Care and Feeding

My Pandemic Puppy Has Made Me an Anxious Wreck. Would a Kid Be Even Worse?

Leaving my dog along for even a little while brings me to tears.

A sad dog.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ericlefrancais/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,

I am a 30-year-old woman living in a major city and recently engaged to my boyfriend. We are on the same page about pretty much everything, including that we both want to try for kids within a few years of getting married, which is great. We were also on the same page about our decision to adopt a dog a few months ago (yes, yes, we’re pandemic dog people now). Our dog is awesome and I have no regrets, but I’m a bit worried about what dog ownership has shown me about my own mental and emotional state.

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We adopted a 2-year-old rescue dog who came to us with pretty bad separation anxiety from his original home and his foster home. We followed a plan the rescue shared with us to help with this, leaving him alone gradually, and worked our way up to leaving him alone for a few hours at a time. He doesn’t love when we leave—a bit of whining/crying—but then he’s fine and chills out with his chew toys. (I know because I got one of those creepy dog cameras to watch him while we’re out.) The issue is that I have incredibly intense anxiety about the dog whenever we leave him alone. I had to delete the dog camera app because I was overcome by the need to check it every few minutes. I have found myself in tears at social gatherings because I’m close to panicking about the dog being alone. I realize this sounds nuts, and I feel nuts about it. Our dog is doing fine—he’s well-behaved, other than normal new-dog stuff (furniture-chewing and the occasional accident), he seems to be very happy and enjoying his new life, he seems to really love me and my fiancé, he’s perfectly safe whenever we leave him in the very large playpen we got that has his toys, water, and comfy bed. So why am I unable to stop panicking about him?

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This has made me worry that if/when we have children in the future, I’m going to be completely sick with anxiety at all times. I’ve always been an above-average-anxious person, but never to this extent. The only reason I haven’t abandoned my social life to be home with the dog 24/7 is out of fear that it would be unhealthy for him and make his separation anxiety come back with a vengeance. If this is how I am as a “dog mom,” how will I ever manage the emotional weight of becoming an actual mom?

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— Anxious Dog Mom = Bad Human Mom?

Dear Anxious Dog Mom,

Despite what anyone tells you, having a dog isn’t really a whole lot like having a kid. There are some similarities, including the fact that they teach you responsibility, they force you to establish at least some routines, and right after you have brought one home you may find yourself woefully deprived of sleep and wondering “wow, what the hell did we do???” But how you are with your pandemic pet does not necessarily predict how you’ll be with a human child. You’ll worry as a parent, but your individual worries and fears and obsessions will have entirely different timelines and triggers (hooray?). For example, it won’t be safe to leave an infant (or a toddler, or a young child) home alone, and you couldn’t stay home with them forever even if you wanted to because, school. Your mileage may vary; for me, having kids has not made my anxiety consistently worse, just different—and if I didn’t have them to feel anxious about, I know I’d just devote more time and energy to other anxieties.

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It’s really good to be aware of how you’ve been feeling, as well as the fact that you are, in your own words, “an above-average-anxious person.” (Same!) At the same time, you don’t have to just force yourself to struggle through this without help. Even if the bulk of the anxiety you’re conscious of right now is related to one thing—leaving your dog home alone—it’s obviously starting to affect your daily life, and so I think it might help to talk with someone about it. Having some helpful strategies and ways to redirect your thinking will serve you well if and when you become a parent.

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In the meantime, don’t beat yourself up over those anxious panicky feelings about your dog. Try to remember that the last year and a half has been so difficult—for you, for everyone—so you are likely noticing an uptick in anxiety for more than one reason! Your beloved pup may well be what you’re fixating on right now; I’m sure he’s been the focus of much love and attention. But the world has given us all a whole lot of reasons to feel more anxious lately, and it could be that your anxiety over your dog is just one big noticeable symptom of something you’d be trying to manage with or without a pet, with or without kids.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

How can we navigate teen dating in the time of COVID? Our family has been very diligent with proper precautions, and we’re all vaccinated. Unfortunately, we live in a state that has banned school mask mandates and other mitigation measures. We also live in a particularly red ZIP code, surrounded by anti-vaxxers. My son “James” is in high school and really likes a girl named “Kayla.” He’d like to take her to a dance in a few weeks. We think Kayla’s family may be conservative Christians, a group with one of the lowest vaccination rates. James doesn’t know whether Kayla is vaccinated, and he’s nervous to ask because he doesn’t want to cause a rift. We’ve told him to ask her in a low-key way, but if we find out she’s not vaxxed, what are we to do with that information? Tell him to break it off? That he has to ask a potential date her vaccination status up front? That’s easy to do for adults, but a kid doesn’t really make their own vaccination decisions. We don’t want to make his adolescence even more weird and difficult than it already has been, but we’ve worked so hard to keep our family safe. We also don’t want to create an impression that we’re policing his relationships based on religion, if that turns out to be a factor. What is fair to do in this situation?

