A Mother, a Child & the Dog: An Adoption Story

A Mother, a Child & the Dog: An Adoption Story

By Alison Seevak


I worried about Sophie, my baby for the past six years. How would I push a stroller while walking alongside a sometimes unruly 75 pound dog?


Just before I turned 35, I made an appointment to meet a pregnant golden retriever named Angel. Everyone I knew was having babies and I was plain miserable. I wanted a family of my own, but had yet to find lasting love. I didn’t think I could handle a baby by myself. However, I did think I might be able to handle a dog. It would take my mind off of things.

Angel’s owner, a woman named Rosalie, told me over the phone that she would need to size me up in person before she’d let me take one of her puppies. So I drove down from Berkeley to Mountain View and spent a few hours drinking iced tea with Rosalie, a large 50ish woman with cat eye glasses, while she questioned me about my work schedule and whether or not I had a fenced in backyard. I tossed a green tennis ball to Angel, who had plenty of energy, even though she was about to whelp eight puppies. I told Rosalie about the park in back of my house and feigned interest when she told me that a former San Francisco 49er, Joe Montana lived down the street. I knew nothing about football, but when Angel lay down and panted by my feet, I knew I wanted one of her puppies.

At my birthday party that year, two of my exceptionally pregnant friends lowered themselves onto my sofa with slight groans. Their attentive husbands hovered nearby, ready to hand them slices of birthday cake. One still had enough of a sense of humor to note “Alison, it’s like you are trapped in a Wendy Wasserstein play.”

But by now I had Sophie, one of Angel’s puppies, and she had become my grand distraction. We took long walks in the hills at dusk, looking for owls. She ran ahead of me, a flash of gold fur in tall grass, chasing after things I couldn’t see. Every morning, I took her to the park with a bunch of neighborhood dog owners, people I’d only said a passing hello to before. Now we stood around drinking coffee and gossiping while the dogs ran. I brought Sophie to the afterschool program where I taught. My students wrote her letters or drew pictures of her wearing wings and a crown. Sophie brought me onto the sidewalks, into the hills, into the world.

She was the constant while I dated in those nerve wracking years leading up to my 40th birthday. One of my dog training bibles at the time, a book written by a group of monks who raised German Shepherds, recommended that dogs sleep in their owner’s rooms. It was the one recommendation I actually followed. So, the first time I brought one boyfriend home, I had to explain the enormous crate containing the excited puppy in my bedroom. Together, we carried the crate into the kitchen. I tried hard to ignore Sophie’s howling that night.

Another boyfriend insisted that I board Sophie when I came to visit him, two hours away, in Santa Cruz. He lived with a skinny 18-year-old cat named Sallie.

“Sophie has too much energy,” he said, explaining why I couldn’t bring her with me. Not too long after that, I had a session with a pet psychic who told me that Sophie felt Howard could not open his heart to me.

“She’s right,” he said when confronted. We broke up shortly after that.

In between teaching and unsuccessful dating, my life was a series of long dog walks. Sophie’s leash tethered me to her, but it also tethered me to something solid, to the here and now. When I was with her, I had some respite from the “what if” and “what if not” that threatened to carry me away, as if I were a balloon from a child’s birthday party that escaped and floated high into the blue sky.

And then one night I dreamt that Sophie turned into a tall languorous teen aged girl in a red baseball cap who drove away from me in a convertible. I couldn’t wait any longer. I realized that if I was going to have a child, I’d have to do it by myself. By now, I was 41. I decided to adopt a baby girl from China.

While I did piles of paperwork and waited to fly to China to meet my daughter, I worried. I worried about attachment disorder, sleep deprivation, being a white woman raising an Asian child. I worried about getting time alone in the bathroom. But mostly, I worried about Sophie, my baby for the past six years. How would I push a stroller while walking alongside a sometimes unruly 75 pound dog? What if Sophie’s barking woke the baby up from her nap? What if they hated each other? I had never followed the monks’ advice too closely. I’d spent years letting Sophie do all the wrong things — sleep on my bed, pull on the leash, run in the opposite direction when I called her name. In a fit of desperation, I sent Sophie off to doggie boot camp. But after a week, the trainer called me and said I should just come get her. It was too late.

A few months later, I stood in a gray civil affairs office in Wuhan, China and was handed the most beautiful, angry one-year-old I had ever met. Red-faced and screaming, she arched away from me the first time I held her. I had prepared a list of questions for Mr Cheng, the orphanage director. I knew she had lived with a foster family in the countryside. Right after a question about favorite foods I asked, “Did her foster family have a dog?”

Mr Cheng shook his head no while the translator explained. “They only had chickens.”

After that auspicious meeting, we both came down with something. I lay feverish and nauseous in a fancy hotel room with a limp, grieving Anna plastered to my chest. My friend, Grace who had come along with me to help, looked at the two of us on the bed. “Maybe you’re going to have to find another home for Sophie. I don’t know how you’re going to manage,” she said.

But we both got better. By the time we’d arrived back in California and Sophie came home from where she’d boarded, things looked brighter. When Sophie walked into the house for the first time, she bounded right over to Anna, who grabbed her fur and pulled herself up. At night, when I walked the rooms of my house with a jet-lagged baby, the only thing that consoled her was when I let her rest on Sophie’s back. Sophie sat under Anna’s high chair waiting for bits of food. Anna’s first word in English was “sit.”

