by | Apr 2, 2021 | Jenny Milchman, The Writer's Life | 6 comments

by Jenny Milchman

I used the brackets because even though I’m not fostering a child, this was a serious stretch for me. In fact, taking charge of a human might’ve been easier.

I’m the type who weighs in on Medium articles when parents have issues. Kids don’t usually faze me—and when they do, I tell them I’m stumped, and this approach seems to work to get us past the impasse.

I’ve always been comfortable around kids. I started babysitting when I was eleven, ran a summer camp for the neighborhood with my brother out of our home when we weren’t much older than our campers, helped take care of my sister who’s thirteen years younger, worked as a child psychotherapist, and a teacher’s aide in my own children’s co-op school.

A pet though? While they appear in several of my books, that’s as close as I’ve gotten.

When I was very young, my parents had two cats, one of whom used to let me pull him around our apartment in a sled. I adored him.

Then one day I crawled under the playpen—a cage-like contraption for babies and toddlers; I know, I wouldn’t even do that to our new foster cat—and collapsed. I was three years old and unable to get myself out, unable to breathe.

Turned out I had severe allergies. The doctor told my mom not to take me back home till the apartment had been deep cleaned, and my dad had to ask colleagues to adopt our kitties. (They went on to live long, loved lives).

And I never had a pet again.

Sometimes I’d push my parents on it, like if an animal strayed into our radius. Once a hamster was abandoned at the lab where my mother taught and she brought it home. But even teeny tiny Petunia made me sneeze until I felt generally miserable.

Everywhere I went, if there was an animal, I felt this burst of love and affection, but inevitably got sick until I retreated back to my pet-less life, tears in my red, runny eyes.

Now I’m a mom. My kids are 15 and 17 and getting to raise them has been the joy and privilege of my life. I love indulging them—but not too much—and really getting to know who they are.

One of the things my son is can be described as cat lover.

He wanted a cat so badly, and pets are such great things for kids. It hurt my heart to deprive him of this unique joy. My son dealt with some sadness this year that he never had to contend with before—an outgrowth of the pandemic and remote schooling—and I knew that having a pet would help as he worked to understand his feelings.

But I couldn’t give him one. It was the first time that I was the roadblock to something that would’ve been truly good for my kids.

That was really hard on me.

Having allergies made me feel lame, not in the teen slang sense of the word, but in a very deep, uncomfortable way. Like I was weak and flawed. I think that identity set in very early, all the way back when I was a tiny three year old, collapsed under the playpen.

My books all feature heroines whose everyday lives are turned upside down until they have to fight and become strong in ways they could never imagine.

In a way that’s the wish I have for myself.

And then I learned about fostering.

It made perfect sense. So many animals in need of homes. And the perfect way for my son to care for a creature without our making a commitment that could make me sick.

My son did research to figure out the best ways to keep me from allergizing. An air purifier. Frequent cleaning—which he is helping with. Washing hands.

The only risk I could see—and we talked it over as a family—was that our son would grow attached despite the arrangement being temporary. We were going to help nurture an animal so he or she could meet his or her forever family.

Last week a pregnant mama came into our lives. She has fur the color of blue steel and topaz eyes. And now, a litter of seven kittens.

My son is ecstatic. Truthfully, we’re all loving on this cat and her kits.

And so far…knock wood…not much more than the occasional sneeze from me.

Now I can be close to an animal outside of my books, and my kids can experience the unique joy only a pet can deliver.

I feel just a little bit stronger, being able to give my family that.

Have you ever fostered an animal before? Would you consider it? How do animals bring light to your family?

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  1. Karna Small Bodman

    Great blog, Jenny — it’s so great that you figured out to handle the allergy situation so your children can enjoy having pets! They are such wonderful companions — especially during Covid. In fact, it was kind of a “blessing in disguise” because so many people wanted to adopt a pet during challenging times, they practically cleared out all the shelters. We have two Labradoodles – which are “hypoallergenic” — and don’t shed. So if anyone with allergies is looking for a dog, it seems like any pup that is part poodle would be perfect. Just a thought.

  2. Jenny Milchman

    Thanks, Karna! My brother and sister have doodles and they are great 🙂

  3. Lisa Black

    I cannot believe you’ve never had a dog after reading The Second Mother!!

  4. Carla Neggers

    Great story! My daughter and her crew adopted bonded sibling kittens right before the pandemic hit. Such a boost during the challenges and changes of this past year. Hope you keep the sneezes at bay!

  5. Jenny Milchman

    Aw, thanks, Lisa, I tried really hard to get it right. Also, my spirit self does have a dog 🙂

    Carla, how sweet! Yes, I think pandemic pets really helped–hopefully the animals as much as the people.

  6. Chris Goff

    What a great blog, and what great insight about your son and how pets can benefit people going through tough times. We have a lot of allergies in our family, and cats are not an option. Certain dogs, however, are fairly benign. Poodles are high on the list. Bichon Frises. My daughter, who has been hospitalized a time or two following asthma attacks, has one. And, then there are the allergy shots. A pain (in more ways than one), but seemed to help two of my kids. They’ve gotten better at pinpointing what animals someone’s allergic to, etc. I say, if you have a spirit dog, maybe do some exploring!