11/29/2010 10:16 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Confessions of a Failed Parent: I Promised a Dog

My boys did not grow up on a farm, where they'd milk cows, feed chickens and exercise the horse. This might not be an issue if 99 percent of their early reading did not consist of stories that featured owls, bears, cows, kangaroos, bats, pigs and little red hens. I know not what fiends decided life's lessons are best learned from the tiny brains of animals. Someday I would like an answer.

In the meantime, we marched predictably up the species ladder of pets, beginning with fish, of which there is little to report except the obvious: the tank water turned green, then too murky to determine if the fish were alive (they weren't), followed by more expensive filters and more fish, which also died.

We progressed to a turtle, or rather took a third grade turtle home during winter break. This proved unremarkable, as turtles do, except for the trail of turtle poop, which no one noticed but my irritated wife. We moved on to mammals, a rabbit, a beautiful grey rabbit I bought cheap outside the pet shop where a man had it caged on the backseat of his car. (My wife still speaks of the rabbit--"It could have come from anywhere!"--that I bought from a drug addict.)

I loved the rabbit, but it was presented as a gift to my son's fourth grade class because nobody but my wife (a theme was developing here) wanted to retrace its hops on the rug (no one had mentioned that rabbits poop every thirty seconds). I lobbied for a cat, but my wife is allergic to cats (well, her mother is), and thus there came the first heartrending plea from one of my sons: "When are we going to get a dog?"

I was against it. I could see the future all too plainly; walking the beast on a frigid Chicago morning (or late at night!), cracking my hip on the ice while the dog tore after a squirrel; a million dollars in vet bills; an end to vacations and life as I knew it. It was a tough call: my own selfish whims versus the Norman Rockwell vision of a Golden Retriever nipping at the heels of a frolicking boy. So I did what any responsible parent would do: I stalled. Oh, there were plenty of reasons. My other son vehemently opposed a dog (likely because his brother wanted one, but reducing the potential dog-walkers by one). There was the issue of rescue dogs versus puppy mills. There was a future of vacuuming chewed-up furniture. There was the question of breed. The problem: all but the purse-sized or really dumb dogs had been bred to retrieve dead grouse or herd sheep. Dogs needed exercise and lots of it. And who was going to lope after the beast on its thrice-daily mile runs?

Not I, said the Little Red Hen.

"What about gerbils?" suggested the anti-dog son.

Let me say something about gerbils. They are actually very interesting, a lot more interesting than hamsters. They look at you as if they know what's up. They eat cheap. They don't get sick (they just die). And they exercise in a wheel.

We bought two. We named them Cloudy (the name of the abandoned grey rabbit) and Lorenzo.

"When are we going to get a dog?" said the other son.

He wept when we found the perfect dog at PAWS, the upscale rescue hotel, only to have it snatched by a prior claimant. Winter came and went. Leaves grew on the trees and began to turn. And ultimately I caved, largely because my son had lost all faith in our credibility as parents. Our word was toast. To our assurance that life would get better in middle school, he snapped, "Right, just like you promised me a dog!"

And so we welcomed an adorable Golden Doodle puppy into our home. This is the situation one year after the arrival of Maggie:

My wife gets up early and walks the beast. Then she feeds it. Then she goes to work. I take the mid-day shift (well, of course--I'm a writer and writers have flexible schedules). I feed and walk the dog at five (my son, the dog "owner," has homework or soccer or needs to "relax"). I take Maggie out after dinner (it's dark, weird people lurk in our neighborhood). I walk the dog late at night (my wife has been up since dawn, my sons are asleep).

Here is the upside: I have so far avoided hip replacement surgery; I am friends with half the people on our street and know everyone's name (their dogs' names, that is); between the cost of food, bones, check-ups, trainers, shots and grooming, I am too broke to fret about where to take our next vacation.

My son, meanwhile, still doesn't believe we'll get him a laptop for high school. "It's just like when you stalled about the dog," he says.

(This is the fifth in a series, Confessions of a Failed Parent)