Of Puppies and Parenting

Meet Alice, the latest addition to our family.  We picked her up from the breeder when she was only eight weeks and now she’s almost three months old.  After Maddy died (see my post about grief and the grieving process), we decided not to get another dog until the fall; but some members of the family found the grief and loss so painful that we began looking around for a new pet earlier than planned.  A couple of rescue dogs fell through, then we found an ad for a litter of white labs from a breeder two hours away; five days later, we were driving home with little Alice.

The experience of having another small creature to take care of — the joys as well as the sacrifice involved — has taken me back to those times when my kids were very small.  In particular, it has reminded me of the sleep deprivation:  for the first several weeks, Alice was waking up a 4:30 a.m.  I’m an early riser but that hour is extreme, even for me.  Though she sleeps later now, the early morning demands have cut into my personal time and I’ve been feeling a tad resentful.   Taking on Alice has by and large meant giving up hiking this summer, because you can’t leave a puppy alone for too long.  I think she’s adorable but I would rather have waited until the fall to get another dog.  I’m tired a lot of the time, trying hard not to to be too grouchy, struggling to make peace with this personal sacrifice for the family good.

So I’m remembering those times before the kids were sleeping through the night — how completely infatuated we were with each baby despite the sleep deprivation, totally enchanted by every developmental milestone but feeling like zombies, conducting our lives in a twilight state of semi-consciousness … and I wasn’t even doing the breast-feeding!  During that period, I had several clients who were pregnant and then gave birth.  With all the mothers, I heard similar stories and identified a dynamic they had in common.  The scenario goes something like this (although the variations are many):

It’s the middle of the night and the mother is awake, breasting-feeding her baby and feeling a kind of bliss at the intimate contact.  She’s feeling good about herself as a mother, too, because she’s so willing to sacrifice her sleep in order to give the baby what it needs.  It doesn’t matter if she’s ready to collapse and that tomorrow will be hell; right now, she adores her baby and can think of no higher, more selfless love than what she feels for it.  Sated, the baby finally goes back to sleep and the mother stumbles half-blind to the master bedroom.  At the sight of her husband, slumbering away in bed, anger surges through her whole body.   It might be resentment that he gets to sleep and she doesn’t … even though she told him it made no sense for them both to get up when she alone can do the breast-
feeding, even though she magnanimously turned down his offer to bottle-feed with expressed milk.  Maybe she becomes enraged because of some chore he was supposed to do but forgot about. At that moment, she could murder him.

You’d be surprised how often I heard some version of that story.  I came to understand it as a kind of splitting, where the mother protects her baby from the hostility and resentment she feels by preserving her love for that baby and re-directing all the hostility toward her husband (which is not to say that there are no legitimate grounds for resenting one’s husband!).  In our culture — in most cultures, I imagine — for mothers to feel hostile toward their infants is an unacceptable emotion.  (Even now, I’m aware of soft-pedaling this idea by writing “feeling hostile toward” instead of “hating” your baby.  How can a mother hate her own baby??!!!)  By splitting off those hostile feelings and directing them toward her husband, she avoids the socially unacceptable emotions, and quite possibly the guilt she would experience if she recognized all the ways she actually feels.  The love she feels is real but so is the hostility; it’s not one or the other.

It’s part of the father’s job to absorb all that resentment, to act as a psychological support for the mother-infant pair and serve as an emotional outlet for emotions too powerful for the mother to experience in that vulnerable context.  Of course, no one tells dad that this is part of his job description; he may feel bewildered and treated unjustly when a blast of resentment suddenly comes his way.  He may already be feeling left out, neglected and even jealous.  As anyone with children knows, this is an incredibly challenging time in a marriage for everyone concerned.

