Pets or parenthood

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Are children necessary in a marriage? And if a couple is childless, can pets fulfil their nurturing instincts?

Ever since H and I started sleeping together, we've found it hard to get a good night's rest.

It's not so much because I'm terrified that he'll unwittingly elbow my face in the middle of the night (he sleeps with his arms bent).

It's also not because he's intrigued by how I can sleep with my knees up, one leg crossed over the other (or so he says).

The reason for our fitful sleep is Dee, our bichon frise, who shares the bed with us.

He's 10 this year, has weak hind legs, a cataract forming in his left eye and a loose bladder.

In the first three years of our married life, H and I slept in different bedrooms (long story, but the short of it is I didn't like the air-con).

Dee took turns to share our beds. Some nights, he'd sleep with H; other nights, he'd decide to snuggle up to me. Who knew what he based his decision on.

A queen-size bed fits one human and one 8kg toy dog nicely.

But two humans and one dog? That's a tight squeeze.

In the first few months when the three of us shared a bed, there was much tossing and turning and growling.

We've since carved out our space. H sleeps on the left side of the bed and I get the right. The dog settles in the space at the foot of the bed nearer my side, although if he had a choice, he would be claiming H's side at the top, which is where we always find him whenever he goes onto the bed before we do.

He (the dog) is a restless sleeper.

He jumps down the bed several times a night, and although he's perfectly able to hop back up during the day, he will whine for us to wake up and carry him back to bed at night (maybe the cataract is giving him poor night vision.)

Or he'll suddenly discover he's thirsty and will start pawing a side table where he knows there's a glass of water.

This means H or I will have to get up and stumble to the toilet to get him something to drink.

Or, if Dee wakes up before we do, he will sit by the door and sniff loudly at the gap between the door and the floor until we let him out. If we are slow to do so, we'll find a pee puddle (he's old and has poor bladder control.)

The simplest solution is to not let him sleep with us. But if we lock him out, he'll spend the whole night whining and scratching the door till he's let in, as he has done many times.

All this has left both of us bleary-eyed many mornings - but we don't really mind.

We might moan about what a nuisance he is, but we find it amusing and touching that he's so needy.

I knew I had married the right man when H saw Dee sprawled on top of his pillow one night and all he did was laugh and say, "Cute."

We also love Nicky, our chihuahua who sleeps downstairs. When he was sick recently, we fretted like crazy.

He had caught a virus that left him listless, with a very high fever and looking pitiful. H and I spent one Sunday night at the vet's cradling him as blood samples were drawn and tested. The vet said it wasn't too serious.

I left H in charge of his medication. Nicky recovered quickly.

We enjoy spending time with the two dogs. We fry them special Sunday steak treats and make sure they are clean, happy and healthy.

In return, they make us laugh and greet us like long-lost friends when we come home. Just watching them eat or sleep brings on a fuzzy feeling.

I don't think it's only because we like dogs. On my part (if not H's), my pets are the closest I will ever get to having children and a family with him.

There are people who'll baulk at comparing animals and children. But for childless people like me, pet care is what I imagine parenting to be like, especially now that I have a husband who enjoys sharing that responsibility with me.

At my age, there is zero chance I can be a mother.

When I got married four years ago, the possibility was remote but not totally impossible.

After all, the actress Halle Berry had a son last year when she was 46, apparently conceived naturally.

The world's oldest verified mother was 66 years 358 days when she had twin boys in 2006. They were conceived through IVF with donor eggs.

The oldest verified mother to conceive naturally did so at the age of 59 years in 1997. She was reported to have been on hormone replacement therapy at the time. But these are miracle-like occurrences.

I wasn't keen on having children then as marriage alone was already so overwhelming. I won't say I regret not trying.

Being childless has its advantages. We can fly off anywhere for a holiday on a whim and not feel guilty at leaving the dogs with my mother. We save a lot by not having to pay school fees. We can give each other our attention.

H has a daughter from his first marriage and so has responsibilities and worries. But being child-free, I don't feel burdened by having to make sure my kids turn out all right. Neither do I have to feel guilty for bringing a person into this difficult world.

But I do get wistful.

I sometimes wonder what our children would have been like. Who would they have resembled in looks and character? His eyes or mine? What sort of parents would we have made? Who'd be the good cop and the bad? Even everyday stuff like who'd be the one doing the school runs.

I never used to think it, but creating a baby together is surely the ultimate way a couple show their love for each other.

The wistfulness comes and goes. There's no point dwelling on what might have been.

And while I'm sure parenthood can be very rewarding, guess what, so too are carefree, child-free holidays lazing by an adults-only pool.

And what can be nicer than a pair of adoring dogs barking with ecstasy at the sight of you when you come home?

sumiko@sph.com.sg

Follow Sumiko on Twitter @ STsumikotan

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