The cult of the dog mom
How hearing my boyfriend refer to me as "mommy" in front of a puppy changed my life?
I never intended to be a dog mom. When I first began longing for a dog in 2018, I was living alone in Los Angeles, two years into a nearly four year period of being single. By that point, being single was a choice. Online dating felt like work, and I knew I wasn’t ready for a relationship, but wanting a dog was perhaps nevertheless a warning sign of loneliness. For the first time in my life, I was questioning whether I even wanted to get married or have a family. I felt protective of the leisurely pace of my life and its copious solitude. But I wanted a companion. I wanted another body on the couch as I watched TV at night—as long as I could watch what I wanted to watch and read what I wanted to read. I wanted someone with whom to hike and walk around town so I wouldn’t feel like I stood out as so visibly alone all the time. I wanted wordless company. I wanted another heartbeat to help regulate mine. I wanted love without rejection.
It was hard to imagine a dog fulfilling any of those functions if I felt like its mother. I wanted a dog, in part, to help take care of ME. But some of my friends embraced the “dog mom” persona. “You’ll understand when you get a dog,” they told me. My best friend and I would howl with laughter, remembering how she would commiserate with colleagues with young children. “I have a two year old too,” she would say, failing to disclose that her two year old was an Australian Shepherd named Winnie. I would never equate a dog with a baby, I thought. I wouldn’t let a dog make me a mother. I had “Childfree by Choice” checked out from the library. I envisioned feeling like my rescue pup and I were equals who took care of each other, and who offered each other different things. Food for love.
I didn’t always want a dog. I liked dogs, but wasn’t ready to alter my lifestyle for one. And for a long time, I couldn’t imagine having one without a partner. I worried about having to rush home to a dog during a stage of my twenties when I felt like, in order to build a life, I needed to spend more time out in the world, not less. I didn’t want another excuse to not embrace spontaneity. If I had a partner and was ready to commit to a dog, I always figured we might as well just have a baby. But to my surprise, my first dog cravings came when I was alone, when I didn’t think I wanted a baby. I wanted to love something—someone—but I did not want my life to be turned upside down or my identity to change.
To my surprise, romance came first. On some level, wanting a dog must have been a harbinger of a turning point, because when Ben came back into my life, I realized I was ready to turn my life upside down in exchange for his company. Early in the pandemic (and early in our relationship), Ben and I dogsat for a friend of a friend who had two miniature poodles. Her well-appointed home in Silver Lake was the first house aside from our own that we had stepped inside in months, and I was giddy with excitement at the prospect of playing house with views of downtown LA. Within 48 hours of her departure, the blind and deaf older dog, Horace, came down with a urinary tract infection. A UTI veteran myself, I diagnosed it after the second night, when he barked to go to the bathroom every 45 minutes. I crawled down the hallway, feeling the white rug for dampness and traces of blood. Waking up with him and gently coaxing him outside and back inside, I found strength and care I didn’t know I had. I felt like a mom. We took him to the pet ER and soon antibiotics were added to his regimen, alongside his eye drop routine. The younger dog, Minnie, was easy. She liked to sleep in the bed on the pillow next to me, and curled up at my feet next to my desk. She was scared of fireworks and needed to be swaddled in a “thunder jacket” as she hid in the bathroom next to the toilet. I fell in love.
I was also falling in love with Ben. The first night we went out to a restaurant in months, when outdoor dining was just reopening, we came home to the Silver Lake house, drunk on a couple of drinks and the thrill of eating out in the world. We sat on the bed as the two dogs welcomed us home, squirming in our laps and licking our faces. I caught a glimpse of our reflection in the mirrored closet doors and I saw a family. Those two weeks felt like two months, as we adapted to living and working in a new place, and added caring for two tiny little dog lives into our routines. I was so overwhelmed and so in love.
Nearly as soon as Ben and I started dating, we started talking about getting a dog. But at first we were long-distance, and it was therefore not the time to get a dog. And then it was the pandemic and we were going back and forth between my house in LA and his house with roommates in San Francisco. It wouldn’t be good for a puppy, Ben said, to move him around like that. But it was settled—we would get a dog when we moved in together. We agreed we would rescue. But by the time we were settled and ready, the pandemic puppy crazy had made it about as difficult to adopt a rescue dog in the Bay Area as it was to buy a house—both processes requiring a seemingly endless cycle of online browsing, surges of hope, lengthy applications, and inevitable disappointment.