When I was writing my dissertation, I came across an article by Donald Winnicott in which he discusses the lullaby, Rock-a-bye Baby.  In the unlikely event you’ve forgotten the lyrics to that song, here’s the first verse:

Rock-a-bye baby in the tree-top
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall
And down will come baby, cradle and all

Okay, so here’s a charming little song that describes a baby slumbering innocently in its treetop cradle; the branch holding the cradle then snaps in high winds and the baby goes crashing down to the ground and probably dies upon impact.  Isn’t that sweet?  Winnicott said the lullaby wasn’t sentimental.  He said that sentimentality is of no use to parents because it contains a denial of their hostility, whereas Rock-a-bye Baby offers an unconscious outlet for that resentment by disguising it in the form of a lullaby.  I suppose if we’re going to be entirely honest, we’d say that this sweet lullaby disguises a murderous impulse, the desire to kill the baby that interferes with your sleep, demands constant attention, takes and takes and takes and gives nothing back for a very long time. Isn’t that adorable?

In my practice, I found that addressing those feelings gave my client-mothers a sense of relief. By acknowledging the extent of the deprivation, by recognizing that hostility and resentment under such circumsstances made sense, they could accept occasional hatred  without feeling guilty or afraid of the emotion’s power.

As for me and the new dog, I really do think she’s adorable, and one of the smartest, sweetest, best-behaved dogs I’ve ever met.  I’m not conscious of any feelings of hostility toward her, but I suspect they’re there, split-off somewhere, waiting to express themselves.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Wouldn’t it be emotionally healthier to recognize that extreme flipping of adoration to hate for the same person is immature, and try to grow so it’s not an issue any more? I have 3 kids and nursed each one for a year, so I know the stress of infants (and puppies too btw).

    Acknowledging feelings, especially the less acceptable ones is absolutely vital as a FIRST step. Why are you stopping there, instead of pushing farther to encourage your patients and yourself to delve deeper into your ‘unacceptable’ feelings and mature past splitting and black/white thinking?

    1. Splitting involves the separation of extreme emotions in distinct states of mind; recognition of ambivalence is a sign of maturity. I would NEVER push a person to feel any particular way or encourage anyone to feel one way or another. Splitting is not the same thing as ambivalence, which I consider normal. Mixed emotions are part of real relationships.

      1. You write “I would NEVER push a person to feel any particular way or encourage anyone to feel one way or another.” Good, feelings are reality for the person who feels them. My point is that accepting our feelings is not the same as labeling them all ‘good’ or the ultimate way that we want to be as a person.

        You also write “Splitting is not the same thing as ambivalence…” I agree completely. However the hatred and adoration you describe your patients and yourself feeling are opposites. Zero subtly there. Ambivalence has at least some element of subtlety to it. It’s grey. Splitting is B&W.

        I treasure and love my kids and my husband, but I don’t put them on a pedestal. I know they are not “one of the smartest, sweetest, best-behaved”, best “…est” anything. But that doesn’t matter. Their faults and strengths blend and counter with mine so that we are better, stronger and healthier people together than we would be apart.

        Is tolerating intense negative feelings towards the ones we care most about the goal of becoming more self aware? I don’t just want to know it’s normal to feel that way. My aim is higher than that. My aim is to elimination the “intense” part of the negative, not by denying it in the past, but by learning about myself from what triggers it.

      2. It is immature JB! To be on the other side of it is extremely painful. That person needs to figure out what they want. I think observing different feelings are healthy, yet with your mind choose which ones have the healthy outcome.

         No one is perfect. The love/hate comes from others expecting someone to show up in a separate way than what they are. This judgment and expectation can cause hostility.

        I used to experience massive guilt and emotion about not being a good dog mother, it was all in my head creating a lot of drama and emotion. Perfect example is I thought to be a good dog mommy that I had to let my dogs sleep with me in my bed so they could be connected to me, yet the issue came up that I couldn’t move in bed, and my spine was coming out of line. Now they sleep together in a big crate at night together next to my bed. I can now sleep well, and they all snuggle together and are happy and fine. I make sure I give them attention and love, but am training them to give me much needed space. I find the dogs cherish the times and connections we have together. The bonding times are more special. They have each other, so they have warmth and connection, and also time with me.

