Sarah Fenske’s in dogged pursuit of maternal instinct

The author and her mother share a laugh in 1977.

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!

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.)

My mother's life changed completely. By the time she went back to work, Bill Clinton was president. By the time she and my dad shuttled my youngest sister off to college, 30 years had passed.

Now, you'd think someone who stumbled into motherhood might regret spending that much time on it. Okay, maybe you wouldn't think that — I think that, because I love my job and love having enough disposable income to shop (occasionally!) at Stuart Weitzman.

But not my mom. She was genuinely good at being a mom, and as weird as it seems to me now, I think it was quite fulfilling for her. She blossomed.

In fact, she misses little kids so much that she and my dad typically spend half their weekends driving to visit my sister in Milwaukee. That's 16 hours in the car, round trip. And I might point out they haven't been to Phoenix in three years.

Milwaukee is where their grandchild is.

They love this little guy so much that my mom actually cites him as one reason they're glad they had kids. I'm thinking, what, we're this bridge generation to your perfect little baby boy? Thanks a lot, Mom!

You never meet anyone who regrets having kids, only people who regret not having them. Even parents who have the most awful kids seem to think they're great.

That can't just be about the kids. I think it may say more about the process of parenting.

When my mom tried to explain to me how wonderful motherhood is, she spoke only briefly about how cute we were and how much fun it was to watch us running around. In retrospect, I think she loved having us partly because she sees now how much parenthood changed her. That it moved her, forcibly, from her own selfishness into something challenging — and wondrous.

"If Dad and I hadn't had all you kids, we would have worked all those years," she says. "So we would have had a lot more money. Why? To pay for the nursing home?"

Nothing like a chat with Mom to make me question my own life choices. So I crack a joke. "Hey, at least I'll have a dog to grow old with."

"Sarah, getting a dog is a lark," my mother says. "It's not going to be anything close to a child! You're not going to have to get up in the middle of the night with your dog. You're not going to have to quit your job, or shift to something less demanding, in order to raise him! You're not going to have to change diapers."

Yes . . . Exactly.

A dog may sound like a small step to a woman who raised five kids without complaining. But for this frazzled career girl, it's giant-leap time.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. I'm off to PetSmart.

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