20 Oct Learning Slowly, but Learning
Shortly after my future wife and I moved in together, we got two very cute kittens. We were in our early 20’s and woefully unprepared to take care of ourselves, let alone other living things, but we did the best we could. The only pet I had as a child was a box turtle that I found near the creek. I was about 8 at the time and I put in on the ground hoping it would watch me play basketball. The ball landed on his shell, and it never came out again. My girlfriend, on the other hand, had grown up with pets and she even had a cat after college for a couple of years when she lived in LA. It became her sister’s cat when she moved to New York.
Everything was great for the first month of our kitten experiment. The cats got along and seemed to be adjusting pretty well to apartment life. However, at their first vet check-up, we were told that the male kitty had a heart murmur. When we brought him back the following week for an extremely expensive echocardiogram, the fancy machine confirmed the diagnosis. Everything would be fine we were told; we simply had to give him a pill each day to thin his blood so that it wouldn’t clot.
It wouldn’t be worth re-telling if it didn’t get more complicated than that. If you’ve ever had a cat you know the old stick it in peanut butter trick doesn’t work. Not only did he refuse to take it, even trying to force it down his throat didn’t work. Still, we felt like we had to try. Most times he’d find a way to get it back up. As you can guess, this did wonders for our relationship. Soon he was an anxious mess. The medicine also thinned his blood so much that sometimes when he sneezed, he’d pass out. We eventually stopped giving him the pills, but the damage was done to his psyche. Many years later when we took him a different vet they found nothing wrong with his heart.
A couple of years later we got a dog. He was a Pit Bull, Rottweiler, Chow mix. It doesn’t sound like it, but he was a sweetheart, unless you happened to be another dog that subtly challenged him. He also needed a lot of walks and a lot of attention. We certainly did a passable and loving job of taking care of them, but we had a lot of learning to do. A dog like spooky, with as much energy and enthusiasm as he had, is extremely hard to handle at times. As much as I tried to be calm and firm when I took him on walks, I often yanked back a bit too hard when he lunged at a cat or a person.
By the time we got married, and bought a house, the idea of having kids began to take shape. For the previous decade, I had been in a band, and my wife and I had started to make films. When we first got cats, we had to take small steps towards being responsible. When we got a dog, we had to get home at a reasonable hour, and we even started staying in.
Having had pets for a few years made it seem possible to have children, whereas before that it hadn’t even occurred to me that I might someday have them. At first, it was a nebulous feeling, and slowly it became more insistent. When our first daughter Fiona was born, Spooky the dog seemed a little too interested in her. Having seen him catch and shake a few feral kittens in a way that did not leave them alive, we decided to call a trainer for guidance. He helped us to see that Spooky wasn’t being aggressive, he was just just trying to play with the new member of the family.
The male cat took things a little bit harder in terms of the new arrival and started to spray in several different spots in the house. This went on for a few years and became more brazen. He eventually started to come over to the couch while we were on it and let fly. It wasn’t too long before he moved in with the cat man at Pratt. It was heartbreaking to see him go, but the stress of a cat that sprayed repeatedly was overwhelming. About 6 months after our second daughter Harper was born, Spooky had a stomach torsion and passed away. This was particularly difficult because it felt like we should have been able to help him. We were left with one cat and two girls.
After I started to write this piece, a friend of mine shared a story with me about a two year old who refused to sleep in her own bed. The article was about ideas related to “attachment parenting.” When we first got a dog, we were told not to let it sleep in the bed because this would make it more aggressive. He of course wanted to sleep with us, and frankly I liked it when he slept with us. I could see how the process might make the dog “too” attached, and anxious when we left the house. In any case, he was a wreck whenever we left. Perhaps we gave him mixed signals and confused him, or perhaps he was just a pack dog that needed to be around others.
In any case, I think the message that we shouldn’t let our dog sleep in the bed bled over to when we had kids. Our daughter started to sleep in her own crib but often ended up in our laps in a rocking chair. We tried the cry-it-out method, which was brutally difficult for us. It worked for a short while, but our efforts to keep our kids in their cribs was enervating on every level. When I re-posted the Washington Post piece, the comments were profoundly aware of how odd it is to separate children from their parents when they are young. Almost everyone who responded to the Post spoke about the social shaming they got for letting their children sleep with them. We never fully embraced the family-bed idea, but in retrospect, I wish that we had. The girls still have great difficulty going to sleep by themselves, and I doubt that having them sleep with us would have made this situation any worse. At the very least, we might have ended up sleeping better ourselves.