        Have you considered taking puppy on a hike with you or letting it nap while you tend to yourself?

        Here is another option:


        Joe, possibly you would NEVER push someone to feel a specific way, yet you could encourage them. Suggest. 😉

        Also do you really know if the children will respond with jealousy, or could possibly the respond with understand and compassion. It’s a healthy way to look at it. Might create different results! 🙂 Sometimes we project our feelings onto others thinking they think or react the same way. 

        When I think back about jealousy and shame, I realize that my parents projected their personal shame and jealousy on to me. I chose to accept and take on that shame and jealousy, yet had that not came up, I doubt their would have been the jealousy issues or shame. Most of the time when another is struggling with react with compassion and a sense of understanding.

        Just last night my dad attempted to project shame on to me and I told him what he was doing and he apologized. I chose not to absorb or accept it. It was his, not mine, yet when you are a child without therapy and understanding you don’t recognize it as theirs. You think it’s you! 🙂 I also pointed out that he need not feel ashamed about what he was experiencing, but to just release judgment so when he was ready to make the change he could do it because he already had access to self love and acceptance, and not make the changeas a tool or way to obtain self love and acceptance.

        Also, does it have to be challenging, or could quite possibly it flow smoothly with peace? Your choice! 

        1. I don’t agree that love/hate comes from expectations. I think ambivalence — feeling love and hostility toward the same person, at different times — is a normal part of human relationships. I would encourage people to recognize how they actually feel, rather than striving to feel a particular way.

          As for Alice on hikes, as she develops stamina, we’re taking her on longer and longer walks. I think within the next couple weeks, she’ll be able to do a moderate hike. I’m very much looking forward to that!

          1. Who’s normal Joe? Is it healthy to have hatred all the time? No.

            Now know that is different than supressing it when it comes up.

            I used to have seething rage hatred towards my mom, but it was because I had some lessons to learn about myself and life.

            I think the goal is to get past the hatred, learn something from it. because hatred really isnt healthy. It’s not healthy to talk about hate, to harbor it, project it.

            Hatred has alot to so with the inability to tolerate people showing up different than we expect them.

            I love that you are getting your dog out. One of my puppies didn’t do well on a leash so I opted to carrying her around the block!!! ;-P

            You possibly could be feeling hostility because you are neglecting your personal needs. Couldn’t someone watch her for a night or two per week so that you have your personal needs met?

            I think that’s the lesson your hostility may be attempting to teach you. Once you have learned the lesson there is no need to feel those feelings.

            1. What I consider “normal”, is to have moments when I feel hatred. Like all emotions, it comes and it goes. Transient experiences of hatred are quite different from enduring, “seething” hatred, which I think of as defensive, warding off some other experience. I don’t subscribe to the view that one should try to “get past” anything. My goal is to know how I feel, whatever it may be, and neither to judge it nor be ruled by it. Once you decide that certain emotions are acceptable and others are not, you’ve set the stage for creating a false “healthy” self, usually reflected in the adoption of correct language, the projection of one’s unacceptable feelings into other people and feeling quietly superior to them.

              1. Yeah, I’m not talking about judging the emotion as good or bad, but just emotion passing through.

                I don’t know where you are at, but there was a time where I evolved to stop judging hatred and anger as bad. Coming from a strong religious background where I was taught that anger was a sin and should be eliminated and that can cause fear and judgment.

                Anger is healthy, but I have learned that it need not be the only way to express myself. I decided to find out what was causing the inner anger and change it or let go.

                After working through this I realized that the anger was their because I had a need their. When I met the need the anger no longer needed to be felt.

                Do you catch what I am explaining to you here.

                I agree with you on not judging anger as good or bad, but just a feeling coming through.

                And trust me I have experienced times where I experienced alot of frustration.

                Anger and hate was very toxic for my body. I didn’t like it.

                Hope you understand what I am trying to communicate!

