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How My Kid Used My Single Mom Guilt Against Me

Photograph by Getty Images

Let me say this now: I will never get a puppy. I already have my menagerie of living things, aka my two kids, that even my plants feel needy. I can't possibly take on anymore beings.

I have enough living things and mouths to feed and poops to monitor. I have enough beings with needs and medical insurance and bills in my life. There will be no animals. I know, I'm weird.

However, according to my 9-year-old daughter, Aria, this is not the case. I owe her a dog.

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We were walking home from the Grove after a long day of schlepping around. It was a good day. I just bought Aria three books at Barnes and Noble about drama and rumors, making money and self-esteem. I was psyched to have found things she was interested in. I felt semi-victorious, even though I was $50 lighter.

We passed the puppy dog-sitting place on my block. The store front is a massive grimy, saliva-tinged window revealing all kinds of dogs waiting to get picked up by their owners. Aria lightly tapped on the window and pointed to a bouncing ball of fluff she would pick if she had her druthers.

"Oh, mom, mom, look at the one with the bow! I want that kind of dog!"

"I don't like the way their noses are all pushed in. They probably have breathing problems."

And then it started. It's a whine, it happens almost daily, and it goes something like:

"When are you getting a puppy? You said you would get us a puppy!"

"I never said that."

"Yes you did! You said when we get a house! But guess what? We're never getting a house. We're just going to live in this old apartment forever. With the cracked floors and the splinters. Everyday I get a splinter! So we need a puppy. Now!"

I really am lonely sometimes and I just know a puppy would take away all my sad feelings.

"Aria, I'm not going down this road again. A puppy is like a baby. I'm too old for another baby. And too tired and too—"


"I owe you a puppy? Why?"

"I'll tell you why. First you got together with my dad, then you had me. Um, I didn't ask to be here. Then you guys got divorced, then you got married again, and had another kid, AJ, got divorced again and now you owe me a puppy because of it!"

"Aria, that is totally not true. I was never married to your dad. "

"Details." Aria muttered, "I'm just lonely sometimes."

My wheels are turning. OK, let me get this straight. She has a brother, a divine new step-mom, preggo with a little sister for Aria on the way, and an ex-step dad who is over every day. She has more parents and grandparents than I ever had. Do the math on those Christmas and Hanukkah presents. And she's lonely?!

"Yes, I know what you're thinking. I have a brother and I'm getting a sister, I know. But I'm still lonely. Sometimes. Not all the time. I mean, I love AJ. But ... "

She trails off. "I don't know why I am but I just am."

Now hold on. Before you pop that Ativan and get a box of tissues, let's discuss Aria. She is a master of emotional control. She possesses an uncanny emotional intelligence and antennae. She can read deep into people, and like the creature in "Alien," emotionally adapt to the situation to get her needs met and to feel safe.

I needed to look deep within her to see if she was full of shit. She can do that. She can manufacture very real feelings in a moment to express a point, even if the feelings are not 100 percent authentic. So is she really this lonely or just "I want a puppy and I know this will just kill my mom to hear" lonely?

I tested her.

"Aria, I see what you're trying to do here and it's not going to work."

"No mom, really, I swear." She stopped and dropped in, like an actor before a big audition. She scrunched her face as she tried to communicate what seemed to be her own confusion about feeling lonely despite the noise of our chaotic lives. "I know it seems weird, but I really am lonely sometimes and I just know a puppy would take away all my sad feelings."

OK she got me. I know this drive to find something to take the pain away. I know it well.

(Did I mention that up until 5 years ago I had two dogs for 13 years?)

I put my hand on her belly. I drop into Buddha mode.

"I get it. Lonely ... like deep, deep in here. Yes, I know this feeling. Of course. Aria, everyone feels this sense of emptiness and loneliness because—"

"You and daddy aren't living together anymore, I don't even remember it."

Oh. Wait. I didn't expect this.

I am the one to blame for her pain that she wears so heavily, daily.

Aria's dad and I split up when she was 8 months old. We were never a family for her. She has no memories of all of us living together. There is nothing there for her, no concrete place-holder for her to mourn. And this is what she is lonely for. She is lonely for the memory of a family as much as she is for the real family itself. Even though she has an idyllic new family with her dad and his wife (whom I worship and adore and feel truly blessed to have in our lives), a stunning home with them and, yes, a dog, there is only darkness where the memory of her primary family should be.

She can't place us. The abstraction of who her dad and I were together is a black hole that echoes and gnaws at her daily. There is an ever-present confusion for Aria around how she came into this world. Maybe it's because there was no marriage, no family photos, no concrete divorce that she can understand and mourn, like the one between her (ex)step-dad and I. I can feel her wanting to "miss" her dad living at home, here with me. But it was a mere blip in her life. At least AJ can "miss" his dad living at home because he remembers it. Aria feels she has no rooted sense of place. No family.

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The pain sinks in. I am so many years removed from her dad and me being a couple that I forget how much it means to Aria that we ever were one. She now wants to know more about how and who her dad and I were for each other, together, before her. She wants to know more about our not being married. Were we in love? Why was she made? She feels alone with the weight of these feelings—the sadness, yearning, loss and confusion. It's heart-breaking. And here I am, alone in my shame. I am the one to blame for her pain that she wears so heavily, daily.

So I texted this whole interaction to my ex-husband, not Aria's dad but my more recent ex ( I know, it's confusing, try to keep up with me). His reaction?

"She's right! Get her the fucking puppy!"

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