When our remaining cat got sick and passed away, we went petless for many years. Speaking of social shaming; when the cat was 14 years old, she couldn’t keep food down and stopped eating. I took her to the vet and they wanted to do an ultrasound. I wasn’t planning on letting them do surgery, so I asked what the point was. The vet looked at me like I was evil and couldn’t even get out an answer. I asked what we could do to help her that was minimally invasive. They gave her some saline to hydrate her. She continued to not eat. I took her to another vet who put her to sleep as I held her. In retrospect, knowing what I know now, I would have kept her at home and tried to keep her comfortable and feeling loved. You live and you learn.
From time to time someone would suggest a dog or a cat, but we just weren’t ready for the responsibility. It was hard enough for us to handle two needy girls. However, over the last year, as we slowly settled into a new house outside of the city, the idea of pets became more possible. In addition to having a slower pace of life, my wife and I have been actively working at becoming calmer, and becoming more connected parents.
I think that most people who know us would say that we’re good parents. We were extremely active in our daughters’ school, and their lives, when we lived in Brooklyn. Working from home affords us a good deal of flexibility, but it also means that work life and home life bleed together. When I first got an iphone it meant I could take my daughters to the park and still respond to work calls and emails. However, it also meant that even when I was at the park I was still at work. We’re a little less active in their schools now, but we still spend a lot of time with them. However, over the past year we have been working diligently to figure out how we might do better, and the first step was simply becoming more mindful in our own lives. As we have slowly accomplished this goal, our home has become just a bit calmer, our daughters have become a little less anxious, and communication has improved. About a month ago, we realized that we all finally felt ready to get a pet.
There was some back and forth about whether or not we’d get a dog. Eventually we decided on kittens. Our first visit to the pound was hard. Our girls fell in love with two male kittens. They were cute, but after our spraying experience, I was not willing to go that route. The next week we went back and there were only two female kittens available. One was shy and quite like our youngest daughter. It slowly settled itself in her lap and didn’t leave. The other was curious and wild like our older daughter. The girls wanted them badly. We were on the fence at first about whether or not we should take the first cats we saw, but eventually the woman at the shelter pushed us into it. She convinced us just in time because as we walked to the desk to fill out the paperwork, a woman who had visited with the kitties earlier in the day came rushing in with her friend to get them. She’d felt like her roommate needed to meet them first. I guess they were destined to be our cats.
Working on a film that deals with with Nature vs. Nurture, I understand that both play a big role in who we become. Having a second set of kittens gives me insight into how the work that we are doing in our own lives has real world consequences. We were blessed with sweet kitties both times. I think we didn’t do the best job dealing with difficulties in our first at bat. This time, when the first big problem cropped up I was more prepared. In the first week of our kittens introduction to the family, one of them (or maybe both but I think it was the shy one, Sophie) decided to start using the bathroom behind our piano. It had been going on for a few days before we noticed so it was difficult to break her from this habit.
In the past I knew not to express anger at a pet or a child when it made a mistake, but I wasn’t always as successful in keeping my feelings to myself as I might have liked. One of the benefits of having spent a year practicing meditation is that I am now much more aware and in control of my feelings. This is not to say that I’m better at repressing them, but instead better at letting them go when they arise, rather than reacting to them. Still, I found this situation with the bathroom issues to be somewhat overwhelming. At first I feared we’d have to get rid of Sophie if we couldn’t stop the problem, but I committed myself to being present and watchful so that we could calmly fix the problem. Whenever she headed towards the piano, I would gently bring her to the litter box and praise her for staying in it. It took about a week, and a couple of accidents, but she slowly caught on.
We also use a spray bottle to keep the cats off of the dining room table and the kitchen counter. We did the same with our other cats, and they started to become scared of us. While I might have tried to be calm in the past, I’m sure that I would get angry if they kept getting on the table. However, this time we’ve taken great pains to be calm when we spray. The cats see us with the bottle and clearly know that we have hit them with water, but they don’t run from us with fear. I often go over and pet them shortly after spraying them. There are only subtle differences between my behavior then and now, but I know that cats and kids pick up on even small cues.
Being a pet owner taught me enough responsibility to consider being a parent. Being a mere fair to middling parent made owning a pet seem to be out of reach. Meanwhile, as I’ve learned to become a better parent, getting a pet became possible to me once again. Ultimately, having learned to be a better parent made us much better pet owners. These cats are so sweet and well-adjusted that they have brought a huge degree of joy to our house, and in turn have made our children that much happier. The kids are learning to be more responsible by cleaning the litter box, and their behavior and comfort level have both improved. Sometimes it takes a bit of time, but our experience makes it clear to me that change is possible.