On The Back Burner
“I want you to go away from me,” my almost-five-year-old daughter tells me, in no uncertain terms, as I attempt to slide in next to her on the couch. She’s drawing butterflies with creamy pastels, completely absorbed in the creative process and wants me nowhere nearby. Her elbow presses into my ribs — is this a shove?
It’s the first time she’s pushed me away like this, and I’m taken aback, surprised at this from my normally cuddly, “never go away from me, I want you to stay with me all the time” child. She’s been at school today and I was at a meeting last night; I haven’t seen much of her lately, which just may be one of the reasons she’s pushing me away.
So, I go, but I don’t feel too good about it. I thought we’d make homemade ice cream together and then, hand in hand, take the dog with us on one of our meandering nature walks. I should sprint to the computer and tackle the piece of unfinished writing, lunge for the myriad of things that have been pushed to the back burner for so long now.
Instead, I let the worry set in: this is probably the first step of many to come where she’ll push me away; maybe it’s a preview of her teen self who screams leave me alone! and slams the door in my face; perhaps it’s a foreshadowing of the daughter she’ll become, the one who never calls, never writes, who doesn’t come home for college breaks!
I push the bad future-projecting aside and meet my cuddling needs instead with my adopted first-born, our chocolate Labrador retriever, Murphy, who is curled up on the dog bed on the other side of the room. “Remember me?” I whisper. I get a heavy happy sigh, warm fur in my arms.
Only a handful of years earlier, two sweet-natured dogs were my husband and my only dependents. The thought of wanting to be away from me would never enter their canine brains; their total availability and unconditional love was something we were used to. When we decided we wanted a human baby, we figured we were well prepared. (Ha!)
Dog parenting, it was true, had given us some practical experience: we were used to sharing our bed, waking early for feedings, drool was no big deal, and we were used to scheduled vaccines. (It took me more than a year to stop calling the pediatrician “the vet.”)
Having the dogs as our shadows, being followed from room to room, was also good training for toddlerhood, when my human offspring wouldn’t let me out of her sight.
My daughter, the one who doesn’t shed, is a much more rewarding conversationalist, more surprising and interactive, and with all my hope will outlive me. Yet there are times, yes, I’ll admit it, when I miss the ease of mothering the ones with tails. Getting out the door was as simple as yelling, ‘Wanna go for a walk?” and they tore through the dog door mouths open, panting with excitement before I could even bend over and put on my shoes. No dawdling, no negotiating; no threatening to count to ten. There was no such thing as a dog tantrum. Lately, when we’re having a particularly difficult mother-daughter moment, I notice the dog out of the corner of my eye and I could swear I see a sympathetic you-really-don’t-deserve-this look. Because I don’t. None of us do. This business of mothering isn’t so simple; it’s exasperating and exhausting most of the time, and not so much at all like raising dogs.
The words “I want to do it by my own self” were pleasant ones to me. My daughter’s emerging independence was fun to watch — the proud smile even when shoes were on the wrong feet, the mastery of fork and spoon, the time she changed her own diaper. I enjoyed my new role as Bodyguard, as she navigated tough terrains — mastered steep staircases, opened heavy doors and climbed tall stools. I rejoiced after her record-setting late weaning. But I’m not so sure I like this new “I want you to go away from me,” though I’ve been waiting to taste this freedom.
When my husband gets home and high-fives me for the first push-away (unlike me, he views it solely as a positive developmental step), I take the dog for a walk by myself, a real dog walk. I even get to jog, Murphy gets to trot, no slow-as-a-snail-crawl. We don’t have to examine one single rock or leaf or piece of garbage. I step on twigs, kick rocks. And it’s all great and freeing, until I see a hawk circling and diving overhead and there’s no one to kneel down next to, to point upward, no one whose blue eyes grow large and who will say, “Wow, big bird.”
“Murphy! Look!” I try, but the dog’s disinterested, nose to the ground, lost in her dog world of smell.
That night, I’m bouncing around with the go-away-from-me girl in her bed, making shadow figures on the wall. She’s created a shadow puppy next to my mommy dog one, their floppy dog ears made from our mother-daughter knuckles.
“Before you were our baby, Daddy and I didn’t do this at night,” I tell her. She looks at me as if that’s insane.
“Why wouldn’t you do that? It’s so fun.”
We didn’t go on nature hikes to look for rocks and paint them after dinner either. And the mixer was never used to knead pink playdoh. I think about how my life has been enriched, extended, pulled and stretched, how the things we did before have been moved to the back burner, how that’s all right, we’ll have time for it all later. She’ll push me away again, I know that’s guaranteed, but for now I like how our silhouettes appear as overlapping dancing shadows on the blue bedroom wall.