Sophie and I both finally grew up. My dog became less of a child, more of a collaborator. She was actually like a concerned canine aunt. When two-year-old Anna threw bedtime tantrums in her room, screaming “I don’t want to sleep in this crib! I want a book! I don’t want to wear these pajamas!” I’d watch the clock thinking if this goes on for ten more minutes, I’ll go in. But Sophie looked at me with serious brown eyes. Aren’t you going to do anything, it seemed like she was saying. Are you going to just let that kid scream?

Every night after dinner, we took a walk around the neighborhood, Anna in her stroller and Sophie trotting obediently alongside us. Once Anna got old enough, she’d walk too, my hand in one of hers, and Sophie’s leash gripped tightly in the other.

In preschool, when other kids pasted pictures of mothers, fathers and siblings onto posterboard for show and tell, Anna glued on photos of Sophie and me. When she was about to turn six, she described the birthday cake she wanted for her planetarium themed party. Anna, Sophie and I, wearing astronaut suits would float in a dark sky of chocolate frosting. There’d be a big vanilla moon and in the distance, a green and blue frosted earth. We’d be adrift in space, but love and our linked hands (and paws) would hold us together.

I knew I could not attempt this cake myself. I found a neighborhood mom with a baking business. “I have curly brown hair and glasses, my daughter is Chinese and we want the golden retriever’s fluffy tail sticking out of the astronaut suit,” I explained over the phone.

“No problem,” she said, calmly as if this request was an everyday kind of event. And in our world, of course, it was.

Alison Seevak‘s writing has appeared in The Sun, Literary Mama and Adoptive Families magazine. She lives in Northern California with her twelve-year-old daughter and their new dog, Buddy.

The Rescue Dog Who Rescued Us

The Rescue Dog Who Rescued Us


Sometimes the family dog adds a love to the family dynamic in an unexpected way.


“Poor Toby,” John said one night as we lay in bed. We were listening to one of the kids cry into the dog’s curly white coat after an exceptionally bad day. “He didn’t know he was going to be a therapy dog.”

I smiled despite my stomachache over the unhappy child. It was true. We didn’t know he was going to be a therapy dog. Even in that moment, the dog was helping to calm me. I couldn’t find the words to make the bad day disappear, but I knew that Toby—enthusiastically licking the salty tears away—would help it fade into the background.

Toby came to us from a dog rescue in rural Tennessee. Along with dozens of other formerly abandoned dogs, he traveled to New England on an enormous tractor-trailer we met up with at a highway rest stop. A burly, tattooed man called out my name and beamed at me as he placed a shivering bundle of white in my arms. We knew we were receiving a gift that day, but we couldn’t yet appreciate its impact.

Brennan was nine at the time and his shaky quests for independence, his growing wish to be out from under our thumbs, found a focus in caring for Toby, in the early mornings when he snapped on the dog’s leash and negotiated how far he was allowed to walk him. Liddy suffers from anxiety, but she found new footing in helping to earn Toby’s trust—carefully cataloging his likes and dislikes, delighting in newly found ways to draw him out.

Brennan captured our situation perfectly one night at the dinner table. “I’m so glad we have Toby now,” he said. “It’s like he made every part of our lives better.”

John arrived home from work late one evening. Still wearing his suit, barely inside the front door, he wrestled Toby for a well-chewed, stuffed green Frankenstein doll. This is their nightly routine. “Daddy said he never wanted to get a dog, but it turns out he likes Toby as much as we do,” Liddy said. Not least of all, I expect, because the dog is the family member guaranteed to greet him at the door happily, without a single complaint or accusation.

As for me, the aspect of dog ownership I most dreaded — having to walk him, every day, no matter what — has turned out to be one of the very best parts. If it were my choice, I would hole up at home all day, and the solitary life of a writer often allows for that. But it turns out the long walks with Toby on the bike path, the encounters with other dogs and their owners, are just the thing I need.

On one of last winter’s most bitter-cold mornings, John was shocked when I offered to take Toby out. I piled on layers to protect the both of us against the elements, and we stepped out into the crystalline frozen snow when no one else was brave enough to be out there. The neighborhood was still and silent and as beautiful as I’ve ever seen it. If it weren’t for Toby, I would have missed it.

The kids and I were walking Toby on a warmer day this spring when Liddy asked a question that had been troubling her. She spoke in the slow deliberate way she has when she’s trying to find the right words. “Mommy,” she said. “If Toby dies — when Toby dies — will we send a letter to his old owner, to tell her? Because even though she gave him up I think she will really, really, really want to know.”

We do not actually know this former owner; we only know that she sent Toby spiraling into weeks of homelessness, trauma and shelter life when she met a man who didn’t like dogs. But Liddy’s willingness to look beyond that act, her belief in the anonymous woman’s continued bond with Toby, hint at the wellspring of faith and generosity that opens up with the love of a dog.

For Brennan, though, Liddy’s question — and the idea of losing Toby — triggered an angry reaction. “Why did you have to bring that up?” he said to Liddy. “It’s a stupid thing to say.”

I gave Liddy’s hand a squeeze, ready to intervene, but I didn’t have to. Brennan stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and crouched down to Toby. “Are you my crazy dog? Are you my fluffy puppy?” And Liddy laughed at the high-pitched squeal Toby let out, and knelt down, too, cupping the dog’s face in her hands. Toby began to wriggle and paw at them, anticipating the affection he knew was coming.

Fluffy-fluffy-fluffy -fluffy-fluffy-fluffy-fluffy!” The kids rubbed his ears and neck and he rolled onto his back for a belly scratch. Then Brennan freed Toby from the leash and the three of them raced toward home, leaving me — and their argument —behind. Their little bodies whirled and bounded down the street, happy to simply be.

Photo by Megan Dempsey