Please Don't Tell Me My Pets Are Not My Children
Let's get this part over with: I like dogs more than I like people. I don't mean that in a cutesy way, like a "The more I learn about men, the more I love my dog!" coffee mug. I also don't mean that I like dogs on Instagram, or dream of having my own dog to put on Instagram, or that I like to buy a t-shirt with a dog on it. I mean that I have spent my life around both human beings and dogs, and today, at the age of 34, I have declared dogs the winner. I have been bitten and shat on by dogs; I have struggled to get them to take medicine or stand still enough for me to extricate a dangerous tick from their body; I have chased after them as they merrily trotted in front of cars or tried to eat a pile of oil-covered springs. I know that the idea that a dog loves me back or has any idea about the emotional relationship that I have developed with them is probably largely a sentimental fantasy. I know all of this, and I also don't care. I prefer dogs. In my mind, it always has been, and always will be: Dogs: 1, Humans: -80.
As you can imagine, living with this kind of mindset in a world where dogs are often viewed as falling somewhere on the continuum between sentient purse accessories and living punching bags has made me develop thick skin. If you think I'm an idiot, join the line at the end of the block; I simply don't have time today to listen to another person who thinks they will blow my mind by explaining that dogs only lick you because they are tasting the salt on your skin. But there is one issue that comes up, again and again, like the changing of the seasonal candy aisle at your local convenience store, and I'd like to address it: the idea that pet lovers like myself must be reminded, again and again, that our pets are not our children.
This information can be delivered in the form an an op-ed, a snarky tossed-off comment by a coworker, or an email diatribe from an irate relative who can't believe that you "didn't have time" to see their child's middle school production of Grease 3: Yet Even Greasier, yet still find time to regularly take your dog to doggy day care, puppy play group, and canine Gestalt therapy. The one common thread that ties every comment in this line of thinking together is a scolding tone, as if the person on the receiving end is a naughty schoolchild who genuinely thinks that their stuffed animals are alive, or that this closet might actually lead to Narnia if we just give it a minute. The person who is lecturing you on how your pets are not your children generally takes the stance that they are legitimately correcting some confusion you have about what parenting a child and raising a pet entail, specifically.
For the record, I don't think the people who say these things genuinely think people who call their dogs or cats their "babies" are confused about whether said pets are babies. I personally believe that the whole "your pets are not your children, so do not refer to them as such" thing is mostly about invalidating the emotional ties of people without kids. But I do think there is one element that people who deliver these speeches are confused about: they don't know what someone is trying to convey when they call a pet their child.
To be fair, I don't know what someone else is trying to convey when they call a pet their child; every relationship that every person has with every child, parent, sibling, lover, friend, and pet in their life is completely different, and to try to generalize in any realm is a bit of a fool's errand. But I will say that if, as one writer at Mommyish noted, a pet "parent" tries to empathize with your experience of a child having surgery by telling you about a time their dog had surgery, they are not trying to degrade your relationship with your child. They are saying, "Hey, I too have been in a situation where the most important being in my life was in danger. It was scary for me. I empathize."
I understand that people who don't feel this kind of connection to a pet get confused and offended by this kind of talk. If you're perplexed by the idea that someone would have a deep emotional relationship with a dog or cat, you might think that, if you claim one, you must be trying to fluff up your weird, shallow relationship — to equate a bond with a thing that can't ever tell you what it actually thinks into an approximation of their parent-child bond, because you're so sad and lonely and confused.
Listen, I don't know what a parent-child bond is like from the parent's side; to be honest, I barely know what it's like from the child's side. But I will say that my relationship with now-deceased dog, Tallulah, was one of the most intense of my life; I'd describe my relationship with my husband as probably the only one more significant. And this is the thing that arguments about how pets are not children miss — every relationship everyone has with any other being is different. And for some of us, that bond with a pet ends up one of the most important ones of our lives.
