Don’t sow your desires in someone else’s garden; just cultivate your own as best you can. Don’t long to be other than what you are, but desire to be thoroughly what you are. Direct your thoughts to being very good at that and to bearing the crosses, little or great, that you will find there. – St. Francis de Sales
Growing up in rural Maryland, my siblings and I participated in 4H, each summer showing calves from the neighbor’s dairy farm in the county fair. Our family raised quite a few pets over the years: sheep and lambs, chickens, geese, several Border Collies, a cat, and a goat. We gushed over their cuteness in the “baby” years, enjoyed and played with them in their active years, cared for them as seniors, and mourned each after their passing. These pets formed an integral part of my childhood, enkindling an appreciation for life’s simple joys and facilitating lessons in responsibility, sickness, aging, and finally, death. I’m grateful to my parents for their insight (and hard work!).
I always figured one day I’d own a pet or two, maybe after I got married and had some children. In the meantime, I was content to do without.
Several years ago, I began noticing something peculiar among my coworkers and in the culture at large. It seems like many people are under the illusion that the relationship of an owner with their pet can replicate the relationship of a parent with his or her child. In this individualistic, unattached world, pets provide an “alternate” to the demands of living, breathing human offspring while artificially fulfilling the natural desire for paternity. The evidence is everywhere: small dogs are toted around like toddlers in baby carriers at the airport, pets populate many restaurants and stores, doggy daycares and pet boutiques are ubiquitous, and bumper stickers proudly proclaim, “Dog Grandma” and “My babies have fur”.
At the time, this drove me crazy. This obsession with pets struck me as a selfish, shallow, and watered-down version of God’s call to commitment and family within the vocation of marriage. I felt like going on a crusade; I even toyed with the idea of making a bumper sticker of my own: “Fur Babies < Real Babies”. Above all, I wanted to begin forming our own small army of children as my personal, contradicting witness.
God clearly has other plans for our marriage. As it turns out, I’m not exactly in charge of the witness He’s calling me to be in the world – instead, I’m tasked with allowing Him to write my story.
When we became aware of our infertility, several family members suggested getting a pet. I’ll admit that this advice, though well-intentioned, stung. It felt like some pathetic consolation prize that would never, ever fill the gaping holes in our hearts. I recall telling my sister, “If we can’t have children, there’s no way I’m ever getting a dog because then I’ll be one of those stereotypical childless couples with a ‘fur baby’. Ugh.”
Over the next year, my heart softened. I began to realize that there is a difference between the actual experience ofowning a pet and the idea of what owning a pet means. The former was simple (wake up earlier, go on walks, cuteness, barking…), while the latter was more complicated (the difficult emotions of infertility, the desire to ardently express my firmly-held convictions against fur-babies to an uninformed world…).
We soon found ourselves driving to a nearby rural county just to “take a look” at some puppies. In case you aren’t aware, one doesn’t just go “take a look” at a litter of puppies: we picked out a black female Labrador before leaving the farm. On our way home, we stopped at a pet store and had fun buying food bowls, a leash, and a red collar with her name inscribed on the tag. In spite of myself, I felt quite happy.
Of course, our dog is not, and never will be, a replacement for children, nor will she ever fill my deep longing for a child. But even in this individualistic world, we can still enjoy our puppy, simply for what she is. She does indeed brighten the days of our lives and those of our friends and family and even strangers we meet. And she’s so darn cute!
I worry sometimes that when others see our childlessness, they may assume this is a life we’ve chosen. But at the end of the day, the idea that my life is perfectly mine, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, is an illusion. The great blessing of infertility is that it lays bare this illusion. As easy as it is to get caught up in looks and appearances and ideals, I must embrace the joy that is available, and there is always an abundance. As my husband reminds me, sometimes I have to “just hold the puppy”.
Allie is married to her husband James of three years and writes from Texas.