Abstract: An unexpected encounter between two dogs resulted in four gorgeous puppies and plunged me, owner of the bitch, into a deep reflection about the decision to become a mother. This text aims to be funny yet deep, honest and thought-provoking. It moves from the dog to the dog owner, questioning whether the act of becoming a mother resulted from a formal decision and how the choice to become a mother has changed throughout my generation (X) and the following one.
“Put your dog on the leash, my dog’s in heat!” I nervously asked the man.
I had been walking along the river Rhone with Cali for roughly an hour, we were returning home. Reluctantly, I had been holding her on a leash all throughout our walk. She, a free-spirited golden retriever, hated the restriction as much as I did. Despite the precaution, I was not able to stop the events that followed. The man’s dog darted like an arrow; he was on her before I could protect my adorable bitch.
The man, his daughter, Tiffany, I would learn, and I stood next to our copulating dogs, making small talk for what felt like an eternity. He had just arrived from Rome with his dog Flanders, also a golden retriever, to visit his daughter, a young architect living in Geneva. All three of them were gorgeous, tall, fair skin and fur, light eyes with an aristocratic air. He had let the dog out of the car after the long drive. Ninety per cent of male dogs in Switzerland are neutered, but Flanders, Italian, was not. The perfect cliché. Tiffany and I exchanged phone numbers, “just in case.”
My husband didn’t believe it had been an accident. He knew I always wanted to have puppies.
“I’m telling you; I did not plan any of this! The dog smelled Cali and jumped on to her. Pure instinct.”
I had raised the topic a few times, “Wouldn’t you love to hold a puppy in the palm of your hand? I think Cali would love to be a mother.”
“You’re projecting things. She doesn’t miss what she’s never experienced.”
“I didn’t start wanting to be a mother when I became one. I always wanted to be a mother, for as long as I can remember,” I stated, convinced.
A month later, Tiffany called. “No,” I said, “Cali’s fine, I don’t see any signs of pregnancy.”
But Cali started acting strange a few days later. She would lie down on the street as soon as we were out of the house, no longer excited to go for a walk.
“What are you doing? Come on, I need to go to work,” I’d prompt her, with no result. She looked at me with a jaded expression. That night at dinner, Chloé, my teenage daughter, said, “I think Cali’s pregnant after all.”
“I see four puppies,” the veterinarian told us scrolling the ultrasound over Cali’s belly, “there could be more, they might be hiding in there”. Chloé and I were delighted with the news. “They’ll arrive in 3–4 weeks.”
“What?!” Chloé and I exclaimed in unison.
“Yes, dog pregnancies are only 60 days long. She’s at least a month pregnant.”
We would need to prepare a nesting box, read about pregnancy and puppy care. I called Tiffany to give her the news. Three weeks later, a Saturday in October, Cali started pacing restlessly around the apartment. She went out to the small garden, then returned right away, went under the table, moved to the kitchen. She seemed to be in search of her soul. A friend of mine, an expert in animal behaviour, had stopped by for a coffee. “Your dog’s in labour,” she said. Cali finally lay down under the staircase, somewhat protected, yet visible and reachable by us.
Did Cali want to be alone? I thought of the birth of my first child, born in the ’90s in Bern when no anaesthesia was the new modern. I recalled looking in dismay at the doctor, the nurse, the midwife expecting them to be there for a purpose, alleviate the pain, be of some use. But they seemed to be extras in a film, with no instructions. When I finally realized they were onlookers, I focused my energy inwards, on the breathing. Cali, ignoring me, was doing the same.
Out came the first puppy. I recognized the contractions, the pain. Cali birthed in silence, stoic. Every 15 minutes, a new puppy was born, a total of four. Unassisted, her body ejected what had been maturing in her. She tore the amniotic bags with her teeth, freeing the tiny blind and clumsy beings, and then eating the remains. I was stunned. Cali instinctively knew what she had to do, or so it appeared.
Soon came the surprise. Cali didn’t want the puppies. She retreated physically and emotionally. She stared at them, wrinkled her snout, showed her teeth. Shortly after, she started barking at them. Get out of my life! She seemed to say. I thought of the magnet on my fridge, a woman surrounded by three children and the words, “Who are these kids and why are they calling me Mom?” My children never found it funny, children rarely understand self-deprecating humour, especially if it involves parenting and our ambivalent feelings about the job.
