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Adopting a Pet aka The End of My Empty Nest Dreams

After learning that her campus was shutting down for the rest of the semester, the first sentence my daughter spoke without crying was a doozy: “If I have to come home, we need to get a dog.”

What’s a mom to do?

“Let’s foster a dog,” I offered. A win-win solution for all of us. Our daughter would have a furry friend to take care of. And with shutdowns pending, we’d lighten the load at the shelter while preparing it for its forever home.

“You’re in charge,” I told her once she got home. If she wanted a dog, she was the one who was going to do the work. I shared the names of a few shelters, and then left it to her, thinking (maybe hoping) that she’d approach this task with the same lack of urgency that every request to clean her room or fold laundry gets met with. But—never underestimate a kid who wants a dog.

A few days later, she texted me.

“I made an appointment to see a dog at 2:30.” Kudos to my daughter for taking the lead and using all of those grown-up skills to contact the shelter, fill out forms, and somehow persuade her parents to go take a look at an 86-pound, hard-to-place behemoth.

As we drove to the shelter, we explicitly explained that we were only going to look at the dog. That we’d take the weekend before making a final decision. She nodded and kept her eyes on the road.

When we arrived, the dog burst through the doors of the shelter, ran right up to us, and greeted each of us with a nuzzle. A few minutes later, the dog leaped into the back of the car. We looked at each other and laughed, and then we got in and drove her home for a six-week stint at our house. In fact, it happened so quickly that we had to call the shelter on our way home to get instructions about how much to feed her. We pulled up the driveway, and the dog pranced inside, plopped down on the couch beside my daughter, and put her head in her lap.

A few weeks in, it began. “Mom, can we keep her?”

I fought it. Mightily. A few months prior, we had put down our dog, who had lived a glorious life. We had finally embraced this phase called empty nesting, enjoying travel we could plan at the last minute (which included visiting said daughter). And we were deep into preparing our house for the market, committed to downsizing.

The pandemic has put the kibosh on travel and moving for now. But I continued to hold onto the idea that there would be a finite end—and that “after this is over” time didn’t include having a dog (even though I do love dogs).

From Denial to Acceptance

Several months later, my daughter is still leading her life from her headquarters in her bedroom. Her summer internship is remote, her upcoming semester abroad is canceled, and the format of her junior year of college is unknown. Meanwhile, the dog follows her around the house when she is upset and sleeps on her bed.

I still wasn’t ready to say yes.

I continued imagining my daughter’s empty (and clean) room. I envisioned missing her as she was off at school.

My family and the dog waited patiently for me.

She responded to her new name (and treats); she was “doing great” with her leash training; she was bringing our family closer together as we spent time walking her; she was doing what dogs do by making everyone around her a little happier.

I finally agreed to bring the dog into our family on a permanent basis. It wasn’t because my husband and daughter got the dog a new collar and tags with my phone number on it as a Mother’s Day present for me (although you have to applaud their efforts). It wasn’t because I knew what I was getting into (although she saved revealing her lightning quick ability to get food from the counter when no one is looking until after she became an official family member). It wasn’t because I loved her (although I did and I do).

What got me to yes is that I finally shifted from a state of denial to one of acceptance. I had to adjust my perspective and recognize that my life is no longer going to be lived as a dog-less empty nester who eats cereal for dinner.

Instead, my new normal will be a full house and a big dog who takes up a lot of room on the couch. One day, my kids will relaunch. When that happens, the dog and I will see them off.

Jody Podl

Jody has spent her life around teens, as a teacher and as a parent of three.

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