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—Perplexed About Pandemic Puppy Love

Dear Perplexed,

I think you’re right that while aspects of pandemic dating are also complicated for adults, the whole thing is much worse for teens. Even pre-vaccination, adults could try to carefully form pods based on their relative comfort and risk analysis, and ask one another about vaccination status, mask wearing, and other COVID safety measures. But so many of those decisions are made by parents, not kids, and there’s not a great way to bubble with anyone when you’re going to high school every day.

If Kayla isn’t vaccinated, if she doesn’t wear a mask at school or take other COVID precautions, I know you probably won’t feel good about James going to the dance with her. Maybe you’d even be tempted to put your foot down and say they shouldn’t hang out alone. But I will point out that that’s a very hard line to draw, and all but impossible to enforce. I do think it’s fine for James to ask Kayla if she’s vaccinated—it has nothing to do with policing anyone’s religion, because it’d be good info for him to have regardless of her family’s beliefs. It’s her right not to answer, of course, but if she gets upset with him for asking, that might be a warning sign he should note before going out with her, no?

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Ultimately, no matter what you say, if they want to see each other, they’re probably going to see each other, during normal school hours at the very least. You might try to make sure that time is spent as safely as possible, especially if Kayla isn’t vaccinated—outdoors if possible, masked when not, etc. Talk with James about the stakes: He’s not immune to COVID, neither is Kayla, and he doesn’t want either of them to get sick or make others sick. Acknowledge that you know it’s hard and feels unfair to have to factor COVID risk into his social life, but he’s not alone; responsible people everywhere are behaving and making decisions differently than they would otherwise. Be as accommodating as you can when it comes to things you know are safe—i.e., don’t take him to task if he spends more time talking to her or other friends on the phone. Emphasize that for the sake of the rest of your family and everyone else you’re in contact with, he needs to tell you if he does anything that exposes you all to additional risk.

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As for the question of whether or not James goes to the dance with Kayla, I know it feels like a weird decision for you to be involved with at all, but COVID has changed a lot of things. You can try to find out what, if any, COVID measures are in place for the dance. If I were in your position, I wouldn’t feel good letting my kid go to a packed indoor dance with large numbers of unmasked people right now, regardless of their date’s vaccination status. But I’m not facing this particular decision; you are, and I think all you can do is approach it as you would any other pandemic-era decision: Discuss all the risks and variables that apply to you and your family’s situation, and then make a call you can live with. It might not be the exact same call another parent makes. But you’re the only one who can consider all the factors involved, weigh the benefits against the possible cost, and make the choice that feels, if not great, then the best one you can make in this situation.

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From this week’s letter, “My Parents Are Hellbent on Keeping My Son Away From His Father:” “They’ve accused me of “abandoning my son” because of the parenting time his father has.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I struggle with two sides of the same coin: a complicated relationship with food. He is about 20 pounds overweight and has been upset about this for years. He works in a high-stress profession and struggles to make healthy food choices during busy days—a struggle which is complicated by his mom’s childhood insistence on the “clean plate club.” I, meanwhile, am average weight, but am constantly calorie-counting in my head. This hasn’t been disruptive, per se, but is a reality of my existence that I don’t love.

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We are at a crossroads with our 4- and 6-year-old daughters. My husband hates food waste and usually encourages them to finish what’s on their plates, even if they’re no longer hungry or don’t want the food. If we purchase something and no one in the family wants it, he gets upset, because the food will be wasted. I, meanwhile, think it’s a bad idea to have this “clean plate club” mentality and—if I’m being honest—I don’t like to see my daughters eating extra calories they don’t want or need just because it was on their plate. I think we can encourage them to take only what they need without making them feel bad for not finishing their food. Are we setting our kids up for a lifelong problem? How can we navigate this?

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—Torn in Toledo

Dear Torn,

I certainly don’t think it’s good to throw food away. But the “clean plate club” thing has always struck me as a little weird and controlling. It’s physically uncomfortable to force yourself to eat if you’re full, and to me there is something very unhealthy in sending the message that a child can be made to feel unnecessary discomfort just because an adult wants them to do something.

