What are all these animals doing in my house? Bears in my bedroom, a giraffe in my kitchen, even a yak in the living room. And a big bird in the bathtub. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.
Some of them have names: Spot and Clifford, for example. Some are just plain odd, like Oscar (who loves trash) and Miss Piggy (who loves herself). Others are generic, like Brown Bear and Red Bird. A few are pretty scary; who brought bats and mice into my house? Not to mention the dinosaurs, who rule the earth once more … or at least, my 13-month-old daughter’s bedroom.
How did this invasion happen? My daughter Amy’s first and fiercest attachment was to a very cuddly golden retriever, a soft squeezable critter we named Puppy that was a baby present from a relative. Amy ignored it for a year, then suddenly chose it to sleep with her at bedtime. Often Puppy would become the cushion between her head and the slats of the crib, as she preferred to sleep in close confinement, always touching something, as if still in the womb.
In the morning, awake in her crib, Amy presented me with Puppy as if giving me a rare jewel. She refused to come out and face the day until I hugged the toy several times. I complied, feeling foolish at first, but soon realizing it was pretty tame in comparison to the many embarrassments of parenthood. Before long I found myself unconsciously stroking Puppy’s pale-blonde fake fur while talking to a friend … and he (or she) did feel sublime — maybe I needed a Puppy, too.
“Pup-pa,” Amy said proudly, mastering her first word. Everywhere she went, she screamed, “Pup-pa!” — especially when she came across actual golden retrievers while we were out on walks. It was her favorite toy, miraculously come to life! They moved! They licked her face (yuck)! One day, a giant golden retriever actually gobbled one of Amy’s slimy, half-chewed bagels right out of her innocent hand, causing her to cry … but not lose faith in her canine friends forever.
“Pup-pa!” she continued to exalt umpteen times a day.
“Say Ma-ma,” I implored.
“Pup-pa!” she proudly said, and I detected a glint of satisfaction, her first attempt at rebellion.
My husband often observed that adults can be more loving and kinder to their pets than other human beings. Seeing my daughter’s fixation, I knew this trait began in infancy.
The stuffed zoo in her room reproduced. My husband was in the toy business, the only dad we knew who brought new stuffed animals home in his briefcase. Each night she hugged and kissed every member of her growing menagerie, making the path to bedtime a drawn-out affair. When I requested, “Give Mommy a hug,” she shook her head “no.” Then she picked up Puppy and squeezed him so hard I could practically hear him yelp in distress.
“Do you have a hug for Da-Da?” her father greeted her after a long day at work, only to watch her run into her room and bring him an elephant upon which to bestow his affections.
Three months later, Amy began to make animal noises. From her carriage she barked at poodles and German shepherds. When asked “What sound does a cow make?” she responded, “Moooo!” — even though the closest she’d ever come to a bovine was drinking a quart of milk a day. When we visited a farm in the country, she seemed more at home with roosters than with her peers.
There was no room in Amy’s busy life for dolls. Just mice who were given cookies, hungry caterpillars who ate pickles and lollipops, and cakes baked by Spot in the books she picked for story time.
My husband looked dubiously at Good Dog Carl, a children’s book series depicting a “responsible” Rottweiler. “What kind of lesson is this supposed to be teaching our baby?” he asked. “A mother leaves her infant alone in the care of an attack dog — just so she can buy some curtains for Aunt Martha!”
But it was too late — now every Rottweiler we passed on the street we now called Carl. Someday, I hoped, Amy would want to read about the adventures of Madeline and Eloise, stories about humans I loved as a child. But for now, she remained passionately rooted in the animal kingdom.
By the age of 16 months, Amy finally learned to say “Ma-ma,” the same time she mastered “Pup-py,” a linguistic leap from Pup-pa. But she called my name only when she was in distress, a whining, tearful, “Maaaaa-maaaa.” When she uttered “Pup-py,” she whispered sweet nothings in his floppy ears.
A little worried about whether this obsession was borderline unhealthy, I asked my friend Barbara, a psychiatrist, what she thought. “Animals are safe,” she explained. “You can love them and you can even hurt them” — I pictured Amy throwing her cherished puppy on the floor sometimes, nonchalantly watching him land on his head — “but animals will always love you back. Children learn early that animals will give them unconditional love. Even if it’s a symbolic, stuffed one.”
What about me? Didn’t I endure labor for 31 hours to give her unconditional love?
My daughter was not yet even two, and already I had to learn to share her love. When she was born, there was just Amy, ma-ma and pa-pa. As she gets older, we will have to share her with devoted best girlfriends, then smitten boyfriends. Although this is nearly impossible to imagine, friends with older children insist these years will fly by faster than Dr. Seuss’ Birthday Honk Honker can deliver a cake in Katroo. So I make room for the three of us … plus Pup-pa. On our walks as a family, we’d stroll all in a row: Mommy, holding Amy’s hand, and Amy, toddling right next to me, hugging Puppy.
That’s not to say this new acceptance isn’t without its risks; we’ve had a few close calls with Pup-pa. Once on vacation, admiring a vast New England lake from a wooden dock, Amy suddenly threw Pup-pa high into the air so that he could do a swan dive into the bottomless sea. Ma-ma and Da-da looked at each other in horror.
“Get him!” I ordered Da-da, practically pushing him into the chilly water. Just in time, he made a lifesaving rescue, saving Pup-pa and his young daughter’s emotional life. Amy gleefully hugged her drenched puppy, and our hotel room smelled like seaweed all weekend. Back home, I threw Pup-pa into the washing machine, waiting until Amy was sound asleep lest I upset her by drowning him once again in Dreft and a spin cycle. The next morning she woke up to the cleanest Pup-pa since the day the stork from Macy’s brought him into our home. I thought she might not recognize his restored fluffy figure, but she gave him a huge squeeze. Then she opened her arms and surprised me with an exceptional hug, one only a human being could understand.