My mother got Tallulah in February of 1997, when I was 15; the bulk of our relationship occurred before the advent of digital cameras, which is why I only have a few photos of her today. That's her at the top, a few years ago, when her health was in decline; we never figured out quite what breed she was, though a drunk guy on the streets of Boston once screamed, "Is that a dingo??" at her, and I've just gone with that in the intervening years. So there she is. My dingo, my baby.
My mother adopted Tallulah on impulse — one day, I came home from drama practice, and there was just this little being in our house, peeing and shivering and freaking out. My mother, who had always been emotionally unstable and was only getting worse, was a dog lover, and had spent years mourning the death of our last family dog, Roki. She had decided that the only way to truly get over Roki was to have a new dog in our home. My mother said I could name her. So I did.
Within weeks, my mother wanted to give Tallulah back — housebreaking her in the middle of a harsh New England winter was far from whatever fun my mother had visualized when she got her at the adoption fair. I, the indignant teen, lectured my mom about how you can't "give back" living things, but really, I knew that Tallulah was my only hope for surviving. See, I was an only child, and my mom's untreated mental health issues meant that our tiny suburban home might as well have been on the moon, for all the support I was able to get. We had few family members, and I had never really bonded with the ones we had. Our lives were just me and my raging, confused, unhappy mom, stranded in a home like a tomb. My mother wanted to control not just every move I made, but every thought I had. Sometimes, I felt like I was running out of ways to stop her.
Enter, Tallulah. It wasn't just the practical help she gave me, though taking her for long walks certainly got me out of the house and my mother's direct line of fire; caring for her changed me. Carrying her down our ice-covered front steps when they were too much for her to navigate; teaching her that she had nothing to fear from the warm asphalt in front of our house; feeding her and training her and brushing her and watching her grow healthy and strong — it changed me. Caring for Tallulah, even though I had no idea how she felt in return, upended every sick rule of human interaction my troubled mother had taught me. If she had been wrong about that, I wondered, what else could she be wrong about? Could she be wrong about how worthless I was? Could she be wrong about how dark and dangerous the world was, and how it was safer and better to stay here, with her, always?
Tallulah wasn't my child, obviously — but she was my companion, and, it often felt, my best friend. And giving so much of myself for another being — and over the years, as my relationship with my mother worsened, I gave quite a bit to be able to see Tallulah — gave me the strength that carried me through the darkest years of my life, when I left my mother's house and met with a lot of bad outcomes that made me wonder if my mother was right about how I was worthless and should have just given my life over to her. But love between humans isn't always pure — and love between a human and an animal isn't always a delusion.
Did I know how Tallulah felt about me for sure? Of course not. I also don't know for sure what my husband thinks about me, or my best friend, or my boss — we often mistake the human ability to speak for a predisposition to speak emotional truth. But in the end, it doesn't matter if Tallulah loved me; it matters that I loved her. In the same way that a parent can't guarantee a child's love, a person with a pet can't be sure that their feelings are reciprocated. But reciprocated feelings are kind of beside the point in life, if you ask me. Life is not about just caring for beings that clearly and equally love you back. It's about not being afraid to love.
I'm not trying to convert anyone here. I can't legitimately compare love for children and love for pets because, honestly, I'm not very interested in loving children. But to quote the great short story writer Amy Bloom, love is not a pie. It's not a contest of who deserves to experience love, how we chose to dole it out. You don't get less of it because you think I'm taking more than my fair share.
And words — from me, from you, from an angry op-ed writer or a disgruntled cousin or a coworker who thinks you're a moron for spending $500 on high-end dog food — can't make your love less real. My calling a dog my child, or a cat my life partner, or any other thing, doesn't in any way degrade the bonds you've chosen to have in your life. It's a sh*tty world, and we're all just trying to survive any way we can. The answer isn't to try to degrade each other because we think someone else doesn't know how to love correctly. I don't know what the answer is for you. The answer, for me, is to pet a dog.