If your kids regularly leave a lot of food on their plates, it could be that the current servings are just a little too big for their stomachs, in which case I might just recommend offering smaller servings (while encouraging each kid to tell you if they want to be served a bigger portion, and making sure they know they can go back for seconds). I assume you’ll be teaching them to serve themselves as they get older—with more control over their portions, it might be easier for them to finish what’s on their respective plates. Of course, it’ll take some time for them to get the knack of serving themselves a good amount based on how hungry they are, but they’ll get there.

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I agree with you that it’s good to encourage kids to eat what they want and not guilt them if they can’t finish everything. But I think it’s also a red flag that you’re worrying about the imaginary danger of your 4- and 6-year-old daughters getting “extra calories” at mealtime. You say you don’t like counting your own calories all the time, yet you’re worrying over their caloric intake. As I think you already know, this could lead to a different and potentially more harmful form of food-policing than your husband’s clean-plate-club obsession. Both of you are, as you say, dealing with your own issues related to food and body image, but these things really should not become your children’s burdens. It’s good to continue to be aware of the potential damage and work hard not to project or pass these issues on to your kids.

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

Growing up, I was always told that motherhood was one of, if not THE greatest joy a woman could experience. My mother was a stay-at-home mom who took care of her four kids; my older sisters all married and had kids relatively soon in life (late teens/early 20s). My mother and sisters consider it a tragedy if a woman is unable to have children, which I get if that’s what they want; at the same time, they see women who are childfree by choice as having something “wrong” with them. Because of this, I intended to follow their lead and become a mother at some point in my life, but decided to stand apart by finishing school, establishing a career, and getting married first. I did all this by the time I was in my 30s. My family assumed I would have children—as did my boyfriend, once we married—but a year ago, I came to the realization that I don’t actually want kids.

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Honestly, nothing about motherhood has ever appealed to me. Where my family seems to visualize unsung heroes, devoted caretakers, and absolute love, I mostly just see overworked housewives, lost hours, and endless headaches. My mother, for example, didn’t have much of a life outside us kids growing up. My sisters, be they married or divorced, seem overwhelmed by their kids. Besides that, I just don’t have the desire for children. I prefer having the freedom to travel or go out on the town without needing to hire a sitter or pack everything related to the child and bring it with me. I don’t want the responsibility of raising a child, being overly cautious with my money, and then dealing with the complications of mood-shifting kids. Also, I don’t really like kids. This led to the end of my relationship; my ex-boyfriend wants kids, and you can’t compromise on that.

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I’m at peace with it, but my family isn’t. My mother in particular is devastated that she’ll never receive grandchildren through me. My oldest sister, who has four children, thinks I’ll change my mind one day, warning that it might be too late. I know myself, and kids are not part of the equation of my life. The insight I want is whether or not I’m really missing out by not having kids. The way I see it, if I don’t want them, then there’s nothing to miss. The women of my family, though, seem convinced that I will. Is there something I’m not seeing?

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—Happy Non-Mom

Dear Happy Non-Mom,

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What you’d miss by not having kids is … having kids! Maybe it’s fair to say you’d be missing a lot just because having kids is a lot—it’s hard, it’s exhausting, it’s heartbreaking; it’s also often surprising and hilarious and beautiful. There are real joys parents experience that you won’t. But there are also plenty of joys and privileges that can come with childfree life (I remember them! I sometimes miss them) and those are out of reach for many parents, at least for a long time. I don’t think you’ll be unhappy with this decision in the long term if it’s truly what you want. And I hope that, in time, your entire family understands and accepts that you’re choosing the life that feels right for you, even if it looks different from what they hoped or expected.

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No one can promise another human a lifetime without regret, but it really sounds as though you wouldn’t be happy with all the ways your life would change if you had kids, and that’s more than OK—there are so many other ways to find love and fulfillment in life. Whether you could like/love your own child or enjoy being their parent might be open questions, as it’s impossible to know before it happens. But I think the key fact here is that you know you don’t want the responsibility of kids. That’s a good thing to realize about yourself, and something the people who love you should be able to believe and respect.

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—Nicole

More Advice From Slate

I’m a nonbinary trans person who lives in a sizable city. Most days, I look pretty gender-nonconforming, and I’m also on low-dose testosterone, which is gradually shifting my appearance away from what most people would consider “the norm.” Because of this, I often get stared at by babies and little kids when I’m out and about—on the train, in stores, on the street, etc. I don’t necessarily mind—I know they’re only curious! My instinct is usually to smile back at them, since I generally like kids and I think it’s good for them to have positive interactions with real-life trans people. My main concern, though, is with their parents. Will they think it’s creepy that I’m interacting with their kids? Am I putting myself at risk?

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