Practice Makes Nothing (or why a dog is not a baby)

There are a lot of things in life that if you practice you get better at (remember that whole 10,000 hours thing); playing a musical instrument, shooting hoops, drilling for a spelling test. The more you practice the better you get. In some ways that is true of any habit or attitude: if you practice anger you find more things to be angry about, if you practice gratitude you find more to be grateful for and such. And then there are some things that you can’t practice for, even if you think you can or you have and the best you can do is stay calm, patient and willing to be wrong so that you leave some room to learn!

I currently have two dogs and two cats. I have had pets almost continuously since I have been an adult. For the better part of sixteen years and I have had one child, and two for over thirteen years. I love my furry friends, they are wonderful and they are a gift in my life, but they are not children and I am here to tell you they do pretty much nothing to prepare you for parenting.

As I write this I have one cat roaming the front yard, one cat curled unto a fluffy grey ball in the center of a purple flower cat tree (looking at her there gives me great joy, especially when I can see the sparkle of her rhinestone collar), and two dogs fast asleep behind me on the floor. They have been doing basically this exact same thing for the last four hours, which has allowed me to sit here, working away. When my children come home from school they will stand over my desk and demand things of me: food, attention, homework supervision, appointment scheduling, and so on and so forth. I will get no work done.

You can train a dog and I have heard that if you are really motivated you can train a cat (I am not really motivated), you can not train a baby. Babies need a lot of attention, they will not “lay down” when you tell them to, you can not give them a toy and leave them for hours, you can not lock them in a crate if they are irritating you – get the picture? Before my daughter was born I had this idea that she would sleep when I put her down for a nap. In retrospect that is hilarious. The sleep thing by itself is a joke, but sleep on command is just absurd. So that plan for, ‘oh I’ll study while she naps’ was wrong. And it doesn’t really change over time. Sure they get older and the sleep on a more or less regular schedule, but you can’t “train” a child. Maybe you say to them “when I’m at my desk you are not to interrupt me” and it works until they are thirty and in therapy talking about how you always prioritized work over being with them and caring about their day and their feelings, and then you don’t get any work done because you feel terrible all the time. Training a dog gives you a good dog, training a child gives you who knows what but probably a lot of apologizing and regret.

Before children, in the ‘practice with a dog phase’ you can still leave the house without a whole lot of planning. Need to run to the grocery store? What happens if you leave the two year old alone for twenty minutes? I know, there are dogs with separation anxiety and you may end up with a half eaten couch (I have had this and really appreciate all those free couches I got when the dog was growing out of that seven year stage). Want to go on vacation? You can get a dog sitter for as little as $20 a day and off you go. There are loads of great dog sitters out there, but there are fewer people qualified to take care of kids for $20 a day – finding a bargain in childcare is not really a chance you want to take.

One of the really wonderful things about my dogs is that they are very consistent in their moods. When I travel they get a little annoyed, but they get over it really fast, like instantly if I get on the floor and give them kisses. Did I mention instantly? Humans of any age lack that consistency. We don’t need to address hormonal situations to which we are all subject, but just as a reference point let’s not forget moods as a distinction between person and pet. The cats get moody sure, but they don’t stand in my room yelling at me. Worst-case scenario I have to get a new pair of shoes.

None of this is to suggest that anyone thinking about having kids should not, or that there isn’t something magical and wonderful and fantastic about children. This is just a reminder to those folks who think you can practice for something that has no comparison, dreaming about flying doesn’t help when you jump off a building; or those other folks who tell you about doggy daycare when you are on your way to pick up your child who just got suspended for ‘what the hell were you thinking’ fill in the blank. It’s not the same, that’s all. It’s all wonderful and messy and noisy and good and crazy, but it’s not that same and nothing prepares you for what’s next.

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