A couple of years ago, my mother drew an analogy which has stuck with me. It was in light of the respective stages my sister and I were at in our parenting journeys: she had teens, I had toddlers. I suppose we’d both been bending her ear with our gripes, and she compared our children to cats and dogs.
Cats, she said, were the teenagers: when they let themselves out through the door, you never quite knew where they were going, or if they would return. Would they come a cropper on the road? Might curiosity kill the cat? Cats turn up at mealtimes and swing in behaviour from independent to needy. Sometimes they don’t come home at night. When in the morning the rodent remains on the kitchen floor bear evidence of a night on the prowl, the cat may well be grounded. ‘Cat flap locked this week!’ the owner may reprimand.
Dogs, on the other hand, were the toddlers: needing a run every morning to unleash pent-up energy, whining for attention, eating inedible objects, weeing on the carpet. Dogs are not particularly streetwise and must be on a lead for fear they’ll run into oncoming traffic or chase after a squirrel, and can’t be left alone for long for fear of accident or injury.
Personally, I’ve always been a cat-person. Give me those independent, flighty felines who come in from the cold from time to time for a warm lap and a stroke. Then when they’ve had enough, quietly they make a retreat for a wash and a little nap alone, or head off out to enjoy some territorial freedom. I love dogs, and there are many times when I’ve been tempted to adopt one, but when push comes to shove, I haven’t. It boils down to the fact they’re so damn needy, always there, needing consideration. I couldn’t have one when I was out working from all day, and now that I’m not, it makes me weary just to think of it, all that responsibility.
Now in the thick of middle age, I still don’t have a dog, but I do have two small children. ‘The girls’ are five and nearly three, so between them pretty much a thousand times as needy as that dog I was never brave enough to adopt. Although I love our children with all my heart, there are times when I feel like shouting ‘Enough already!’ The service is relentless: a supply of drinks and meals, supervision of loo-trips, assistance donning coats and shoes and gloves, refereeing arguments, strapping into car seats, not to mention the endless explanations as to ‘why?’
After the magic hour when both children are safely tucked up in bed, some days I sit down with my husband and exude the relief of one who has just been released from the horror of water torture. ‘Wine o’clock’ after ‘arsenic hour’ are the terms my friends use.
The fact is, inter-species metamorphosis is not a possibility and so a dog is a dog for the whole of its life. But it is the case that our adorable human puppies will – before too long – transform into aloof pussy cats. I imagine when that happens, as parents we’ll be regretful, nostalgic for canine devotion and longing to be needed once again.
My husband remembers how when he was a boy, his father bought him a fishing rod as a present. My husband would pester his father to take him out and, in all weathers, they could be found sitting on the river bank – an excited small boy with his patient father. But when my husband was fully grown, indeed an independent man, the roles were reversed and it was father who commandeered reluctant son into sitting together on the river bank, reminiscing silently while waiting for a fish to bite.
A friend complains that every evening on his return from work, when all he wants is to slump into the sofa, he's forced into a game of dragons and knights with his young son. ‘You wait,’ my husband prophecies with a chuckle, ‘We’ll soon be knocking on their bedroom doors while they have their music playing, asking if they'd like to come and set the scene for battle with Lego.’
I suppose it’s no news that the grass is always greener. But I am trying my very best to defy the cliché and nurture the greenest grass on the block. The puppy-years should be a phase to be cherished rather than endured. Before we know it, our dogs will be cats and my husband and I may well be tempted to fill the gap with a real puppy.