[S]ometimes we make choices that we know are going to make our lives harder, but we make them regardless. Thankfully it's a chronic human condition to want to take our intricate and complex lives and add a few more twists and turns and perhaps, if you're like our family, a bit more dirt and chaos than fate originally intended you to have.
I always wanted lots of children, I adore babies and (for the most part) enjoy being pregnant and I used to often wonder how I would ever be able to decide when enough was enough and decide my family was complete. It turns out that I never had to make that decision as life conspired to make it for me. When I was pregnant with Dominic, and Elliot was only three years old and Lilia was 18 months, I became a single mother. As things turned out, with our life whizzing along the roller coaster that Dominic then took us on, I always thought that it would be unfair on any baby to be brought into a household that was so often divided, let alone the practical implications of always being in hospital with Dominic. Also, for many years, I was stuck in the first stage of parenting with Dominic anyway. Most parents have a short experience of the utterly dependant newborn stage, whereas ours stretched to years. I used to refer to Dominic as my perma-baby as he was so tiny and so dependant for such a long time. It certainly meant that I got ample opportunity to get the baby-thing out of my system and now, thanks to the blossoming independence that starting school has fostered, I feel we have finally moved onto the 'next stage' and I'm really loving exploring the possibilities that having (our version of) three school aged children brings.
What I'm not so sure about though is quite at what point I decided that, as I had stopped having children, I should start having pets. At some point I seem to have started collecting them, almost accidently as I'm not really sure how we ended up sharing our lives with quite so many of them. Roger seems to think that I habitually collect waifs and strays, which is how I ended up with him (don't rise to it people, he is merely fishing for compliments), my parents seem to agree with this theory (that I collect waifs and strays, not that this is why I ended up with Roger). I think I just acquire them out of a (slightly misguided) sense of adventure, if not an unconscious need to boss around smaller beings. But I guess I have children for that.
I still, at almost 37, find myself thrilled by the possibilities that being a grown up affords you. Being able to make a decision to get something small and fluffy and not having to convince an adult that it really is a good idea appeals to the child in me, I have to admit. The first animals I acquired were three cats when I first moved into my own house some years before any children came along. They were all relatively elderly and not really very well looked after, so in a spontaneous moment of animal empathy, I kissed my newly ex-boyfriend goodbye and left with his cats with the hope that we could all move onto better things. Which I think we did, until the dog came along. The last remaining cat, Reg, took the opportunity of my house move a month after the small border collie arrived, to pack his own bags in indignation and move in with our (then) new next door neighbours. Thankfully they didn't seem to mind having a cantankerous old cat living out his retirement with them, at least if they did, they were just too polite to say anything.
Getting a dog is like adding a toddler to the family, and you should prepare for the impending destruction and chaos with a sense of humour and a sturdy pair of rubber gloves. Chloe, the border collie, came to live with us when life was already chaotic, so I'm not sure it was as much of a shock for us as it would be for someone who actually had a mud free carpet and luscious grass on their lawn. I'm not entirely sure how or why I thought having a dog was a good idea, and I remember on more than one occasion standing under a tree in the park as the rain poured down with three crying children and one very damp dog wondering what on earth I was doing. I suspect, that in a world that was scary and fragile and so out of my control, I needed to feel that I was capable of looking after something, that any effort I put in had a positive effect, when everything else felt like a battle that I wasn't ever going to win no matter how hard I tried. Either that or I just wanted something to chew the heads off the kids toys, bark at the postman and crap in the garden to remind me that life could always be worse.
The extra work Chloe brought aside, seeing the children learn a healthy respect for animals, being relaxed but assertive with her and having good dog-sense with other dogs that we came across was wonderful. Elliot especially loved trying to teach her new tricks and has learnt a lot about commanding respect, because if you don't sound confident, dogs don't listen, and for a child with such a low sense of self worth, this has been an invaluable lesson.
Then, somehow, Tallulah came along two years later. Thanks to her we got introduced to amputee Barbie (she had a thing for Barbie's legs and arms) and what the real definition of enthusiasm is (seriously you only have to look at her and her tail wags so hard that her whole back end waggles). My reasoning was that having dogs was very much like having children, once you're cleaning up the mess from one, adding another one is neither here nor there really.
I can understand the reasoning of the people who find the idea of muddy footprints, hair, fluff, dead mice presents, poo of some sort or other and all the extra work that goes with having any animal as a horrifying way to spend your time and money. Time is a more precious commodity for many, and the thought of actually paying money to bring something into your house that will increase shopping bills, housework, make going on holiday more difficult and perhaps even peck, bite or lick the hand that feeds is not the most compelling reason to open your home to a beasty of some description. But yet it is a human condition that, for some of us, we can rationalise the less desirable bits enough that we let ourselves melt when we see the big eyes staring adoringly at us, and before we know it we are living alongside a four legged/beaked/scaly being that quietly, and unassumingly (albeit sometimes fluffily and incontinently) becomes part of our family makeup without us even realising.
