I have never written a column in THE HOYA about Jack the Bulldog. That’s pretty surprising given how much I enjoy talking about him (as friends will gladly testify). Perhaps it is that Jack is not a worthy topic of social commentary. He’s just a dog, after all.
Still, my experiences with him have taught me – a celibate, childless priest – something about a topic that is very worthy of comment: being a parent. The bottom line: it is a lot harder than I thought.
A bit about my life with Jack. Jack was born May 3, 2003 in Freehold, N.J., the hometown of Bruce Springsteen. His was a litter of one, which might explain his independence (I don’t know if being from Springsteen’s hometown explains anything about him, but he is). Before he arrived on campus that summer, I thought I knew what I was getting myself in for. I had, after all, been quite involved in helping to care for my childhood dog. A week later, sleep deprived by the frequent nighttime bathroom breaks and the dog’s whining about who-knew-what, I found myself looking desperately forward to the time when the dog would be house-broken. This was harder than I had imagined, I told myself, but still, these trials were temporary, and eventually my problem-free pet would appear.
That hope eroded over time after an endless series of frustrating experiences. There was the time Jack ate a Christmas ornament, leaving his mouth full of tiny glass fragments. Once he disappeared with a student for three hours, leading DPS to put out an All Points Bulletin on the dog. Jack has allergies, and regularly tears up his face with his aggressive scratching. Then there was the night when I had the flu and he had diarrhea; it was the same night that the elevators in Reynolds broke down, forcing the two of us up and down four flights of stairs at 1, 3:30 and 5 in the morning so that Jack could accomplish his pressing “business.” And if that is not a matter of “too much information,” consider this: since Jack, like all bulldogs, can’t lick his behind clean (as dogs are supposed to do), someone else has to clean it for him.
Jack has given me some small (perhaps very small) insight into what it means to be a parent. What strikes me now about the work of parenting – what I never really recognized before – is just how hidden the hardest parts of it are from normal public scrutiny. We’ve all seen simplistic versions of what parenting involves on television and in the movies, and we occasionally get real life glimpses of it when, for example, a child has a public meltdown. But I suspect that none of us really know what parenting entails except parents themselves. It’s a private club for those in the know.
Why bring all this up in THE HOYA? It is certainly not to scare students about parenting. I imagine that just as the challenges of parenting are far greater than anything I’ve experienced with Jack, the joys it brings are similarly superior.
I raise the issue for two reasons. First, as we return from our visits home over the break, parents are on many of our minds, and thus this may be an appropriate moment to think gratefully of them. No doubt some parents pushed our buttons in the way few people can, but I imagine that if we reflect on all that happened over the holidays, we’ll see a lot of unnoticed sacrifices that were made – from washing clothes to chauffeur services back to campus, labors taken for granted because, well, that’s just what parents do.
Second, I raise all this just to suggest, with others, that all of us have responsibilities to support parents and the families they struggle to raise. It is hard work that benefits us all. In small matters (e.g., being patient with a screaming child on the plane) and larger ones (e.g., policy advocacy for the needs of parents and children), we all have our share in the task of helping raise the next generation. It is one of the things about which the right and the left can agree. As Hillary Clinton has stated, “Children will thrive only if their families thrive and if the whole of society cares enough to provide for them.”
So to parents everywhere I say, “Thanks.”
Fr. Christopher Steck, S.J., is associate professor of theology and a chaplain-in-residence in New South Hall. He can be reached at cwsgeorgetown.edu. As This Jesuit Sees It. appears every other Friday.