(This story is part of a continuing series, Learning Grace, about a girl and her dog. The first part begins here.)

I don’t mind that people think I’m crazy. My only child is a Labrador Retriever, and nothing makes me happier than her happiness. Grace Lola Lou Hicks Clark was born on March 16th, 2010. It was another agonizing eight weeks before I could bring her home though.

While waiting for daily photos to appear in my inbox, I did a lot of reading to prepare myself for her arrival. The canine version of What To Expect When You’re Expecting is How To Raise the Perfect Dog—or basically anything written by Cesar Millan.

Baby Grace
According to Cesar, bringing a baby canine home comes with a checklist of considerations. For instance, when you introduce your newborn into her new environment, you don’t want to give her full access to the house too soon. It’s overwhelming. So the responsible parent gets a small crate and stocks it with things like a piece of fabric that’s picked up the scent of the surrogate mother, snuggly toys that replace the writhing siblings she’s come into the world with, a hot water bottle to seem like there’s another warm body in there with her, and maybe even a battery-operated furry thing that emits a heartbeat so your innocent child who’s known nothing but her surrogate mother and siblings won’t cry all night like she’s being tortured and stripped of everything she’s ever known in the world causing you sleepless, tearful, fretful nights feeling like the most horrid person on earth.

Good grief.

Additionally, a responsible parent keeps the crate in a small section of the house where the newborn has free—but obviously limited—reign. Over time, she will gradually have access to more of the house, particularly when she’s potty trained.

It was a lot to digest. In no uncertain terms, I understood that if my newborn happened to cry in the night, I should resist the temptation to rush to her crib and bring her to my bed for cuddling and consolation. That’s a no-no. Other than the obvious lack of adequate diapers, puppies will apparently come to find comfort on their own. And it’s good for them to do so. Puppies are not babies, Cesar insisted.

Um, right. Roger that.

Baby Grace group
So as a responsible parent, I got a crate with moveable sections to expand in size as necessary. I sent a small towel to the surrogate mother’s keepers who slathered it with surrogate mommy scent. I bought furry toys in various sizes and colors. I disinfected the hot water bottle. But I’ll admit that I felt like the furry electronic heartbeat thingy was just, well, creepy.

Since my bedroom is on the second floor and there was simply no way I’d allow my child to sleep in her own room, I also bought a couple of baby gates and a North States Superyard Playgate for 20 bucks on craigslist. And on the day of her arrival, I created a cordoned-off area in the living room—a dog house of sorts—that housed the couch and TV, a water-resistant tarp covering the carpet, a blowup mattress and the crate.

Finally on May 11th, I scooped up my sweet bundle of joy, swaddling her in her special baby towel. I put my face close to hers to feel her breath on my cheek and inhale that new infant smell. What I inhaled instead was the scent of six unpotty-trained puppies who’d had their way on her. And it wasn’t just the special baby towel. Let’s be clear: my child reeked like the underside of a urinal in a truck stop along the Grapevine. If she hadn’t been sleeping so adorably I might have introduced her to the business end of a hose but instead I carried her to the car grinning from ear to ear and holding my breath.

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It was my first decision as a new parent, and I obviously failed—I simply couldn’t crate her. I mean seriously, does it make any sense at all that her first experience of me be imprisonment? Certainly not. So I transferred her to a clean blanket and laid her next to me on the folded-down backseat as we began the two-hour drive home. I immediately started snapping photos and texting them to friends and relatives. It was one of those times when I felt like I just don’t know enough people in the world because when I ran out of friends to tell, I had the urge to roll down the window and start shouting, Look at my new baby, she’s so perfect, have you ever seen anything so cute in your whole life?!

She rolled over onto her back, legs akimbo, soft, pink belly exposed. I just kept staring at her and gasping at my good fortune. All was right in the universe.

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And then she began to wake up. That’s when I experienced my first wave of panic attacks. Up until that moment, I’d spent a pinch over 40 years being accountable to and responsible for no one. Suddenly I began to wonder about what I had committed myself to and how I could possibly care for this sweet baby’s wellbeing. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god! It would not be the last time I grappled with the possibility of crushing failure.

When we arrived home, she went straight into the tub for what might have been her first bath ever. Then I toweled her off, put a collar on her and plopped her in the yard next to my lawn chair. And I sat, mystified, watching her every move. Nothing has ever captured my attention so completely.

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After stumbling around and sniffing for a good, long time, she came over to me and snuggled her face up between my legs. “You and me, momma,” she seemed to say. “It’s you and me now.”

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Cesar says that if you walk around in a small circle, it will inspire your child to empty her bladder. So before taking her into the dog house, I spiraled in the corner repeating, “Go pee-pee, go pee-pee.” She looked up at me, jumped at my feet and toppled over in a glorious, uncoordinated plop. Once inside, she promptly let loose on the tarp, just missing the wee pad target. “Good pee-pee,” I exclaimed, reaching for the spray bottle of odor-removing enzymes.

At bedtime, I secured my infant in her crate with her fluffy, surrogate siblings, the hot water bottle, and the pee-infested towel. She didn’t howl like Cesar said she might. Instead, she sat at the prison bars looking out at me with the softest, sweetest, most confused brown eyes I’ve ever seen. Come on! It was my second major decision as a parent, and again, I failed. Of course I let her out so she could fall asleep in my arms. And then, once she was asleep in my arms, I didn’t want to disturb her so I fell asleep next to her. It’s quite possible that the Tasmanian devil slept more soundly than my baby girl, but do you think I cared? I reveled in her every twitch and stretch and flop. If there is a heaven on earth, it is certainly sleeping with your newborn (and don’t let any militaristic child abuser like Cesar Millan tell you differently!).

I woke up in the morning to soft puppy breath in my face and urine on my pillow. And I couldn’t imagine anything more perfect than that!