and four-legged kids. Dogs are much easier and more obedient.
But the responsibility is tying. Two walks a day and if left alone for more than a couple of hours, they howl. So when I have to go out, I turn to my children and beg for help. Surely I should be able to expect some notion of responsibility, even duty, by now? But excuses slip off their tongues. “Sorry, Mum. Dissertation to write.” “Can’t. Already got tickets for a gig.”
“Can you at least feed them?” I ask. They shudder. “God, no. We’re vegan!”
“But the dogs are family,” I say, frustrated. “Why is it only me that looks after them?”
They turn up their palms and shrug their shoulders, as if the question is beyond them. I am left with a sense of helplessness. “You did this to yourself,” a little voice in my head tells me. And I can’t deny it.
I have a dental operation and won’t be back in time to walk the dogs, so I ask Jake if he can do it. He frowns, consulting an invisible diary in his mind. “Maybe,” he says grudgingly. “Guess I could be back by 6pm.”
“But they get walked at 5pm.”
“Well … I’ll see.”
I want to throw a pan at his head. “Why is it so hard to commit to being helpful?” He looks sheepish. “I don’t like being pinned down.”
“You can’t dodge responsibility for ever. You may as well practise on the dogs.”
From their lack of enthusiasm, you’d think the children weren’t too fond of animals. But when the subject of moving out is raised, the thought of leaving home always gets the same reaction.
“How can we leave you? We’ll miss you,” they say in anguished voices. “It’ll be terrible not to see you every day.” They are not talking to me and Ed. They are talking to the dogs.
Some names have been changed