Thursday, February 25, 2010

Spray's Lessons on Mothering

I’ve spent the better part of the last 18 years watching my children separate from me, as they played with new friends in playgroups, marched off to kindergarten, spent longer days at school, went to sleep away camps and church trips abroad, shared their confidences with friends, applied to college and developed intimate romantic relationships. Letting go of them, when I’ve put so much time, energy and love into these two creatures hasn’t been easy, nor do I expect it will get easier no matter how proud I am of their accomplishments and adventures.

I should have taken lessons from Spray.

While I cling, she pushes away. Her pups aren’t leaving her the way my children strive for their independence; she’s leaving them. She knows instinctively when they need her and when they don’t.

During the first two weeks of their life, Spray didn’t leave their side. She was with them 24/7, only leaving them to pee and poop in the backyard and even that took a lot of encouraging on our part. She ran out the back door, squatted and ran back in again. Nothing could keep her away from her pups. They were helpless hamster-like creatures, completely dependent on her.

Spray nursed and cleaned them constantly. She lay down when they needed her too. If they cried, she was there.

But four weeks later, she is nursing less. Not only have the puppies graduated from Gerber’s Baby Cereal to mushy puppy kibble, she doesn’t want to nurse. She stands when they come for her teats, making them work for their milk. They have to reach for her. If she doesn’t feel like nursing or gets tired of the little teeth beginning to form, she jumps on a couch where the pups can’t reach her. She walks away and they drop off her. When she comes in the room they scamper after her, but she ignores them much of the time. She is weaning them.

She doesn’t worry if she’s around enough for the puppies, or how well she’s balancing her job and home life. She gives what she wants and then leaves them alone. She knows she’ll have to push them out into the world where they will be on their own.
When the pups were first born, we thought we might have lost Spray. She was no longer our frisky, fun dog. I worried we had changed her for good.

I didn’t have to.

She turns in circles when she’s excited, she naps on the back pillows of our living room couch, she runs to the front door when my husband returns from work, and she grabs Splash’s ear and pulls him out in the backyard for a romp. She’s also back in bed with my husband and me, nestled between us. I was surprised the first night I felt her weight on me, but realized she knew the pups would survive without her. They did. We leave the doors open in the house so she can come and go as she likes, checking on her babies if she needs to. But, she’s tired of her pups in a way I never expected.

I worried about how Spray would react when the puppies left us for their new homes. They may have separation anxiety from their littermates and their mom, but I think Spray will be okay after a brief wave good bye. Her human family will probably have a harder time saying good-bye to the puppies than she does, just as I have a harder time thinking about my oldest leaving my whelping box. With an emptier house, I worry about how I’m going to fill my time and find meaning in my life.

Spray isn’t going to be looking for any new art classes to take or volunteer work to get involved with when her pups leave. She’s going to breathe a deep sigh of relief that the hard work is over. Maybe I should too.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Life in One Room

Three weeks have passed since our dog, Spray, gave birth to ten puppies. In that time, we - the ten puppies, Spray, our grumpy older dog Splash, my two teen daughters and my husband and I have basically lived in one room.

The puppies have kept us there. It helps that there is a big wide screen TV and two couches.

Historically, this room is the coldest room in our house, but now it’s the warmest. We have an electric heater and a heat lamp in the whelping box with the puppies. They can’t regulate their own temperatures until they are at least three or four weeks old, so we keep the door to the room closed and the temperature in there has stayed a toasty 75 degrees. We actually have to disrobe in there. We usually pile on the blankets.

We live in a vertical house with the bedrooms on the third floor, so one or two of us sleeps with the pups every night because we can’t hear them upstairs. But we sure can hear them when they wake up in that room. When they’re hungry, their peeps and squeaks turn into squawks and they sound like a flock of seagulls following a ferryboat.

In three weeks, the puppies have morphed from glorified hamsters to real little dogs. They still sleep a lot in a big pile – one on top of the other – but they also spend time investigating the bigger world. We take them out of the whelping box and watch them lurch around the rug in what my husband has dubbed “the dinosaur walk”. We always cover the rug with a fuzzy fleece to catch their poops and pees and I’m back to the baby days of doing laundry multiple times a day as their bedding and their walking mats need repetitive cleanings.