  2. yeah that’s great to hear. i’ve had some experience lately with a toddler, (not mine but i kind of babysit), and i remember a few days ago, i quite literally just looked at him and felt like, wow, i really hate you right now. i didn’t do anything about it, of course, but the feeling was there. i dunno, i think it’s normal. i think the above comment is pretty harsh to make such a negative and complete judgement of someone as ‘immature’ and lacking because they have sharp emotions. that would hurt and stunt emotional acceptance and freedom. there is so much taboo about these kinds of things and its even more unfairly focused onto the mothers. i kind of think another part of it might be just having the knowledge of how fragile and small a baby is. this can trigger ambivalence, including fear. but of course you know it’s because he’s so small and you’re so much bigger that you can’t and you won’t ever do anything bad to him. it would be most unfair. i doubt you ever grow out of having good and bad feelings..
    anyways mothers do hate their babies sometimes. i’ve seen it. at the same time, i mean, i’ve seen little kids look at their mom like they wanted to kill them haha. i dunno, so i guess feelings of extreme anger are normal?

  3. Wow, I know those feelings. I had 4 kids. My youngest is now, 19. When I brought my last child (Nicholas) home from the hospital, I had, 5 yr old Danielle, who was as sweet as pie, and 3 1/2 yrs old twin girls, Alishia and Samantha who were 2 months premature at birth. Alishia was diagnosed with Cerebal Palsey and mental retardation. Samantha has issues too. Alishia was the hardest baby in the WORLD. She screamed and cried all of the time and it went on for years. I was in therapy because I questioned my love for the twins. They were relentless. I actually felt I should give my son up for adoption, feeling as though, I had no more love to give. I was completely sucked dry! At times I hated these twin babies. I had fantasies of throwing Alishia out the window, I just wanted her to stop crying!! Thank God, I never did anything stupid. Looking back, I know I did, in fact love them. I took such good care of them. Lots of Dr. appointments and lots of speech therapy, occupational therapy, the list goes on and on. I had a plate that runneth over. My husband was wonderful. I am glad I didnt kill any of my babies. I understand why some mothers do “lose it”, and accidentally kill the little helpless infant.

    Thank you for writing this article. There shouldn’t be secret feelings. Feelings need to be addressed. Keeping emotions bottled up can be dangerous. My children are adults now and it is still difficult at times. Being a mom, is a job that never ends!

    Thank you again,

  4. Joe,
    This is supposed to be a joyful, wondrous time, puppies grow faster than babies, so soak it all in while you can !
    Before you know it they’re grown.
    Carpe Canine!

  5. Me too! I suggested to my husbond that we’d give our first two kids up for adoption, because I was so tired and felt so trapped and was so angry when they didn’t sleep, I wanted to hurt them. If I’d been a single mother, I’d might’ve gone through with it – I was convinced I was the only woman on earth who felt that way, so I thought I was unsuitable for motherhood and that I’d destroy my children (I thought if their college savings as “savings for the massive amounts of therapy they’ll need later”). My husband made me realize that my great concern were a sign of great love, and various internet-chatrooms showed me I was far from alone.

    Thank you for speaking about this!

  6. well i know your post is on parenting but I just want to say that your gorgeous dog is a picture of contentment and bliss. Georgeous. Thanks for the shot of joy.

  7. We had 2 sons — i’m sorry to say I resented ! for months both beings strongly for waking me , etc. There wereminutes of Hate , & I haven’t naturally felt deep love for my infants right from their birth; it took months for me to get to know & love ’em.

    We bottle fed , & I alternated &/or took-over when she was frazzled. Our marital friendship wasn’t strong , so I DK what I’da felt if it had been .
    John Gottman’s book _And Baby Makes Three would sure’ve helped me — young

    dads & moms are usually not at all well prepared for the single biggest stress on a marriage & the spouses– I sure can understand & help others better , having gone thru all that, tho i wish I’d been wiser back then . bd

  8. Oh I love her , she is so sweet , I want to take a dog too! She is gorgeous! Congratulations for the newest member of your family!

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