From 1999: “I Love You, My Pet”

John Scalzi

Athena’s 24th birthday is tomorrow (don’t say “happy birthday” in the comments yet, she’s writing a piece tomorrow where the birthday wishes will be more appropriate), and on the occasion of it being the day before her birthday, I thought I would unearth an article I wrote about her in the Washington Post when she was but a month old, and how, at the time, she was the fifth-smartest mammal in the house. As far as I can tell I have not posted it here before, so it’ll be good to get it into the official Whatever archive.

Fun side story to this article: I wrote the piece when we lived in northern Virginia (the Post was our “hometown” newspaper at the time), and when we moved into a new house in the summer of 1998, with Krissy already pregnant, our new neighbors came around to say hello. As often happens during introductions, we were asked what we did for our jobs. Krissy worked in property management at the time, and I mentioned that I was a freelance writer.

When I did that, from my neighbors’ point of view, it was like a flashing neon sign with the word “BUM” came alight over my head. They largely assumed that I was living off of Krissy, and that I was lounging about at home while the pregnant lady was off earning the keep for the both of us. Thus, when this article appeared in the Post, at least a couple of our neighbors exclaimed, with great surprise, “you really are a writer!” Yes. Yes, I was. And yes I am, still.

Enjoy, and tomorrow, when Athena posts, be sure to wish her a happy birthday.

I Love You, My Pet

(Originally printed in the Washington Post, February 21, 1999)

My daughter Athena celebrated her one-month birthday last Saturday by spitting up what she had been drinking, and then staying up all night and making a lot of noise. This pleased me immensely; she’s already preparing for college life. 

Her mother and I, on the other hand, spent some time trying to encapsulate the whole parent-child relationship thus far, something that defines everything we are as caregivers and custodians of this small being. Here’s what we’ve come up with: “John and Kristine: We haven’t dropped her yet!” Which is absolutely true as far as my wife knows, and I’ll thank you not to tell her any differently. 

We’re also trying to explain life with baby to our childless friends, who are curious, and understandably so. Having a baby is like suddenly sprouting a second head: The attention you get at the start is nice, but at the end of it, it’s just another mouth to feed. 

Our friends want to know if the benefits outweigh the detriments. If they are one day to have children of their own (or, alternately, graft another head onto their spinal column), they need to have some inkling of what it’s like, in terms they can appreciate. I can’t help them with that second head thing. But the parenthood issue is another matter. 

Here’s what I tell them: One month in, it’s like having another pet. 

And not a very clever pet at that — at this point in her life, Athena is the fifth smartest mammal in the house, after the dog and the cat. The proof is borne out in the following basic skills test, comparing the cat, the dog and the baby (for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll make the assumption that both my wife and I are smarter than each of the three, because my wife actually is, and since I’m writing this thing, I get to give myself a pass): 

Name Recognition — 

Dog: Yes; always comes running, tail wagging, like a big happy fool. 

Cat: Yes; will come, if thinks food/petting is forthcoming. 

Baby: No; responds equally to “Athena,” “Tiffany,” “Booger” or “Suitcase.” 

Sanitation — 

Dog: Leaves house. 

Cat: Stays in house, but covers up mess. 

Baby: Wallows in her own poo. 

Verbal Commands — 

Dog: Understands and complies. 

Cat: Understands and ignores. 

Baby: Stares google-eyed. 

Can It Walk? — 

Dog: Yes, a sprightly gait. 

Cat: Yes, like Orson Welles on four legs. 

Baby: No; can’t sit up without flopping over like a boneless chicken. 

I know, this sounds like a terrible slam on our daughter, something that years from now will cause some therapist somewhere to give Athena the once over and think: Here’s how I’m getting that new sailboat. So let me clarify, if only to save on future insurance deductibles. 

First, I’m not saying Athena is a pet. She’s not. Eventually she’ll have to earn her way in the world by doing something other than being cute and allowing herself to be petted every now and again (unless, of course, she joins the cast of “Cats”). 

Second, unlike the dog and the cat, Athena has yet to crest on the learning curve. She will yet learn to read, speak and wield tools; that’s what you get for having a forebrain and opposable thumbs. 

