Care and Feeding

My Massive Dog Doesn’t Like Kids, and I’m Having a Baby

Is giving her up our only safe option?

Photo illustration of a very pregnant woman who looks worried holding a hand out in a STOP motion to a large dog.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Prostock-Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Sonsedska/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have had our beloved dog (an 85-lbs. lab mix) for 10 years. She has never been good with strangers or kids, which wasn’t a problem until now—I’m pregnant. Since the news got out, everyone has asked what we’re going to do about the dog. It seems cruel to send her off to live her final years with my in-laws because she gets sad and mopes when we’re not around. However, I can’t think of any other options.

My husband and mom don’t think it’s a big deal and that the dog will magically behave, but I have serious doubts. Are there any options I’m not seeing? I desperately want to keep my dog, but not at the risk of my baby’s safety.

—What Do I Do?

Dear WDID,

OK, well, for the benefit of the readers, since you do not have a time machine, an 85-lbs. dog who is “not good” around strangers or kids is always a problem (little dogs are as well, which we forget because you can pick them up and sweep them away to another room more easily), whether or not you plan on having kids. Working with a good professional to work on that anxiety and desensitize them to new people and especially small new people safely is really important. Old dogs can learn new tricks if incentivized to do so, and it’s not too late to start that process. Today. I am unsure if you actively or passively planned on having children one day, but if you did, I am deeply confused as to why you did not do this sooner.

I will prescribe watchful waiting and vigilance. Infants have a (glorious) phase of immobility during which you can keep them very safe, and you can see how your dog reacts to the new smells and noises during that time. If your dog has ever snapped at a child, information I do not possess, as opposed to just radiating “God, I hate children,” I would have a different answer. (Our old boy, Denali, was a master at deep “get off my lawn” sighs without ever being a threat to a child, much less one who smelled like my husband and myself.)

It’s going to be traumatizing and upsetting for him to move to your in-laws. He’s old, especially for a dog of that size, and I doubt he’ll live to see your child turn 2 and a half. You could muzzle him (start muzzle training now, before the baby comes, if you go with that, so he doesn’t associate it with the baby), or you could rely on being completely obsessive with baby gates and closed doors and crating. If your husband and your mother think his child-aggression is “no big deal,” I am concerned that they will be slapdash and careless about this.

You seem inclined to move him to your in-laws. That’s OK. It sucks, but the situation itself sucks. I am not unconcerned that an elderly dog who dislikes children will bite an older baby who tries to balance by holding his whiskers. I wish things were different. I am sure you wish things were different.

Call a dog trainer today. Be extremely truthful. Do what they say. Then wait and watch. Err always on the side of your baby’s safety.

Everyone else: Do not neglect your dog’s aggression. An aggressive dog is not a happy dog.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My question, broadly, is about having a child with a very particular issue, and how to walk the line between being a vocal advocate and ally for others in their community without compromising my child’s privacy.

The details: I’m a mom of two, with my second child being just a few months old. We have a beautiful little baby who is intersex and healthy, and who is being raised as a boy for a lot of good reasons—though we recognize that his gender identity may end up being something else, which is fine and great! For that reason, my husband and I have decided against any kind of genital “normalizing” surgery for him. The issue is, thanks to all my frantic Googling and message boarding and scientific study–reading at the outset of this whole adventure, I now know that genital normalizing surgery on infants is even a thing, that it’s routinely pushed on scared parents who are just trying to do their best for their babies, and that intersex people in our society face a whole host of other issues most people have no idea about.

As a result, I kind of want to speak up about it. I want to be an ally, and I also want to help and support other parents out there who get a surprise at their ultrasound like we did, or who have doctors casually offering cosmetic surgery to move their infant’s urethra to a prettier location (yes, that’s a real thing that happened). I suppose I can be an ally without ever mentioning to anyone that I have an intersex child myself, but that seems weirdly cagey: “Why are you suddenly so interested in intersex rights advocacy?” “Oh, no reason!” Doing that would also feel like it had some undertones of shame, and I absolutely don’t think being intersex is some kind of shameful secret.

But on the other hand, this is about my child’s genitals! Which are for sure nobody’s business, and which people might otherwise have no idea are different but for me saying anything. Is the right thing to do here to quietly offer support without “outing” my child until he’s old enough to have a say? To loudly support but never say why? Something else?

—Secret Ally

Dear Secret Ally,

Your baby is very lucky to have you, and you are very lucky to have your baby. It is absolutely best not to operate on intersex kids to make them “look more one way than the other,” and the “tidying-up” policies of the past/present have resulted in a lot of deeply traumatized/sad/angry people who got a little older and found themselves to have been irreparably “tidied up” (often only after demanding their charts and discovering the truth). Parents have not been monsters to do so; they followed the best advice of their time and were told to go along with something the medical community believed would maximize the happiness of their patients. But we know better now, and ideally we will know even better in the future.

You are correct that, depending on where you live, there are still plenty of surgeons offering to “normalize” infant genitals (as opposed to extremely necessary surgeries to allow free urine or menstrual passage, amongst others). The rate of intersex births is also much higher than you would think, and also there are numerous types of intersex conditions that require very different forms of treatment or no treatment at all. I do not know which condition your baby possesses, and I do not need to. I hope you are now happy with your baby’s medical team.