There is of course the other end of the scale as far as seeing animals as part of the family goes. No doubt most of us have seen evidence of mad cat ladies who occasionally surface from beneath a sea of feline activity to put their opposable thumbs to good use opening some cat food for them all before disappearing again. On a general scale, I admit, I'm probably closer to mad cat lady than I am a regular pet owner, and I have accepted the fact that fluff, mud and fur sit and watch me put the vacuum cleaner away, count to ten and then throw themselves, like crazy kamikaze pilots, from the animal they have been attached to in an attempt to rebuild the fluff monster that , I'm pretty sure, is at the forefront of their master plan to take over my house.
After the dogs came the chickens, then a few years later, the cats. I like to think that we, as a family, prove that you should never assume anything. The fact that we can have dogs, cats and birds all living harmoniously is testament that not all stereotypes should be believed, and sometimes you just have to take the time to find out how you can coexist with others without trying to eat them, or think about nibbling them when no one is looking. As things stand at the moment, unless any of the critters have carked it in the last 20 minutes, our family of dirt-encrusted creatures has reached 21, which I know sounds unfeasibly ridiculous, but most of them don't actually live in the house, they just like to traipse their dirt through it occasionally and find a nice clean floor to poop on. There is no way of glamourising the fact that it is a lot of extra work having this many animals around, but I do think (unless the weather is really terrible and I have to go out and deal with the chickens regardless) that they bring more to the family than they demand of it (including lots and lots and lots of eggs).
A rich life is not an uncomplicated one, and sometimes we make choices knowing that in many ways we are adding to our workload. But if we only made decision based on the negative impact something might or might not have on us, we would never be making balanced choices and we'd probably never have children. Moments of comfort, joy and companionship, in the grand scheme of things, outweigh the dust monsters, crunchy floors and decapitated 'presents'. Some choices just don't stand up to rational examination. Why, after already having experienced the destructive evil that is a toddler, do any of us go onto have more children? Because we yearn to care and protect those more vulnerable than us, and pain, sleep deprivation, nipples (almost) falling off and stitches in places that no needle should be allowed are all forgotten and forgiven the second we are intoxicated by the smell of a newborn baby. The same instinct to populate the planet happens to make some of us fall for cute of fluffy things as well.
From where I stand (which is surrounded by 3 inches of dried mud and dog fur at the moment), being surrounded by animals teaches us to be human. It teaches my children compassion and patience and empathy. They have learnt that to get trust, you have to earn it, and there are no quick fixes. Our kittens, Hecate and Pyewacket were feral, along with their mother, Pandora. We rescued them from the RSPCA and it was a long time before we could get anywhere near them. The children saw me each day, spending time retraining the cats to associate us with positive things and most of all, to trust us. Fast forward 8 months and little Hecate, who was the most timid of them all, waits for me to go to get ready for bed, and sits in the bathroom purring at me as I brush me teeth. She then runs ahead to jump on the bed, waits for me to settle and then climbs on my stomach and purrs loudly as we both fall asleep. At some point in the night she will go and rejoin her brother on Dominic's bed where they sleep at his feet until I come and get him dressed, which is a sure sign that breakfast is not far away. Hecate usually wraps herself around him, rubbing her head on his hand and gently licking his finger when he offers it, which delights him.
Our choice to have so many animals only seems unusual when I think of it in relation to how other people understand it. It is usually because either we are having someone over who is allergic/scared of animals or dirt or because someone hasn't been able to hide the jaw drop when they ask how many pets we have. The children don't remember life being any different from this, but it will be interesting to see if they make the same choices when they are older. For now they are content with having dogs licking them, ninja cats under their feet and chickens looking in at the window. You would think that this would be enough, but as I've sat here writing this they are all playing a game on the Wii where the sole purpose of the game seems to be to look after a virtual horse, which I guess is a sweet, thankfully unmuddy, irony considering what I'm sat here writing about. Apple… tree… hmmmmmm.
For our children, the choices we make, and the values that we prioritise are as important an education as the things we consciously teach them. I hope my three become better humans for having shared their life with animals, and at the very least they'll be a dab hand with a mop and bucket and have a kick arse immune system, and that seems like a reasonable enough rationalisation for me.
I chose to talk about pets and family life this week to link up with the Special Saturday theme on Facebook and twitter, which, like the Define 'Normal' blog hop that I run, helps promote understanding and acceptance of people's differences. Be sure to check out #specialsaturday on twitter and Facebook.
Why not join in?
To learn more about the reasons that I started the Define 'Normal' blog hop click here. If you would like to join in the blog hop and tell us what your normal is like click on the link below and follow the instructions to add a link to your post. The subject of your entry is up to you, anything goes, show us a photo, a picture, dust off an old post that talks about any aspect of your normal life. Please link back to this post or duplicate the linky in your post to make sure the entries get as many views as possible. Don't forget to tell us all on twitter using #definenormal and feel free to post your link on my Facebook page once you've linked up!
Last week's amazing entries