Sarah Fenske’s in dogged pursuit of maternal instinct

By the time my mother was my age, she'd already had three children. Me, I've yet to figure out how to keep a plant alive.

This has been freaking me out a bit lately, and not in a my-biological-clock-is-ticking kind of way. (It isn't.) It's more like it suddenly occurred to me that I'm 31 years old and, if anything, more footloose than I was at 21. I've got no mortgage, no kids, no pets — only a forlorn cactus positioned on my apartment's balcony so it can collect its annual two inches of rain, no watering can necessary.

I am living a completely selfish life, which, now that I realize it, scares me a little. At least in my 20s I had a pair of fish!

The author and her mother share a laugh in 1977.
The author and her mother share a laugh in 1977.

So I decided to get a dog.

I'm not really a dog person: never been around them, never really wanted to be around them. But cats can't come with you to the park, they don't like parties, and they certainly don't want to fly to San Francisco for an impromptu weekend getaway. I'm not sure my dog will want to do all this, either, but I'm hopeful.

I'm also petrified.

At first, when the idea was abstract, it was fun. I spent hours making lists of dog names. Henry? Trotsky? Buckley!

But when the breeder was selected, and the puppy picked, I started to worry. There's good reason I don't have pets or plants or babies in my life. I like staying out late and drinking too much. I don't have a primary-care physician and I don't take my vitamins. I don't want to take care of myself, much less anyone else.

So what, I thought, if I come home too late one night, and the dog's peed all over my apartment?

What if he gets sick? What if I accidentally starve him to death?

What if, asks a small voice inside my head, he doesn't like me?

And now I'm thinking frantically about how I need a puppy gate and a puppy crate and puppy food and I need to find a vet and — how do people do this? And how do they afford it?

Maybe it's only because ads for Mother's Day are everywhere this week, but I thought of my mom.

She was 26 when she got pregnant with my older sister. Not all that young, of course, but younger than I am today. And here I'm freaking out about a dog.

How could my mom possibly have known what she was doing?

How does any mother?

There are five of us Fenske kids, and I used to think how alien we must have seemed to my mother.

My mother comes from a family of Indiana farmers, one that's tilled the same fertile soil since 1830 without ever questioning their calling. I don't want to say they're simple people, but calling them complicated would be not only inaccurate, but an insult to their good humor, their heartiness, their all-around niceness. My mother was the only girl among three brothers and was the apple of her daddy's eye. An Indiana princess.

No one has ever accused me or my siblings of being royalty. As kids, we were all elbows and Coke-bottle glasses; I'm not really sure my mother knew what to do with fourth-graders who read Thomas Hardy and played "French Revolution" in the backyard. We were young royals on the lam from marauding peasants. (I know, I know.) My sisters and I always felt that we were letting Mom down because we weren't pretty and we weren't popular. But what could we do about it? We were clueless.

My mom says that none of this ever occurred to her. She doesn't overthink things the way I do, I guess.

I called her last week to talk about my dog fears. Of course, I didn't frame it that way; I could hardly admit to my mother that I was petrified about something so silly. So we talked about kids — specifically, her decision to give up any semblance of a glamorous life and have the five of us.

She said that, at the time, she never really stopped to think about the choices she was making. That's how it was then. You got married, you bought a house, and then you had kids. You didn't agonize over children the way my girlfriends do because, in part, your choices were fewer. You could not, for the most part, decide to have a baby if you weren't in a committed relationship. Nor could you wait until you were 45 and try something tricky with hormones. Or just pick Daddy out at a sperm bank.

So after my mom and dad got married, they bought a house. They decided to have a baby soon after that mostly because, my mom says, she didn't like her job.

"I was pretty restless," she says.

When I was 25 and restless, I got divorced and moved cross-country. That was not how things worked in 1975. And so my sister Amy was born, and then me, and then my three younger siblings. (Amy and I used to fantasize about how much happier we'd be if they'd stopped at two.)

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If your mother thinks you don't have to get up in the middle of the night with a puppy, then it's obvious she has never had a puppy!




As usual this is a great story Sarah, and I'm sure you will do just fine.. dogs or kids!

Dr. Kent
Dr. Kent

Trotsky or Buckley? Man, you are ambivalent--if you can't decide whether to name your dog after a commie or a supposed conservative!


There are many many women who regret having had children. Like your mom, they didn't realize they didn't have to get married and produce a family. Some are bitter because they believe they played by the rules and got stuck with a husband and children who haven't lived up to their end of the bargain by providing grateful appreciation, some because they gave up their plans of going to nursing school or opening their own greenhouse or whatever in order to do something they had been trained to believe was more important and more noble; some are just plain tired and depressed. they can be very resentful of women who chose not to marry and have children and whom they believe are all too carefree and disrespectful of the mom's conformation to the societal model. it's sad and it's ugly, but it's an egg that can't be put back in the shell, no pun intended.

and that's my succint sociological analysis [i went to college on a scholarship].


Sarah: I envy your mom. It sounds like she is about my age. But I was much more like you then and for me, not having the choices you have, was horrible for a young woman whose expertise and interests and talents were all in the mens' domain and closed tightly to women like me.

Women our age fought very hard to go up against a system that you yourself couldn't even imagine. It pains me that today, women your age don't really grasp that this backsliding into the fifties, i.e. anti-feminism, anti-abortion, anti-just about all of the difficult strides that were made, is something that women your age MUST be vigilant to protect the rights you have and to fight for rights that are still denied to you.

Your mom sounds like a peach of a person and you were very fortunate to have her. I've lived my life feeling like I've let my own kids down because I just didn't fit the mold.

About the dog: get a small one. That way the pee and poop problems will also be 'small.' Don't opt for a golden retriever or a labrador. A lhasa apso, shitzu or anything bigger than a chihuahua but not much bigger and I think you'll do fine. But for God's sake, do NOT get a dog because you think that you need something to take care of to be "normal." That's just too 'fifties think' for me :)

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