We adopted Toby from the East Bay SPCA when he was ten weeks old. We had met a one year old lab mix named Raz Matazz at the shelter a couple of days earlier. “She’s not our dog,” Ben said, as I teared up on the drive home leaving her behind. A volunteer called us back on Sunday morning. They had a ten week old puppy named Vernon who had arrived from Tulsa with his mother and the rest of the litter. He was recovering from Parvo—a feisty survivor. They sent us a photo of a skinny little baby puppy sitting on a towel.
Even though Ben and I had been living together for months at that point, the moment I knew Toby was ours was the same moment I felt in my bones that Ben and I would have a family. “Toby, go say hi to Mommy,” Ben cooed to the ten-pound puppy, all baby face and wagging tail, using the name we had picked out in advance. In that moment, it was as if Ben had said a magic word, one that unlocked something by setting the gears in my heart turning, opening me up to the possibility of motherhood and its stockpiled reserves of love.
If that sounds disgustingly trite, I agree. I feel sheepish admitting that, after years of journaling and thousands of dollars in therapy ruminating on my reluctance to assume the identity of a wife or a mother, all that it took to open my heart was being referred to as a puppy’s “Mommy” by my then-boyfriend. How basic am I? How could I have such a strong emotional reaction to something so ridiculous - being referred to as the mother of an animal, in the diminutive form reserved for young children? Was I really just wired to soften in the presence of a baby face calling out to me or, in this case, a man signaling my maternal virtue?
Despite my maternal feelings towards the miniature poodles in Silver Lake the year before, I still had not associated adopting a dog with becoming a mother. A dog is not a baby, I thought over and over again, when I saw yuppie dog owners wheeling tiny dogs down the street in a stroller. Ben and I rolled our eyes at adoption applications asking us to explain our disciplinary philosophy and list upcoming vacations, and to identify in advance the brand of food we would feed our dog.
But in that urine-proof puppy visiting room, there was a tiny vulnerable creature for whom I was about to assume responsibility and for whom my heart was already expanding. The immediacy of my love for Toby was unlike anything I have ever experienced, perhaps unlike anything I will experience until my baby is placed in my arms. Romantic love grows slowly. Another adult begins as attractive or interesting and then becomes known and attached and cared for, and only later, loved. With Toby, my world immediately shrunk to the three of us in that room, and my love for Toby was born out of my love for Ben, for the promise of the family we were beginning together.
When I began longing for a dog, I wanted someone to love, but I worried that loving someone would change my identity—an identity I was carefully crafting to be strong and independent and intentionally selfish. I had been burned by giving too much of myself in love. What I didn’t know is how much having a dog would change me, how I would happily let my daily rhythm be dictated by a wet nose peeking up over the side of the bed and a wagging tail when I walked in the door. I didn’t know how effortless loving would be, and how being loved by a dog would change me, how the bundle of adoration and dependence and curiosity would shift the way I viewed myself and the world each day. Toby has taught me that when your world constricts tightly, it can deepen, and grow in ways I couldn’t have predicted. And both Toby and Ben have taught me that loving is not as depleting when you are loved in return.
This post was initially intended to coincide with Mother’s Day and to provide a more timely reflection on motherhood and my process of acclimation toward the idea. Instead it is coming over two weeks later, after ten days of traveling and a week in Los Angeles that was more social and exciting than my usual life at home, a week in which I relished the freedom that comes with being away from home and out of routine—both luxuries of being childfree. And yet desire stirs slowly, sped up by the weight of Toby’s head on my shoulder as he falls asleep on my chest on the couch each night. Who knows what will happen, and when and if having a biological baby is in our future. But even in my stage of eschewing relationships, I would say, when asked (and a thirty-year-old woman is always asked), that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have a baby, but I knew that I wanted to mother. I’m still working through why the verb scares me less than a noun. But I did ask for a “Dog Mom” hat for Mother’s Day.