When Dad Became Mom

The Indian Express - January 13, 2013

Role reversals when a pet adopts a parent.

For over 11 years, we had a neurotic Dalmatian, Prince, who disliked people. He snapped at almost everyone, and bit those who made him particularly nervous. Whenever we took him out, children, drivers and watchmen in the building would say, "Hey bhagwan, yeh to danger wala hai (Oh god, this is the dangerous one)" and hurriedly move away. I used to think how nice it would be if we had a dog who loved people. And then we got Zak, our Labrador. Zak adores the human race. Yet, when we take him downstairs, everyone says, "Hey bhagwan, yeh to masti wala hai (Oh god, this is the mischievous one)." They hurriedly move out of the way as he tries to hurl himself into their arms and kiss them on the lips. Even the other dogs in the building don't play with him. He is a bad influence because he plays rough and gets them to roll in the mud and get filthy.

When we had Prince, we couldn't let him out when we had visitors because he might snap at them. Now we have Zak, and we still can't let him out when we have visitors because he wants to sit in their lap or share their chair or just slobber all over their feet. They say he will sober up eventually, he is just two years old. So we live in hope that soon we will have an indolent dog who will not go rushing off to vigorously bond with strangers, cats, crows and cars.

When we brought Zak home at seven weeks, we rubbed a dupatta all over his mother's body, and kept it where he slept, so that he would not miss her. By the time the smell faded, he decided to adopt my husband as his new mom, and I began to understand the privileges of fatherhood. I don't know what he is supposed to eat when, I don't panic about pet food running out, I don't take him to the vet, but just hear the report, and nod silently. I don't wait downstairs at 6 am for his walk group to come — 10 dogs walk together, each picked up and dropped home, exactly like a school bus. I don't worry about complaints about dog fights, instigated by Zak. When his surprised "mother" tells me that he got very aggressive with another dog named Junior for no reason, I grunt, "Really?" and end the conversation. When his "mother" and trainer finally figure out that Zak gets aggressively territorial if Junior arrives in our building compound before him, but is ok if Junior comes later, I say "learning to assert himself is good", and let his "mother" lose sleep over getting him downstairs first. Yesterday, we were invited to dinner and since there was no one at home to watch Zak, his "mom" decided not to go. Of course, I went, and came home and said, "Oh, you should have come, it was a great evening, and so said that there is a special playpen available to leave dogs alone and safe — you must figure it out."

I know how much I slogged when I was my daughter's full-time mother and how easy dad had it. It is sweet justice, made even better by the knowledge that she grew up and made me a part-time mother, but that won't happen with Zak! I am also glad that he knows how it feels to slave all day or be a single parent all week for an ungrateful offspring, who runs to dad when he comes home and ignores you totally thereafter. And when Zak is annoyed, or bored, or thinks it's unfair that the new slipper he was chewing was yanked away, or if he just wants his tenth biscuit of the day, he yells, barks, sits on top of, nudges, pushes his "mom" until he is harassed enough to do whatever it takes to shut him up. I read the newspaper in peace with my tea every morning. Husband reads his at Zak's pleasure. What goes around comes around, thank god for that!

But there are moments when only mom will do. Zak will lie despondent near the bathroom door, waiting for his "mom" to emerge. He will not eat and act like a little abandoned orphan when his "mom" is out of town, and if we both return home together after a few days out, he will go past me and head straight for his mom, rapturously barking, "mom's home". And, as for the father, as an Ogden Nash poem goes, "why bother?".