daddy’s home: how getting a dog can break relationship rules

by nikki meredith

couple in matching shirtsI’d like to blame my husband for this deviant practice but, in truth, I started it. Even so, I think I can still blame him because the practice doesn’t bother him as much as it bothers me. In fact, it may not bother him at all but I’m too busy being bothered by it to focus on whether it bothers him.

I wish I could say that the “practice” to which I refer involves sex because it’s been an awfully long time since anyone proposed a new and/or unusual and/or exotic sex practice – so long, in fact, I can’t even remember what such a sex practice might have been. I fear that what I considered new and unusual sex practices in my day, what most people considered unusual and/or exotic sex practices in my day, are all now de rigueur for kids in the sixth grade.

While it doesn’t involve sex, it does involve marriage, my marriage. But to start from the beginning: when we were in the early stages of becoming a couple I knew at some point I would have to divulge my two relationship rules. Although the first rule doesn’t have anything to do with the second one, and the second rule is more or less the subject of this post, I’m going to mention both because I hope to establish my credentials as being, if not precisely cool, at least not entirely un-cool in the domestic arena.   Also, I want to mention both rules because, I believe, that having only two demonstrates that I’m hardly tyrannical in the relationship department. (It’s possible that I’ve established a few more since then, but never mind.)

The first rule surfaced much sooner than I anticipated. One Monday morning, fairly early in our relationship, we were both getting dressed for work when my then-boyfriend, now-husband handed me a shirt, an un-ironed shirt.

woman ironing“What’s this?” I asked.

“My shirt. It needs to be ironed.” (Note the passive voice.) He explained that in the years since he and his wife split, he’d been sending his shirts to the laundry but his usual day to retrieve the ironed shirts was Saturday and because we’d been skiing over the weekend, he’d been unable to get them.

His tone was pleasant but not relaxed. He looked at his watch. I handed the shirt back to him.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, my tone equally pleasant, “but I don’t do that.” Polite but firm. (Come to think of it there is a similarity in tone to that denial and denials of the sexual variety. Don’t appear shocked, just sweetly communicate you are not that kind of girl.)

As I watched him clear off the dining table – he didn’t own an ironing board – and pictured him struggling to iron a shirt on it, I caved. I made it clear, however, that it would be the last time. He stood and watched while I inelegantly struggled with the iron and the shirt on the table. I suspected he wanted to do other things, like shave, but didn’t have the nerve to leave while I worked, so I took advantage of the captive audience. I told him that I had one other rule so we might as well get it out of the way.

“Please know: I don’t mind being someone’s girlfriend, sweetheart, filly, tomato (he’d already referred to me as both a filly and a tomato… I figured it was a Canadian thing and didn’t object, though I was pretty sure my feminist sisters would not approve) I don’t even hate “old lady” (I was in my 20’s…who cared ?) and, perhaps, some day, I will again be a wife. But never, ever will the man I live with refer to me as “mother” as in “Mother, will you please pass the mashed potatoes.”

(In my mind, the practice is a corollary to couples wearing matching shirts so I believe it’s unnecessary to add that as a stand- alone rule.)

To be fair: while he was a man who assumed his “filly” would iron his shirts, he wasn’t a man, at least not then, who seemed like the kind of guy who would call his wife “mother.” But I couldn’t take a chance. His parents, had they expressed even a tiny bit of warmth to each other, did strike me as the kind of couple who would refer to each other as “mother” and “father” so I needed to nip whatever latent tendencies there might be in the bud.

And now we come to the subject of this post — our dog. It’s no secret that I love our dog. My husband wouldn’t say it that way but trust me, he loves the dog too.

Somewhere along the line during her puppyhood I started referring to my husband as “Daddy.” But it was a joke, sort of.   I would hear the front gate open and I’d yell, “Daddy’s home!” She would race to the window, put her forepaws on the sill so she could see him and start wagging her tail furiously.   It was adorable and it harkened back to the time when the kids were little and I marked his arrival home with that kind of welcoming exuberance. I guess it was only natural that at some point my husband would start referring to me as the counterpart. “Go to Mommy. She’ll put your leash on.”

puppy with cocked headFor some reason, this crept up on me slowly and by the time I realized we had become one of those couples, the practice was firmly established. Cleary it was time to revisit and refine the old rule. From then on, I declared, when talking to the dog, we would refer to each other by our first names.

Here’s the thing: it’s very hard to change.

I’m not sure why it’s hard to change but I had some previous experience with this. A long time ago I decided I wanted to call the people I love “honey.” I’ve always loved it when other people are called honey. I call my kids and my husband various terms of endearment but never honey which is my favorite. When I tried, it didn’t work. It felt as though I was wearing someone else’s ill-fitting underwear. No one else noticed but it was so uncomfortable I had to stop.

Back to the dog: I finally figured out that when I referred to my husband by his name she didn’t know who I was talking about. I realized that’s because she doesn’t know his name. Actually, she does know his name. His name is Daddy. But she wasn’t the only problem. When I used his name while talking to her, it sounded just as false as when I tried to call my kids and my husband honey. The ill-fitting underwear again.

While I was trying to resign myself to the fact that we are one of those couples an article appeared in the New York Times which might explain why it feels more natural to be a parent than a friend to her. In a recent study appearing in Science, Japanese researchers found that when dogs fix a long gaze on their owners, they have elevated levels of oxytocin, a hormone produced in the brain that is associated with nurturing and attachment. The owners’ levels of oxytocin increase too. We’re talking about the same essential feel-good feedback loop that bolsters bonding between parent and child.

When your dog’s big brown eyes gaze at you deeply, writes Times reporter Jan Hoffman, your heart leaps, his tail wags. “Devoted dog. Besotted owner.”

Other research pertinent to the daddy/mommy issue are studies demonstrating that dogs are more responsive to baby talk voices than normal conversational ones.

So I’ve surrendered. Rule number #2 has been compromised beyond recognition. We are one of those couples. While we don’t talk baby talk to her, we’re corny enough to be cast in Best in Show: The Sequel. Are matching plaid flannel shirts far behind?