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When Your Child With Anxiety Wants a Pet

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Every ‘normal’ kid has at least one standard pet of the dog, cat, rodent or fish variety. A lucky few have something a little more spicy, like chinchillas or tree frogs. The very luckiest, those with the smuggest parents and the largest yards, throw roosting chickens into the menagerie. This is but a simple statement of fact, according to my daughter.

Those children who have no pets are school pariahs with zero friends and no hope of growing up to functional adulthood — also according to my daughter, who until recently was considering reporting me to the Geneva Convention for my continued refusal to get her a pet.

Unfortunately, there’s more going on here than just typical preteen drama.

My kiddo has really been struggling with anxiety since the pandemic began, something that is new territory for both of us. I’m very used to handling my own panic attacks, but walking a child through a bad episode is a completely different thing. I’m doing my best to teach her breathing and relaxation techniques, and to help her with some small behavioral changes, but she’s struggling. She thinks a pet would help.

I really don’t want a pet.

Don’t get me wrong. I like animals. I’ll pet your dog and call her a good girl. I’ll feed a stalk of celery to a tortoise, anywhere, anytime. And I’m not immune to a good kitten meme. Throw any small mammal into a teacup and I am there for it.

I just don’t want any animals inside my house. Where I live.

This makes me weird, apparently. Even I think it’s kind of weird. I put my yoga pants on one leg at a time, just like you. I drive my minivan to Starbucks every morning. I’m not exactly setting the world on fire with the wild originality of my lifestyle. It’s not like me to deviate from the norm.

But I cannot overstate how much I don’t want a pet.

What’s so wrong with having a pet, I ask myself after every discussion with my tearful and increasingly reproachful daughter. Poop, I whisper back. It’s a strong argument.

But in my heart, I know it’s about more than just poop. It’s about commitment. It’s about bandwidth. It’s about freaking mental load. Pets require a giant portion of all three.

Commitment is one thing, and it’s a hurdle I’d be willing to jump. I can commit. I’ve been married for 15 years. I’m still wearing the same Doc Martins I bought in 1996, which might be more impressive. The thought of having a turtle in my life for a decade does not make me want to lock the bathroom door and wedge myself into the space between the toilet and the wall.

But bandwidth and mental load are beasts of a different color, if you’ll pardon the metaphor. As a bipolar working mom with three kids, two of which are medically fragile, I am fresh out of bandwidth. Actually, I ran out about seven years ago and it’s been on backorder ever since. My frequent calls to the bandwidth distributor have been unsuccessful, and I don’t expect a new shipment any time soon.

And my mental load? Let’s just say it’s teetering precariously. My bipolar disorder is under control right now, thanks to a strategic cocktail of atypical antipsychotics, a good exercise regime and a lot of self-care. But adding so much as a new streaming subscription could throw off the balance, sending me either into a manic frenzy or fits of weeping and teeth gnashing. One goldfish might be enough to topple the whole thing completely, which would cause me to try to wedge myself in the space between the toilet and the wall.

Plus, poop.

I don’t know. In rare moments of stark self-reflection, I can admit that other people seem to manage pets just fine, poop and mental health issues aside. Pets are supposed to be a good remedy for anxiety and depression in general, right?

I assume the problem is with me.

I’d say I’m a lightweight and let it go at that, but I’ve gone through something like 25 surgeries between my two youngest kids and I eat medical crises for breakfast. So maybe it’s just a moral failing. I figure that my aversion to pets invokes the same knee-jerk revulsion in other people that I feel when someone tells me they don’t have a sweet tooth. Ick.

But for all that, the very thought of a pet being in my home triggers panic. I don’t know if I have what it takes to get my daughter even something as small and white-bread as a hamster.

She disagrees. And she’s got me up against a wall.

In a moment of carefree hubris a few years ago, I promised her that she could have a pet when she was 10 years old. I don’t know what caused me to swear such a foolish oath under heaven. I was probably manic at the time, if I’m honest. But like all who throw an arrogant gauntlet up to Fate and give her face a good slap, I am now getting what’s coming to me. My daughter has turned 10, despite my vain hopes that she would remain 9 forever.

Nemesis is at my door. The day is drawing nigh. PetSmart waits for no woman.


We’ve negotiated down from cats and dogs to small, caged animals, small being the operative word. My daughter made a last-minute Hail Mary attempt at a rabbit, but she knew it was a lost cause, and let it go with fairly good grace. She has ultimately carried her point. And she understands clearly that the poop is her problem, because I remind her every five minutes that I will not be cleaning up the poop.

I still don’t want a pet. But someday soon, a hamster or a gecko will join my household. My daughter is nervously ecstatic, and tells me she feels her pariah status fading away. She plans to keep the pet in her room, so she doesn’t feel so lonely and anxious at night. I’m happy for her. I am really bummed out for me, though.

Being a good parent when you also have a serious mental health issue is hard. Whose needs come first? Whose anxiety gets the priority?

Does my daughter’s panic trump my own?

After a lot of soul-searching, I’ve decided that the answer is not always. But in this case, it is yes.

My hope and prayer is that I will find the inner strength to become a pet person. Until then, I’ll have to be content to just be a good mom.

Getty image by bernardbodo

Originally published: September 20, 2021
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