Steph Maker is a writer and editor living on the Sunshine Coast, Australia. She has a Masters in Writing, Editing and Publishing from the University of Queensland. Outside of reading and writing, Steph enjoys documentaries, camping and crafternoons.
"He says he’s a grandfather to a bunch of dogs." I can't read my Dad's tone as he reports on a conversation he's had with an old mate. I bum about on the lounge and am grateful to be talking to Dad on the phone. In part, because my tea-stained trackpants remain my sloppy little secret. But mostly because my face is being rude. My expression says, 'Don’t be haughty, Father-dearest, that might be the extent of your grandparenthood too.'
I imagine Dad’s friend out walking, gripping leads pulled taut by blurs of excitement. Is that what he had in mind, for his golden years? I sense he'd have preferred a golden child to a golden retriever.
For a moment, I feel guilt, maybe even shame, for not having reproduced by my mid-thirties. I am grateful that my parents have never outwardly, explicitly aired an expectation of progeny. Seconds pass and I feel comfort knowing Dad's mate's boys haven't reproduced either. No heirs between us. Just dog-children.
It's been years since we've gone on a holiday. We look out from the upstairs Tattersall's bar onto the streets of Adelaide. Our whole life has changed since we last got away. We're homeowners now, and dog-parents. My partner is wearing a jumper, despite himself. He loathes the cold but seems to dislike dressing for it just as much. I think he'd be a great Dad, perhaps, despite himself.
I look at the security system app on my phone. The cameras home in on our Westie Annabel's territory. She’s not there though, and our place looks empty without her scruffy presence. I sigh and look to my partner. I'm certain he’s seen me forget we're out of Queensland and try to check on a dog that isn’t where she would normally be. He takes a sip of beer and says, "I miss Little Dog." Our friends, Corgi owners, had the audacity to bless our medium-sized dog with this nickname…and it has stuck.
I miss Little Dog too. Desperately. We’ve left her with my parents while we take a week off. She’ll be fine, I think. I know she’ll be loved. Mum will play with her. She will be spoilt with rich treats, just like a real granddaughter might be. Annabel might even be pudgy when we come to pick her up. I scold myself: Don’t think that. You’ll give her a complex.
Can you give a dog a complex? I know I could give a child a complex. I've clearly got one.
Mum sends me a text with a picture update: Annabel is asleep. Like most babies, she’s cutest when she’s asleep. I gush over the photo, showing my phone to my partner. Warmth rushes about my body. It’s calming and isn’t the rolling serotonin rush that comes from the centre of my chest when I ruffle the fluff of Little Dog’s white mane.
Even though I know I should stop her, I love how she licks my face. I laugh when she digs in the garden and gets covered in soil and silt. I even love her when she wanders underneath the car and gets grease on her tail like she’s a wee dipstick. I am not a disciplinarian. I giggle at her cheek. I love my Annabel like crazy.
I couldn't have a baby. I shouldn't. I don't know how I could love harder without going mad. I also don't know why a baby seems like such a good idea sometimes.
My friends have beautiful children. They are beautiful people: in body and soul. More babies are on the way, and they will be beautiful too. I look forward to meeting them. I will sew them toys they may never use. I love them, but I struggle to imagine the logistics of having my own child. Not the sex, I get that, but I fear the responsibility and the likelihood they’d dislike me. I feel I’ve only just begun to carve out a comfortable niche and the expense of childrearing seems crushing. I do not wish to extinguish the spark of a career to raise children, nor do I wish to hurry towards the financial sinkhole of childcare and schooling. I believe in state education in a theoretical sense, but am a private school kid, and would, hypothetically choose the same path for my child. Though I am an exemplar of how private schooling can offer a terrible return on a substantial investment. I remind myself to breathe to staunch the panic. In. Out.
A friend assures us a baby would be the best decision we’d ever make. Another was famous for his use of a web browser plug-in that replaced Facebook baby spam with images of cats. I have drifted in my thinking to the liminal space between the two views.
I scoop my fur-baby up into my arms and she licks my face feverishly. I’m delighted to see her after our holiday and to take her back home. Mum makes tea and we all settle in for a chat in the sun.
Dad shows me his hand, “Look at this.” I grimace. His skin is prone to bruises and tears. It’s bandaged with a thick white patch. He says it’s his granddaughter’s fault. He’s teasing, but so is our imminent mortality. We should have just sent her to the kennel, I think. Dad doesn’t need to be roughed up by petulant terriers.
Annabel trots to Dad and puts her front paws on his knees. I know the look they share. It’s adoration, appreciation. What if, I think, that were a little girl he was cooing at? I sip from my mug. Yes, that would be beautiful. My mind hums:
There are no baby kennels.
After our break, we’ve settled back into the rhythm of work. Wake up, dress, breakfast, coffee, open laptop, attempt focus. I often fail at these attempts to point my attention at tasks.
My partner’s work-Dad is at our dining table, purportedly for serious business. I courtesy wave and put the kettle on in the kitchen. I move to the table to say hello and post-pleasantries he continues his story about trying to move his mother into aged care. He says something along the lines of needing brothers and sisters to help. I gulp. I’m one of one in my family. A first and only child. So’s he. That’s his challenge, he says. Work-Dad tells us about the shift in the mood in his visits with his mum once nurses started to come to attend to her wounds and dressings. “You can just have a cup of tea with her.”
I don’t know who will care for me when I get old. I presume I will pay for a portion of the care, perhaps the government will support me. I doubt it, but I sense it is unjust to raise a child as aged-care insurance. Still, it seems so…acceptable.
Annabel lies on my belly while I read a trashy book on her lounge. We’re warm together. Small things. My partner stomps into the room in his heavy work boots and she bounds off my tummy to rush to his side. I’m winded from her push-off. He picks her up and they stand at the front door together, looking out on the garden. He references The Lion King, tells her she’s the queen of all she can see – all the way to the end of the driveway. I sneak in for a cuddle, from both of them. This is my little family. I love it just as it is. And, in a few years’ time, maybe I’ll let nature decide whether it should grow.