Step-Babies

"You gave her two more puppies to love. Just like your mother gave me you to love.”

It had been scheduled. Muffie, our 7-month-old Lhasa Apso, was to be fixed. But as luck would have it, we didn't schedule it soon enough. Five months pregnant myself, I sat at the kitchen table staring at my beautiful pet and reprimanding myself for not doing something sooner.

My 10-year-old daughter walked into the room and saw me staring at Muffie. "What's wrong?" she asked.

I thought Nina, an animal-lover, would be thrilled to have puppies in the house. And lately I'd noticed her mood had seemed a little down. But when I told her, she simply looked from Muffie to my protruding stomach and stated, "I don't know how I feel about babies right now."

My heart squeezed. "What do you mean? I thought you wanted a brother or sister."

The expression on her young face turned anguished, and deep down I sensed her fears. Steve and I had married when Nina was six years old and because her biological father had long since severed the ties, Steve had become the daddy she had always wanted.

"What if Daddy loves the baby best?" she asked and tears filled her brown eyes. "It will be his, you know. Not just some stepchild he got stuck with."

My own eyes grew moist, and I reassured her that Steve had enough love to share and he would love them the same. But I still saw the doubt in her watery eyes, and it broke my heart. It seemed nothing we said or did could convince her.

Two months later, Muffie had two beautiful puppies and although Nina was fascinated, and I'd occasionally find her visiting with the puppies, she still remained somewhat aloof about the whole "baby" situation.

Then one day I came in and found Nina crying as she stood over the puppies.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

Through her tears she told me about a friend who had found a stray pregnant dog. After a few days, the animal had gone into labor and after several hours they took the dog to the vet. The puppies were premature: Two were born dead, and the other two were sickly. It seemed the mother dog was too weak to feed the puppies. "The vet is giving the mother until this afternoon, and if her milk doesn't come in, he's going to... put the puppies down. That means he going to kill them, doesn't it?" she asked.

Heartbroken, I took Nina in my arms, "Oh baby, I'm so sorry."

"They can't do that, Mama. They just can't," she cried.

She allowed me to hold her a second then she pulled away. "So I've been thinking. Maybe Muffie will take them as her stepchildren."

I was shocked at her idea. I'd heard that sometimes whelping animals would take other young, but I also knew it wasn't a sure thing.

"But honey," I told her. "Muffie's puppies are almost four weeks. And you said the puppies were premature."

"So, you told me I was premature, too. They didn't kill me."

"But honey," I said, "What if... " What if she doesn't accept them, I almost said, but right then my mind played back what Nina had said, "Maybe Muffie would take the children as her stepchildren... I was premature." Somehow Nina related to this situation at a deeper level than I first guessed.

I stood there in a quandary. I wanted to say we'd try, but what if Muffie rejected the puppies? Would that send a message to my daughter? Yet would our not trying send a message? I thought of the puppies, the consequences, and then I met my daughter's pleading gaze. "I'll talk to the vet."

The vet was not reassuring. My Muffie could very likely reject the puppies.

Steve and I talked, and in the end we felt that not to try would be more damaging than to have tried and failed. We also discussed the possibility of attempting to save the puppies ourselves. But with our baby on the way and Steve's job situation, the round-the-clock care seemed too daunting. In spite of our doubts, the next morning Steve went to the vet and got the puppies.

Nina stayed home from school, and although we had explained to her that Muffie could very well reject the new additions, Steve and I both worried.

Removing a towel from Muffie's box, I placed the two new puppies on the towel in another box. Then I put the box in the middle of the kitchen, a room away from where Muffie was nursing her own litter.

When Muffie heard the new puppies' soft cries, she came bustling into the kitchen to investigate. She stared down in the box, and I can honestly say I've never seen a dog with a more befuddled expression. She ran back to her puppies and stared down in the box as if to count. Then she scurried back to the two other puppies and looked at us in total bewilderment. After a moment, she smelled them, nudged them with her nose, and then left the room as if to say, "These aren't mine."

I looked at my daughter. Her big brown eyes had begun to fill with tears. "She doesn't want them, does she?"

"Let's give her some time," I told her. We waited for fifteen minutes. The new puppies began to cry again, and I felt like joining in. The vet had said not to force Muffie to take them. It had to be her choice. Eventually, I took Nina's hand and Steve wrapped his arm around her shoulder.

"We tried," he told her. Then he looked at her, and I saw the beginning of tears in his eyes. "But hey," he said. "We can still try. We'll get those droppers. We can do this."

Nina looked up at him with love in her eyes, somehow sensing this was a sacrifice on his part. "Thank you," she said.

Sighing, he reached down to pick up one of the yelping puppies and when he did Muffie came running into the room. She barked at him. He quickly put the tiny newcomer down, and we stood back. Muffie jumped into the box and licked the puppies. We all started laughing and hugging. Then, with our arms around each other we watched as she carried her adopted family, one at a time, to her box.

Steve took Nina by the hand and led her to the puppies. "You gave Muffie something very special today. You gave her two more puppies to love. Just like your mother gave me you to love." In gentle words, he assured Nina one more time that she had a place in his heart, a place that couldn't be erased no matter how many brothers and sisters she had.

Nina looked up at Steve, and then down at Muffie, who was lying contentedly with all four of the puppies, and her face brightened, breaking into a radiant smile. As she returned his bear hug, I could see that her fears had finally melted away. In that happy moment, I knew our combined family was going to be just fine.

Cover image via Syda Productions I Shutterstock

This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dads & Daughters: Stories about the Special Relationship between Fathers and Daughters © 2011 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.