After a complicated and stressful pregnancy, we suffered a traumatic birth, which left George with a seriously damaged arm. He then went on to develop meningitis, and once discharged from hospital was found to have a condition called silent reflux (this is essentially acid reflux, which is very painful for the baby and means that they cry almost constantly). All in all, pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood was a very tough time for me, as it is for many mothers. I often think about how I got through this time without breaking down or having to turn to antidepressants, and I think that my animals played a huge part.
I had a horse called Belle, who needed caring for each day. Grooming, feeding, mucking out. These daily duties were not a choice, they needed doing each and every day, screaming baby or not. I also had Amber, our dog. At the time, Amber, our wonderful and clever Collie cross, had recently been diagnosed with lymphoma. She was undergoing chemotherapy but still only had a prognosis of 6 - 12 months to live. I promised myself that she would get a good walk every single day, no excuses, and I lived up to that promise.
I know a lot of mother's with reflux babies avoid going out in public, because of the stress and the embarrassment of having a baby that cries all the time. However, I had to go out and care for my animals. I would strap George to my back, whether he was crying or not, and like this I would carry him around the stables, mucking out and caring for Belle as I always did. Belle always had a calming influence on me, and it seemed that she did on George too. He would be quite fascinated with her, reaching out to touch her and enjoying all the sights and sounds (and smells!) of the farm.
Then, still using the trusty baby carrier, Me, George and Amber would all go walking. Sometimes I would get strange looks from other walkers, perhaps thinking me a neglectful parent for walking along ignoring my crying baby. Other times, I would walk past people and they would give me a look and a smile that said 'I know what you're going through', or sometimes they would come and chat and tell me about their own children who used to cry a lot. That was rare, but lovely and reassuring when it did happen.
The fresh air, the exercise, the fact that, mostly, George would be distracted enough to stop screaming for a little while, it all made me feel better. It also made me feel like I was making some sort of an effort to be a good mother. I'm sure I ruined many a peaceful walk for other walkers, but tough luck! -They got to walk away and I didn't! Just because George was grumpy, it didn't mean that he deserved to be shut up in the house all day. He deserved to see the great outdoors just as much as the next baby.
Above all, Belle and Amber gave me a reason to get out of the house. I couldn't lose my sanity (although some days it felt like it was hanging from a very fine thread!), because there was no one else to care for them. It had to be me. Having this duty helped to get me through, no doubt about it.
This is something that dogs (and other animals) give to people every day. They do these things for us and they don't even know how important they are. I wonder how many dogs have 'saved' their owners - just by being there?
Life can throw at us many challenges, which can push us close to the edge and make us want to give up. But having a dog to care for, that needs feeding and walking and loving, is sometimes all it takes to get us to keep going and get through it.
...And this is just what you're average dog can give, no special training, it just comes naturally to them.
Imagine what a disabled person's life would be like without the help of their assistance dog...
Or an elderly person, living alone. What would their life be like without their little Westie sitting at their feet and cocking their head listening to chatter?..
Dogs can work wonders with disabled and autistic children too, giving them confidence, relaxing them when they are scared, giving them something to focus on, being their friend without any expectation or pressure.
And what do they ask in return?
Not much, a walk every day, a warm bed and food, care when they're sick, and a pat on the head every so often.
How very humbling.
Rest in peace Amber and Bella. They'll never know how much they did for me.