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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

Our “first born” is a dog. A Boston terrier named Sergeant Pepper. He was the runt of the litter with floppy ears and an expression of cute longing. Angelic, tender and sensitive, he grew anxious and broke out of his crate to eat the walls when we weren’t home. Pepper eventually matured and became watchful, intelligent even. We coddled him and doted on his every need.

I believe Pepper knew I was pregnant before we did. He was cautious not to walk on my tummy and at night we curled up together in bed, his little body whirring like a TENS machine against the small of my back. Our bond strengthened and I enjoyed every second of my pregnancy, it felt like a prize after being labelled geriatric. I watched my body swell and shift. I treasured it.

To make sure Pepper was healthy before the baby came, we scheduled a routine dental extraction. He had difficulty coming out of the anesthesia. We almost lost him. The vet advised us to never put him under again. His heart was too big for his body. The vet’s eyes let me know how serious it was.

We weren’t sure how Pepper would react to the baby. We knew he would feel replaced, but we feared problematic jealousy and worried about leaving them alone together. In preparation, I walked him around the neighbourhood beside an empty stroller, still nine-months pregnant and feeling like a fool. Every baby item that came in the house we let him sniff out on arrival. We stopped at the pet store on our way home from the hospital to buy him a new toy. He needed to know he was still going to be special. I just didn’t know how special.

I was blindsided by the birth. Nothing went according to plan. I was a week overdue and after a surprise induction, cue the cascade of interventions. I was only an active participant for a small time frame. I had to have an emergency cesarean. Although the baby’s heart rate was mighty, eventually it dropped. I was fearful I wouldn’t bond with him, that my breastfeeding hopes would be diminished, that he would end up straight in the NICU.

The first six weeks of recovery were sore and sad. I felt trapped and broken. I couldn’t bend to the bassinet. My unfamiliar body tingled with exhaustion. When I blinked, the backs of my eyeballs were on fire. All raw edges, I was dreadfully unavailable, depleted and exposed. I was hard on myself, I grieved my labour and felt traumatized and unsupported by our midwife. I was angry and depressed. During a few hard nights, I channelled that rage toward our innocent babe, writhing in my arms, scratching my throat and kicking my sore breasts, inconsolable. Intrusive thoughts entered my mind and I screamed along with him. I … could … just … let him go.

Once we both calmed down, we’d get into bed together. My tears dripped onto the baby’s head. Pepper would snuff his nose against the door, come in and join us, licking and kissing my tears away.

I obsessively began researching infant sleep and I felt immense guilt and fear for the times I told my husband he needed to take the baby away from me. But days clicked forward and a pattern emerged. Our son began to display new developmental milestones in the days after the nights of unrest.

The wise look of our dog tells me to trust my intuition. The tunnel of motherhood is messy, far from any Instagram or Facebook image of perfection and ease. I am vulnerable. I am in between. I don’t know what I am doing, but I do know that everything is going to be fine. That I am a good mother. That these feelings are normal. That they pass and we become something more.

When the baby is upset, Pepper shakes with worry. When my partner and I raise our voices, he silently communicates his wish that we could be calmer. He knows we can do it, he doesn’t hold it against us. He is our reminder to be gentle, to let go, to stay playful.

To this day, Pepper follows me into the nursery for every diaper change. In the morning, when our son cries out, he is the first one waiting by his door to start the day. While I nurse, he lays at our feet. He is always close by but careful not to be in the way.

Now 15 months old, our son wants nothing more than to walk Pepper on the lead, a joy I anticipated. Pepper kisses his tears away, too.

Pepper is patient. On occasion, he still looks forlorn, like he has been replaced, but he is dutiful, knowing his walks might not be as good as they once were, but that they will get better again. That I will get better again. Maybe when the spring comes, after I am healed. After I learn to be a mother.

My postpartum support dog has been unrelenting, loving and curious. He teaches us like a proud and goofy older brother. I know we can get through any cycle of change and chaos, but without the silent emotive strength of our dog at my side, I might have lost my way last winter. His heart is indeed too big for his body. I don’t think it’s a defect at all. Some support dogs are made and some are born.

Amy Mattes lives in Nanaimo, B.C.

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