I thought of my friend Sonya who rejected her newborn. “I felt no connection to the child, it could have been a pair of filthy shoes someone had misplaced on my bed,” she admitted. At the maternity, Sonya looked at the child with no sense of belonging, felt no bonding. Her husband took over. He bathed the baby, she looked at the lovely scene and still felt nothing. Soon after, she started seeing a psychologist. She learnt this feeling is much more common than acknowledged by society, obsessed with images of Madonna with child, both blissful in the act of breastfeeding. “People romanticize motherhood,” Sonya said, “you among them,” she added.
As the afternoon advanced, the situation worsened. I thought about my sister’s dog, Ilona, who killed her first litter. “Dogs do that when they feel the circumstances for dog bearing are not right,” my sister, a psychiatrist, had told me. The circumstances? I reflected, the “act” by the river hadn’t been a love affair. Even if I had been telling the story as “This elegant Italian dog stepped out of his Lamborghini and got Cali pregnant.” I wondered what Cali thought about the ‘encounter’. Clearly, she had not expressed any consent.
A series of questions assaulted me while I took in the puppy rejection scene: Do bitches yearn to have babies? Do they exercise a choice? Can they experience puppy blues? Is there something like consent among animals? Was Cali depressed? What on earth is maternal instinct after all? How could she be so good at birthing and then not want the babies? I thought of my mother and her severe post-partum depression. I had definitively been naïve romanticizing about puppies.
And then came the question, had I been equally naïve when I took the decision to have children? Moreover, had I ever decided to have children? Or had I simply become a mother because it was expected of me?
“What defines something as a decision?” I asked my husband, a philosopher, between Cali’s barks. We were both staring bleakly at our new reality. I was grateful he wasn’t blaming me for it.
“For something to be a decision three conditions at least must be fulfilled,” he began. “First, there have to be options, then, there has to be intentionality, and finally, there needs to be an absence of causal necessity.” He’s always so sharp.
I reflected on the first condition, the options. What were my options back then? I was born in Colombia in the mid ’60s. The concept of an accomplished adult woman was intrinsically linked to motherhood. I never thought of motherhood as being optional.
“Why do you ask?” Francis interrupted my thoughts.
“Well, “I always wanted to have children, but I’m not sure if I ever took the decision in those terms.”
“What defines us as human beings is our consciousness of our freedom,” he said and made a reference to Kant. Ever the intellectual.
If you can’t imagine your life without children, does the lack of imagination become a lack of option? In the time and place when I was defining my adulthood, a woman without children was something to lament. Cali though seemed to have been perfectly happy without ‘children’. I think of my children now in their early and late 20s. They analyse the childbearing question thoroughly, including the environmental impact. Was the world I brought them into in better shape than it is now? Not significantly. I was simply less aware of my freedom to decide.
Cali’s aggressive barking interrupted my reverie. If she didn’t “cooperate”, I would be bottle-feeding the puppies every two hours, day and night, for eight weeks. I began, “Listen, Cali, I know this wasn’t your idea, and yes, that dog was a bastard, but these here are magnificent, innocent beings and they happen to be your babies. They’ll be here for a while, and then we’ll find them nice homes. Everything will go back to normal.”
I kept repeating through the night while I took one puppy at a time and brought it to her nipple, making sure I hid the animal from her eyes, otherwise she growled at them. After a while of sucking, they all fell asleep. I pulled out my laptop and started to search for advice. Bitches lick their newborns to get the blood circulating. This ensures adequate body temperature and keeps the newborns warm. Cali was not licking her puppies. I covered their bodies with liquid honey. It worked. Cali licked the honey off her puppies’ bodies. Instinct had worked that far, honey was doing the rest.
After nine weeks the puppies made their way to new homes. Soon after my children too left. Cali and I both faced an empty-nest. We began going on long walks, enjoying our company and our undivided attention to each other. At times she stared melancholically at the horizon, and I wondered if she missed her puppies or the liquid honey.
As for me, I regularly visit my grown-up children, and I celebrate that becoming a mother is the best decision I never took. My children, and their generation, will decide more freely than any previous generation ever has, whether to become parents or not. Their choice will be a more conscient, reflected and informed choice. They will exercise greater freedom when they reflect on the parenthood question. This is a good thing.