How to Get Through Those ‘What Have I Done?’ Moments
"There was a while where I was just like, What have I done?” my friend Brittany said with true horror in her face as she remembered the time of panic and regret during her and her husband’s first few weeks as first-time puppy owners. Her sweet dog Winnie, who’s almost a year old, sits calmly at our feet, hoping for some scraps of Brittany’s food to fall, almost convincing us with her dreamy doe eyes to “accidentally” drop something.
Sitting at that table, I was surprised by Brittany’s admission—I'd never heard anyone say that before about their dog, and I knew for certain that Winnie was the star of their life. What happened in those early puppy days to make her feel that way?
I knew having a dog was hard work; it's the only reason, aside from my allergies, why I didn't own a dog yet, despite being such an animal lover. I wasn't ready to take on the daily responsibility, the lifestyle change, the financial addition. And now, What have I done? I thought, Maybe I should wait a little longer. But the thought dissipated quickly, my mind distracted by the meal and the conversation.
We finished dinner and talked for a few more hours, much of it spent on the floor playing with Winnie. When we eventually hugged and said our goodbyes, I hugged Winnie the longest and then rushed to wash my hands and arms before we left. Worth it.
A few months later, my husband and I decided we were ready to get our own dog. We both worked from home, we followed more dogs than humans on Instagram, and we knew how happy Winnie made our friends. It just made sense.
Related: What My Dog Taught Me about Joy
So, being the kind of person I am, I read five books on puppies and researched for the next year to figure out what breed would work best with my allergies. I visited dogs and let them lick me and waited to see if the rashes popped up. Unfortunately most of my licking experiments proved that I was indeed very allergic to most dogs. But eventually I found a kind of dog that doesn’t leave me with side effects.
Or so I thought.
Fast forward and we finally got to bring home our very first puppy. We named him Stanley. But my little hypoallergenic bundle of joy came with many side effects—not of the rash, sneezing or wheezing variety, but more of a dizzying sense of confusion, loss of time, impatience, frustration and creeping sense of failure.
There was magic, for sure. That sweet puppy face I woke up to for the first time, crying out of joy that such a thing was going to live in my home.
But that magic got lost at some point in the hurricane of “no’s” and barking at neighbors and it taking me an hour and a half to finish one cup of morning coffee and the dizzying feeling after a walk spent trying to keep him from eating grass and every lizard that zoomed by.
I cried about four times.
The books I’d read all mentioned “patience,” but I wish one of them would have just said, “At some point you will collapse on the tile floor after cleaning up your puppy's mess for the zillionth time and cry and cry and cry and feel like you are terrible at everything and will never accomplish anything ever again in your life because a little puppy has taken you down, and, wow, you really must be the weakest human being in the world because people take care of multiple human children and you can’t even care for a puppy without feeling like your life has turned upside down. You are officially the worst and you shouldn’t bother trying at anything ever again because obviously you are just pathetic.”
I saw Elizabeth Gilbert speak at an event recently and she said it perfectly: "Sometimes we have an idea and it makes things worse for a moment… Sometimes that's how it is… Sometimes you wish you didn't start."
Getting a puppy made my life worse for a moment, and I’m still scared to even write that. Because I felt like I was only supposed to be basking in the joy of it, metaphorically skipping through the meadows with my adorable puppy.
But instead, at the worst of times, I found myself looking at that adorable face some days and dreaming about how easy it would be to give him to someone who could handle this. Plenty of people would want him. But of course this thought only lasted a half a second inside my brain before I felt crushed at the thought of not having this puppy live with me, not seeing him grow up. But I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t occur to me at least once a week during the first few months of his arrival.
I honestly didn’t know how I was going to make it through. I felt lost and, worse, embarrassed; I didn’t tell anyone I was feeling this way. When they asked about the puppy, I talked about how he rings bells when he needs to go outside and how he’s never had an accident in his crate and sleeps through the night and waddles his whole body when he sees me in the morning.
But I didn’t understand why those good things weren’t enough to keep me from feeling like a failure, keep me from feeling so overwhelmed that this little ball of fur could so upend my life and make me feel so out of control. The positives were not outweighing the negatives.
Then, during one particular breakdown on the tile floor, four little words, long forgotten, floated into my brain and changed everything: What have I done?
I was instantly transported back to Brittany’s dinner table, Winnie at our feet and the look in Brittany’s eyes—both when she remembered the frustration that was puppyhood, but also the way her eyes shone when she’d looked at Winnie that night. Pure joy. And seeing joy in Brittany’s eyes was no small thing, because that was when she had recently lost her best friend—her mom.
I am in awe of Brittany’s bravery that night, her telling of the truth. I can only guess that because she had just been through the unimaginable that she knew something I didn’t—that having someone acknowledge that something is hard is sometimes the only thing that makes it easier. Without knowing it, she gave me a gift that night—a gift I wouldn’t open until a year later, but a gift that would change me.
It gave me permission to hope that maybe some of the best things in life come from the “What have I done?” moments. And that the only way to know for sure is to get up off the floor and finish cleaning it, delighting in the fact that I can.