Judith! How are you? How’s your handsome boy?” My
smile is dazzling as I do a desperate flip through my mental
Rolodex, trying to figure out who this person is and which handsome
boy she’s talking about. I have 2-year-old twin sons.
Do I know her from the playground? From Gus’s music class?
Henry’s swim class? (Please, God, not that; it means she’s
seen me in a bathing suit.) Then I notice her black pants are
covered with blond fur. “His name’s Monty, right?”
she continues. “And your boy’s Oliver!” I
say with relief. As it turns out, we had been running into each
other at the groomer’s, where we had bonded not over our
sons’ nursery-school placements but over our other children’s
unique talent for carrying three balls in their mouths.
In much of the country, here is the order of things: You
have children, then you want your children to grow up with
a creature to cherish, so you get a pet. New Yorkers, on the
other hand, don’t have that much room, in either our
frenetic lives or our apartments, so we get pets as child
substitutes first, then perhaps get the children. A pet is
a New Yorker’s toe-dip into the murky waters of responsibility.
In fact, getting an animal is often a first sign of adulthood
in quasi-adolescent lives that can easily extend into our
Certainly that was the case with me. I had gotten Monty
from the Animal Rescue Fund the day after my third round of
IVF—and third miscarriage. The massive, shedding golden
retriever had been safely ensconced in my 750-square-foot
apartment for a year when I finally got pregnant and stayed
pregnant. I still remember, after bringing tiny Henry and
Augustus home, that suddenly Monty’s head looked frightening,
less like a golden’s than a polar bear’s. Still,
he was my first baby. Something about his presence helped
me have children. I owed him.
People who live outside a city often mock the urbanite’s
predilection for treating pets like children. But what choice
do we have? We have no backyards or woods to let our animals—or
kids—run in, which means that when they go out, we must
be out, too. It would be nice if I could let Monty out in
the hope he’d bring back a pheasant for dinner, but
on Bleecker Street, that’s somewhat unlikely (though
I have had to wrest away innumerable flattened pigeons). A
dog in the country or suburbs can get cleaned up with a bucket
of suds in the driveway. Ever try to scrub a 100-pound golden
retriever in a New York City–size bathroom? A $60 trip
to the groomer is a negligible price to pay compared with
the damage done when he bounds out of the tub and shakes all
over the new Restoration Hardware sofa. Of course I bring
Monty to Pup Culture, just as I bring in my kids for a haircut:
I know the perils of trying to do the deed myself.
myself screaming at the dog after he’d eaten yet another
pacifier, ‘Okay, mister, now you’re in time-out.’
And oh, God, the logistics. I admit this is a peculiarly
New York arrangement, but after ten years of marriage my husband
and I still don’t live together. (He has a rent-stabilized
apartment, my place is too small, and besides, marriage and
children are one thing, but cohabitation? I don’t like
to be rushed.) Which means that he sometimes isn’t here
in the mornings. So what do I do with the dog standing cross-legged
by the front door? The children can’t be left alone.
Yes, dammit, the $25-an-hour dog walker at 7:30 a.m. is a
necessity, not a luxury.
A far more common dilemma for city people: Children and
pets all need to run around in the fresh air, yet (Mr. Bloomberg,
please take note) there is no place in the city where tots
and dogs can run around together. (Dog park? No.) Now, like
many New Yorkers, I live here because one of the last things
in the world I crave is to be outdoors. If I wanted outdoors,
I’d be in Wyoming. So imagine my surprise to discover,
too late, that my entire life revolves around . . . being
outdoors! My day goes like this: Take out kids, take out dog,
kids, dog, kids, dog, kids, freaking DOG.
Not that I haven’t tried to take them all out en
famille. The last time I did this, I had the dog on his
leash and was steering my then-5-month-olds in one of those
Humvee-like twin strollers. The dog saw a squirrel, and the
next thing I remember, I was reenacting the Odessa Steps sequence
in Battleship Potemkin, minus the czarist soldiers
and the gunfire. The only thing that saved Henry and Gus was
a jogging NYU muscle boy who grabbed the stroller just before
it careened into traffic.
People with indoor pets also have tsuris. My friend Marjorie
had her spherical, diabetic, retarded cat, Sebastian, for
fourteen years before her daughter, Josie, made her appearance.
Josie turned out to be allergic. “I remember sobbing
at the allergist’s,” says Marjorie, whose small
apartment is vacuumed twice daily; she has cornered the market
on hepa filters.
Given our sacrifices to have pets and children here, is
it so surprising we get a little confused and use the language
of childhood when talking about our beasts? I’m afraid
I’ve taken to making “playdates” for Monty
with his friend Riley, a Gordon setter; the other day, I heard
myself screaming at Monty after he’d eaten yet another
of Gus’s pacifiers, “Okay, Mister, now you’re
in time-out.” Many of us even use the same pool of professionals
for our kids, whether quadruped or biped. Recently, I lost
one of Henry and Gus’s babysitters, who has her master’s
in child psychology, to a basset hound.
Perhaps the biggest reason the city dweller overindulges
both children and pets is guilt. Often we’re here for
selfish reasons: career, or love of the eccentricity and electricity
of the streets. We know kids and pets would be better off
in green, wide-open spaces. So we compensate: the fabulous
wardrobes, the Spanish lessons at 3, the weekly trips to Serendipity.
And for our pets? Well, recently the school where my boys
take their toddler classes had a fund-raiser and silent auction.
There was one item I won. Monty will be having private sessions
at the Dog Run, which has the only indoor dog swimming pool
Trust me, I wasn’t the only one bidding.
Judith Newman’s new book is You Make Me Feel
Like an Unnatural Woman: Diary of a New (Older) Mother