Dogs, Play, and the Terrifying Open-Endedness of Grace

“The Best Way to Know God is to Love Many Things”

Stephanie Phillips / 12.1.20

Our family welcomed a dog into our ranks two months ago, and believe me when I tell you, it has been a journey.

Kevin, named after our younger son’s kindergarten teacher (as well as the lead characters from Home Alone and The Wonder Years), is a white lab whom we picked up from a farm west of Sydney when he was eight weeks old. He was born with a short tail that has a hairless patch, and when the breeders relayed this information, I was the opposite of dismayed. We are big on scars in this family, on having A Thing. Kevin’s tail is his Thing.

Some more of Kevin’s things include retributive peeing, assaulting my shoulders while I take baths, and nipping the children until they cry. I expected much of this, having grown up with dogs myself, but the adjustment — and the struggle — have still been real. Perhaps (definitely) I was looking for an opportunity to find out how much I’d grown since my children were newborns, how “breezy” I’ve become over the years, how much meditation and therapy have chilled me out, and therefore how much better I would handle his infancy than I did theirs. (Yes, I am comparing a puppy to a newborn baby. THE PARALLELS EXIST.)

I’m sure you know what’s coming next. Because although puppies and newborns may be different species, parenting them requires similar skills — and, I seem to keep finding, I’m still as skill-less as I ever was.

Cut to Kevin’s nipping me while I did some light hand-vacuuming the other night and my throwing the vacuum to the floor while screaming that he was a “f-ing asshole” in front of my children, then running to the bathroom and barricading myself inside.

It was a low point, but then again, I’ve had a lot of low points. 

We had a dog trainer come to the house, which stretched the newborn comparison even further as it called to my mind a visit with a lactation consultant when one of my kids was a few weeks old. I remember feeling judged then (how much are you producing? how often are you feeding?) and now (what’s that in his mouth? what are the sleeping arrangements?). I felt, in both instances, that my life had been divided into a Before and an After; that I had become defined by this new creature and, in my most honest moments, that I was trapped by it. 

And then there were the ensuing arguments with my husband.

Famously, when our first son was a newborn, I told Jason in an exhaustion- and resentment-fueled haze that I was “doing everything.” This time around, he has refrained from saying the same but has made it clear that he is doing a lot. And yes, I am letting him. I have claimed the survival of our small humans as my responsibility since, suddenly, it has become an easier job (they are distractible by screens). With Jason working from home, I’ve let the hyper-vigilance required over a puppy’s bathroom and chewing habits fall on him, and there have been nights when, as Jason supervises bath time for the boys, I hear Kevin run into the bathroom and terrorize them — and I just turn up the volume on The Crown and pray no one remembers the only girl who lives here. 

But when my discussion-averse husband told me we needed to have a talk about dog responsibilities, I knew the jig was up. And I started to examine why I was shying away from our canine companion. 

Here is what I know to be true: I can turn anything into law. How much exactly does the dog eat? How often exactly should I be taking him out to pee and poop? This black-and-white mentality is exhausting, and it always leads to a breaking point. But even more exhausting, indeed frightening, is the question “how do I play with him?”

Because here is another thing I know to be true: Open-endedness terrifies me. When my kids were newborns, I was great at filling in the iPad app as to the consistency of their poops (okay, we only did that for the first kid). But tummy time? How long was that shit supposed to go on? How do you know when you’re done? And when you play with a new tiny creature — what’s the appropriate time allotment, and how do you know if you’re doing it right? Also — it’s tedious?

Much has been written about the benefits of play to our mental and physical well-being (check out our Sports Issue, available now!). For my part, I think its difficulty is that it requires us to be so lost in the moment that we’re not aware of how we’re doing it, or for how long. And that is incredibly complicated for adults, especially neurotic ones like yours truly; the lack of definition renders it threatening, like a sermon without four tidy points or a life application at the end. When it comes to my kids (and my dog, apparently), this results in my shying away from play in favor of more structured and calm activities, like book-reading. Meanwhile, I resent being a human jungle gym because the little ones need to lose themselves in expending energy. Can’t they go to their dad for that? I have lunches to pack!

Play is a form of grace. What is more grace-full, after all, than losing track of ourselves and all our doing? My kids, and my dog, seem to value my presence even more than their daily ham-and-cheese (or rawhide bone, as it were — not saying who gets which). My presence that is not distracted by a screen or an iron or a steering wheel. My presence, which is to say me, fully with them. They ask for so much — and yet so little. 

Van Gogh said that “the best way to know God is to love many things.” And God, against all that could be considered good judgment, just keeps giving me things to love. As though he knows that in truly being with them, I am also with him.