A friend who’s going through a contentious divorce came to me recently and asked what I thought about her getting a dog. “The kids have been asking to get one for a long time, and I’m seriously thinking about saying yes. What do you think?” she asked.
“What do I think?” I parroted back. “I think it may not be such a good idea.”
She looked surprised. It was probably not the answer she was expecting since pets can be a source of unconditional love for their owners, a feeling often in short supply during a divorce. But will love be enough? As in any relationship, when it comes to a family facing divorce, I’m sticking with, “Not necessarily.” That’s why before bringing a dog or any pet into a family going through a traumatic event, divorce included even if that divorce qualifies as amicable, you should give it some serious thought. Lives will change, including the animal’s, and you want to prepare yourself.
Over the years, I have watched close friends and acquaintances welcome a dog into their home when life is at its most chaotic, believing that the dog will save the day. And it’s a nice thought. That is until the dog begins eating everything around the house, and the house itself. Or the already sleep-deprived pet owners find themselves standing on a street corner in their pajamas before sunrise walking it. And then again a few hours later, maybe still wearing those pajamas. And yet a few hours after that, keeping them chained to their house when they have what seems like a million things to do, and now solo.
This is the part I imagine where, especially if you’re a dog lover, you’ve already begun to craft a nasty comment to this article in your head. I can hear it now: “You’re selfish!”
My rebuttal? “You bet I am.”
Despite separating from my husband more than six years ago, the memories are still fresh in my mind, if not occasionally raw. We had a pet at the time, a cat, which I also assumed full physical custody of along with my three children when my ex-husband decided to make his home 8,000 miles away from us. Although a cat doesn’t require as much work as a dog does, and doesn’t need periodic walking like a dog, cats do require attention and cost money, expenses you may not think about when you’re busy negotiating spousal and child support.
READ MORE: What Our Kids Really Need from Us After Divorce
So when our cat eventually got sick post-divorce, needed numerous tests and a surgical procedure, required emergency hospital care, and died in spite of it all, I found myself facing thousands of dollars in veterinary bills. I was also the parent responsible for making the final call about whether to euthanize our furry family member. I felt very much alone and emotionally vulnerable as I made this executive decision by myself.
Don’t misunderstand me, our family cat’s presence in our house during my divorce, during this very tumultuous time, brought much comfort to my children and me. But he was already there, grandfathered in if you will. And I know if my family situation had been more stable, I could have and would have paid more attention to him as he sat quietly under my desk, joined me on the couch every night to watch TV, and laid in my bed next to me as I cried myself to sleep. I feel guilty about it to this day; I wish I had pet him a little bit more, and paid him the same attention he paid me. I didn’t. I couldn’t. It wasn’t in me to do it. Not then. I was too sad, distracted, overwhelmed, and self-involved, which is why I warn those who ask me if they should get a pet during a divorce first to ask themselves whether they have it in them to take a pet on and into their life. The answer may be no. It would’ve been for me.
Caring for a pet is a huge commitment, and during the divorce process when you’re first adjusting to losing the one you had with your spouse, you may not want another so soon. Being tied down is not always what’s best for us, whether to a new partner or a new pet. Life during a divorce can sometimes feel oppressive. The chance to escape without worrying about details such as where to board a pet, how to pay for it, and whether an animal is receiving the love and attention it deserves is a freedom you shouldn’t discount. Those “selfish” moments are what saved my life and fueled my soul in such a way that I could move forward, rebuild, and eventually get to a place where I could give myself fully to another animal, and a human being. As with any committed relationship, you’ll know when you’re ready. Don’t let anyone, including your children, tell you otherwise.
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