I vibe with dogs and kids. That’s the way I’ve always been. If you have a dog and 24 hours, then we’ll probably be besties. The same applies if you have a child under 12. He, she, or they will be my best friend by the time I leave your home. I’ve accepted this about myself; however, those outside of my immediate circle don’t know this information, and thus, problems arise. Sometimes, people think I want their kid and dog, or at least that’s how they act.
When I visited my in-laws, my youngest niece attached herself to me as soon as I arrived. We’d never met, yet she stuck by my side and offered me a snaggle-tooth grin every time I looked her way. She followed me around the house and said she wanted to come home with me. She sat beside me at church and whispered jokes.
“Does anyone want to give their life to Christ?” the pastor asked.
“She does,” she shouted, pointing at me and trying to raise my hand.
“Oh yeaaaah?” the pastor’s eyes brightened.
“No. No,” I assured him, and then to my niece, “you trying to get me in trouble…at church???” I teased, giving her a side-eye.
She returned a gapped-tooth smile.
She insisted on sitting next to me at dinner, her mother on the opposite side of the table. “You like your Aunt Kathy?” she asked, through a tight grin.
When we returned home, she began calling me “Mama,” instead of Aunt Kathy.
“You don’t even know her name,” her father said, clearly bothered by her instant affinity.
I remained quiet as insecurity filled the air. Children don’t have to know your name. All they have to feel is safe and seen. It’s a vibe. I don’t want your child I wanted to holler. She’s clearly starving for attention. Instead, I lay on the couch and pretended to be sleepy, in hopes that she’d leave me alone and perhaps spare her parents the sound of her eight-year-old voice calling me mama.
The next day, she cried and hid under the table because she didn’t want me to leave.
Fast forward years later, and I met a three-year-old cousin, who hadn’t seen me since she was born. At first, she was shy, as many tots are, but eventually, after I began asking her questions, in Spanish and English, and wiping her runny nose, she warmed up, so did her parents’ ten-year-old dog.
Her parents and I went to a store, where I asked, “Do you like toys?”
Her head bobbed up and down.
“Good. Let’s go look at some,” I suggested. “You wanna go look at toys?” I asked with my hand outstretched.
More head bobbing.
“We’re gonna go look at toys,” I announced to her mother, and then she put her tiny hand in mine and we traipsed away toward Barbie and them.
We picked over Pepa the Pig trinkets and a box of Marvel bowling pins. “You like those?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said quietly.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Issa skateboard,” her mother said. “You know how to use a skateboard?” she had found us and decided she’d show her child around the toy aisle. As her mother showed her how to kick and push, I slowly slipped away because it started to feel a lot like my niece and her mother years ago. It felt like insecurity, as if she didn’t really want her daughter to be with or like me, even though she was and did.
I thought I was tripping, projecting even, until we returned to the house where the mother’s dog greeted me at the door as if we were old friends. He barked for me to pick him up, and feed him the attention he, too, craved and lacked since his doggy parents had had a baby and become mommy and daddy to a human.
He sat on my lap and we played a game where my fingers came close enough to his mouth for him to snap at them, but not really catch them. He barked and snarled and wagged his tail with happiness. Like the toy aisle, where she skated her way back into her child’s view, the mother made cute clicking noises to distract her pet from my lap and from the fun, but it didn’t work. Instead, he settled down right next to my thigh, licked my hand, and then fell into a deep sleep with a slight snore.
My cousin, the mother’s husband, laughed at the sight, and said, “You gotta new Mama now, huh,” while his wife looked on fuming.
Again, I wanted to yell, I don’t want your child (or your dog). I just don’t mind offering a little attention.
But of course, I didn’t say this. Again, I shied away from the dog and the child and made as little eye contact with both.
I hope you hear the empathy in between these narratives: I’m a mother, and I wouldn’t want one of my daughters calling someone else mother. I’ve owned a dog, and I wouldn’t want my dog sidling up to someone else as if he didn’t have an owner. However, I also understand children and dogs. They both need constant attention, something that is oftentimes impossible in today’s busy world. And if I happen to be around for a couple days, I’m happy to offer it.
At the same time, I understand the careful balance of human beingness that has to be in place. I’ll only indulge if everyone is comfortable in the situation, but sometimes, ego makes that impossible.