I think there are going to be two phases in your advocacy. One is while your child is a minor, and it can be supporting and encouraging others on those same forums, using a pseudonym, writing pseudonymous essays, and uplifting and promoting intersex people’s voices and work. There’s so much you can do that isn’t a bumper sticker saying I HEART MY GENITALLY AMBIGUOUS CHILD, SAM.

When your child is ready to know their body is not like the majority of other bodies (you’ll want to talk to various professionals about best practices on that, and also you’ll want to be in private communication with school administrators to avoid things like the last vestiges of group showering, etc.), they may want to be a vocal advocate, or they may just want to be a dentist with ambiguous genitals who feels no need to talk about it. They may want to have a “prettier” urethra location! Listen to your child. Their privacy comes first.

I’m cheering for you both.

• If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I just got engaged to a wonderful man whose immediate family I love. I’ve gotten very attached to his nieces and nephews. One of them, “Timmy,” is an 8-year-old with a bit of a sensitive soul. My fiancé’s family likes to tease a little, which is usually fine for Timmy, until we’re around extended family. Timmy has a limit with how much teasing he can withstand, but my fiancé’s extended family loves to tease more and more when Timmy starts to withdraw.

I made a comment to him at one point about how hard it can be to be a kid his age and ever since then, he comes and sits with me when he doesn’t want to be teased anymore. I don’t do much except put my arm around him for a few seconds, and then we get back to doing whatever we were doing. The immediate family usually stops teasing at that point, but the extended family does not. His extended family has started making comments to me about how I “baby the kid” and he needs to “learn how to deal with difficult things.” So far, I’ve given some vague response that I disagree and walked away.

I’m not really sure what to do since he isn’t my child. Timmy’s parents understand that he doesn’t like being teased so much but aren’t willing to confront the extended family because they think the members will overreact and maybe start teasing Timmy even more. They think him coming over to me is a good way to deal with the problem, but I can tell he still gets upset and withdrawn when being overly teased. If it were my child I’d be more forceful with stopping the teasing, but I don’t want to step on his parents’ toes. Should I say something to the extended family?

My fiancé and I are talking about having kids very soon, and I want to put my foot down if this same thing happens. How would I explain to Timmy all the years that I didn’t stick up for him while sticking up for my own child? I don’t like my fiancé’s extended family, but I also don’t want to stop being there for Timmy during difficult times. What should I do?

—Overstepping?

Dear Overstepping,

These people are dicks. What the hell? I wouldn’t worry too much about how to explain to Timmy that you are able to be more protective of your own child than you were of him. It’s Timmy’s parents who are being pathetic, and you’ve been great. You’re comforting him. He knows he can come to you.

I do not think there’s any reason you cannot say, when Timmy is not present, “Why do you constantly pick on Timmy? It’s weird.” You’re a human being with personal autonomy and a strong opinion. Thank you for looking out for him. Adult bullies are losers. I have to take your word on whether this is excessive teasing as opposed to good natured joshing, but you clearly state that they escalate their behavior as he becomes visibly upset, which is garbage. Family holidays are not boot camp! They are not meant to be a crucible for toughening up kids!

I want you to really drill down on this with your fiancé. Does he agree with you? Will he back you up? Because I wouldn’t marry Chris Hemsworth or even Gillian Anderson if I thought they would let their entire extended family pick on our kid to avoid rocking the boat.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Recently, my stepfather has offered to help buy my brother a house. I am not typically a jealous or envious person. I am seriously trying not to let this bother me. But the truth is it does bother me. It’s not fair or right. My brother has no disorder, medical conditions, or anything preventing him from doing this on his own.

I work hard, have a son with autism, and never had any help from my parents. What gives? To be clear, I don’t want a house or anything, but some support like a phone call or researching autism support would be nice. My other brother is upset about this, too, and I guess he said something and is now getting a snowmobile.

My relationship with my stepfather is strained at best, so I am loath to say anything, though according to him everything I do is wrong: my hair, my job, you name it.

—Constantly Criticized

Dear CC,

It remains simultaneously true that you cannot spend anyone else’s money for them and you can stop talking to people who treat you badly or unfairly in a consistent manner.

If you want a snowmobile, I guess you know how to go about it. If you want a stepfather who cares about you and your life and your son, it’s not happening. I’m very sorry. I’m also sorry your mother doesn’t seem to care enough to tell your stepfather to stop criticizing you.

I hope life becomes easier. You will be in my thoughts.

—Nicole

More Advice From Slate

My son is a high school freshman, and we live in a nice neighborhood near several boys his age he’s known since first grade. Last year a group of the boys decided to create a haunted trail for the young kids to visit on Halloween. My son asked if he could help, but the other boys said there were too many people involved already. My son was crushed. The other boys are all athletes; my son is not athletic or cool. Now it’s Halloween again and signs have gone up inviting neighborhood kids to the haunted trail. My son saw a sign and said, “Oh, the haunted trail—where you have to be a cool kid to help with it.” This is killing me. How do I get over this?