The pups’ eyes have opened, but we don’t think they really see much as they still seem to gravitate by smell. Their hearing also doesn’t seem to have developed yet because when we clap our hands or whistle, only Spray looks at us hopefully.

Spray is tired. Nursing ten pups is exhausting. She constantly looks for food. She eats bowl after bowl of puppy chow – it has more nutrients than dog chow – mixed with yogurt or wet puppy food, or she’ll eat cake off the counter or whatever else she finds lying around. She discovered and left behind those chalk-like Valentine “Sweetheart” candies. Smart girl.

She needs her down time and is happy leaving her puppies alone for bits of time. If I’m upstairs in the kitchen, she’ll visit, plop down on the floor or on her special couch cushion. But when she’s ready, she scratches at the back room door to be let in. She sniffs each of the pups to make sure they’re all there. She either starts licking them, or if they start squawking, she lies down – sometimes on her own, sometimes with our encouragement – to nurse them.

She watches them carefully when they have their playtime and they crawl between our feet, under a stool, stick their heads in slippers or try to walk on the slippery floor, which means they do massive spread eagles. They’ve also found each other and started roughhousing, mouthing each other and knocking each other around, which is highly entertaining to watch.

When I open the door returning from a day of teaching, I never know what I'll find – who will be lying on a couch with a pup on their chest, nestled by their side, or whether all ten pups will be lying curled up inside the box, or nursing outside the box, or cruising around. I don’t know which daughter will be pretending to do homework with the Olympics on as she calls out “look at what Simba is doing.” “Oh, watch out, don’t step on Mushu.” “Get the video camera. Esmeralda and Zazu are playing together.”

I need the video camera to capture my family – all 16 of us – in one room together.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mothering Pups

This past week, I’ve been congratulated on being a new mother and a new grandmother. I’m neither. My dog, Spray, had ten puppies. She is the new mom. I am her owner. But when I watch her nurse her pups, I can almost feel my milk let down. When I hear the pups cry for their mom, I want to climb in the whelping bed and snuggle with them.

Watching Spray labor, deliver and care for her puppies brought me to a place I didn’t expect to revisit. Days before her delivery, Spray was a pup herself, playing with our older grouchy dog, asking for attention from my husband, two daughters and me, and happy to lounge around the house.

As she labored, she didn’t scream in pain, ask for an epidural, punch her husband, throw up on the doctor or wonder how she had gotten herself in this predicament. From 3:30 to 11:11 am, she quietly and without fanfare slid out 10 puppies.

With the birth of her puppies, the mother instinct kicked in big time. Her first puppy confused her but after being reassured she had done nothing wrong, her mothering genes took over. She didn’t need a lesson in how to nurse or bathe her pups – she knew to lick them clean. She didn’t need to be shown how to strap a snuggly on to keep her young close – she smelled them to count them, and she didn’t seem in discomfort with ten puppies sucking on her nine teats.

I wasn’t sure I knew how to be a mother when I came home from the hospital with my first daughter. I lay in bed convinced her real parents were going to show up soon to get her. I listened to our tenant downstairs going out at night, thinking my life as I knew it was officially over and I would no longer have any freedom. I was tied to this child.

While I was right, I didn’t know how delighted I would be – for the most part – to give up what I perceived to be sacrifices – movies, dinners out, late night drinking – in exchange for loving and raising two children.

Spray didn’t leave her pups at all for the first week. She ran outside to do her “business” and came right back in. As the pups begin to mature – and they mature at warp speed – she leaves them and visits us in another room for a few minutes, or goes outside with our older dog for a sibling romp. When my first daughter was a few months old, my husband and I left her with my parents so we could go to a Nanci Griffith concert. I worried the whole time.

If Spray can’t get back in, she scratches wildly at the back door. She’s frantic if she hears her pups cry, returning quickly to lick or nurse them as they peep and squeak in joy.

The puppies are less than two weeks old and they are trying to stand up, just the way my daughters did at a year old, holding on to the rim of the coffee table before letting go and plopping down on their diapered behinds.

Just as my husband and I chronicled our daughters’ births and development with photographs and videos, we’re chronicling the puppies’. We even post updates on Facebook regularly and I talk about them incessantly to my students, to the butcher and basically anyone who will listen. Maybe I am a proud new parent after all.