But let’s be honest. At one month, every human being is a drooling idiot. Even the great human beings of history stewed (adorably, I’m sure) in their own saliva. At that age, the only musical thing Mozart did was burp on key. Georgia O’Keeffe couldn’t even finger paint. And there may have been Lincoln Logs, but they weren’t the kind you’d want to play with. 

I love my daughter, so I’m not going to burden her with unrealistic expectations. If the month-old Abe Lincoln did nothing but wiggle like a wind-up toy and wait for someone to feed him, I can hardly complain when my child does the same. 

Anyway, I don’t mind. In fact, it’s sort of a relief. At this point in the game, the baby has four basic needs: to be fed, to be burped, to have her diaper changed and to be held. That’s it. I can deal with these four things, especially since they tend to be done in a fairly rapid sequence, and I get my reward immediately: When the baby is fed, burped, changed and held, she goes to sleep. I win. 

Contrast this to your basic teen, whose needs are many and contradictory (for the example, the need for total, unhindered freedom coupled with the need to access your bank account). The only thing that stays the same is that the teenager also frequently sleeps, though it’s usually through the first few periods of class. Not much of a reward there. 

More to the point, I’m giving our friends a concept they can understand. Most of them have pets, after all. The news that a baby is not unlike another pet must give them some reassurance that they’ll be able to handle it well when their own baby arrives, at least in the critical early months.

Just as long as they don’t take their baby to get fixed. The analogy only goes so far.

— JS

13 Comments on “From 1999: “I Love You, My Pet””

  1. Yes. Times two (daughters). What helped is that a big yellow Lab named Rhett was best man out our wedding, then lived more than long enough to help both girls learn to walk. Both girls learned to pull themselves up beside Rhett, who then knew instinctively to go no faster than they did and to exhibit saintly patience until they got tired and let him go.

    We all miss Rhettie boy to this day.

  2. “At this point in the game, the baby has four basic needs: to be fed, to be burped, to have her diaper changed and to be held.”

    I am reminded of the computer programmer I knew in the 1980s who sent out a birth announcement in the form of a new product press release for the Four-Function Interactive Baby. The four functions were input, output, snooze, and alarm.

  3. Pets are mostly silent. I’m pretty sure Suitcase was not. I can’t deal with kids until they’re old enough to reason with.

    But I’m glad there are people like you who can.

  4. One of the insights I gained some 30 years ago was that no human would ever survive past 2 years if babies didn’t have the power to hypnotize their parents into believing they are the most wonderful creatures on earth. Sleep deprivation probably helps. At some level you know you’re being manipulated, but you’re helpless to resist.
    The real magic is to continue the love long after the spell ends. Congratulations to all 3 of you!

  5. Loved the article. Very funny. This reminded me of the time when our two kids were toddlers. We were traveling back from visiting relatives in Toronto and we had learned that the kids would tolerate long trips if satiated by strapping DVD players to the back of the headrests. When we got to customs and were going through the obligatory questions the official in the customs booth must have noted something seemed amiss because he looked at me and said, “What’s the matter dad, you don’t seem very happy?” They ask questions like this to make sure the kids are actually yours. I looked back at him and said, “I’ve had the same Little Einsteins DVD playing behind my head for four hours.” He laughed and said, “I’ve got kids too. Have a nice night,” and waved us through.

  6. I remember Kodi. I remember when I first found Whatever and read from the beginning, and then Kodi died and I realized that they had been dead before I ever knew them. I can’t remember if Kodi was a good boy or a good girl, but I remember weeping for them.
    Good thing you posted this hilarious article to counteract the weepiness.

  7. @JS Thanks for the smile, I enjoyed the piece.
    Have you ever seen the Netflix limited series “Babies”?

    You might find, after watching, that 1 month old Athena may be tied for 3rd

  8. “But let’s be honest. At one month, every human being is a drooling idiot.”

    sadly… some of us remain an idiot well into adulthood… but mostly we figure out how to suppress the drooling in public venues unless there are freshly baked chocolate chip cookies upwind of us…

%d bloggers like this: