"If we fail to acknowledge that the decision whether to have children is a real choice that has ethical import, then we are treating childbearing as an unavoidable fate and a mere expression of biological destiny." - Christine Overall
I recently read an article positioned as a conversation around the rising trend for people to invest more time and care into their pets than human relationships. There were several points in the piece that - to be frank - were flimsy, narrow-minded, and simply inaccurate. Talking with a few friends, we agreed that we're tired of 'think' pieces that seem to serve only to devalue the different ways we might choose to live.
The article opens with a bizarre example of Lulu, a border collie, who inherited a $5 million trust fund after her owner, Bill Dorris, died. Dorris was, by all accounts, a pretty poor example of a human being and somewhat eccentric. That said, he is not the first to leave their fortunes to a beloved pet. The author claims that the rhetoric around people claiming pets as family members (instead of simply treating them like family members - the distinction between which they don’t clarify on) is "shuddersome". They then attempt to deconstruct how, as lonely humans, we are misguided in channeling our need for connection and companionship into our pets.
But within the first few paragraphs, it’s clear the author has a slightly different peeve with this ‘trend.’ They quickly start referring specifically to women and ‘dog moms.’ They allude to capitalism driving people towards spending money on their pets in recent years, dismissing that in recent years we've been living in the midst of a pandemic where, for many, the only time they were allowed to leave the house was to walk their dog. Where, for many, their pets have been the only physical presence of another creature in their lives for days, weeks or months on end. I don't think it's misguided for people to be showing gratitude in different ways for the life-saving bond pets have offered.
The rest of the article tumbles apart as it attempts to draw a comparison between the lack of funds to human healthcare and research and the amount of money households spend on their pets:
“Research recently found that less than half of American households give any money to charity, the worst showing on record. Figures from the pandemic era aren’t available yet, but it’s safe to bet they’ll be worse.”
The statistics mentioned are American-centric, where, based on recent news accounts, the poverty divide continues to grow (and has nothing to do with pets but is down to fundamentally flawed social and governmental policies around work, living wages, paid parental leave, and funded healthcare, to name only a few). I fail to see how this falls at the feet of pet owners? Does the research show that pet owners are less likely to give to charity? Are pet owners earning more than non-pet owners and not donating? And of course, it’ll be worse following the pandemic; people have lost their jobs! They can’t pay rent or buy food - how is this a responsibility of pet owners? This is a very shaky correlation to draw.
Perhaps most bizarrely is the ‘argument’ using quotes from Pope Francis to establish the notion that more people should consider fostering and adopting human babies instead of pets. I personally rolled my eyes when Pope Francis grabbed headlines claiming:
“Many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they have just one because they do not want anymore, but they have two dogs, two cats. Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children . . . And this denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us; it takes away our humanity.”
Pope Francis was urging for more to adopt and foster:
“We should not be afraid to choose the path of adoption, to take the ‘risk’ of welcoming. It is a risk, yes: having a child is always a risk, either naturally or by adoption. But it is riskier not to have them. It is riskier to deny fatherhood or to deny motherhood, be it real or spiritual. A man or a woman who do not voluntarily develop a sense of fatherhood or motherhood are lacking something fundamental, something important.”
Not only is this incredibly outdated thinking, that only serves to push religious narratives that women (and men, but let’s face it, mostly women) serve only to become parents, it also claims if they don’t want to be a parent then they are “lacking something fundamental, something important.”
I don’t know about you, but I find that outrageously offensive. Is this really where we are still at in this narrative? I sincerely hope not. But even if we took Pope Francis’ ideal at face value, what about same-sex couples who want to adopt and/or foster? Pope Francis has also previously stated that heterosexual relationships are essential for good parenting and has been against same-sex marriage and adoption.
If the need for people to adopt and foster human children is so great, why do so many same-sex couples globally face challenges in building their families? Surely, this significant (and relatively easy) policy overhaul would change the face of the fostering and adoption landscape, not just in America. Why are we even mentioning pet owners in this conversation? It seems to me absurd.
Same-sex couples aside, let's consider if I, as a single woman with a single-person salary, decided to adopt or foster. Do we imagine this would be an easy process? Do we imagine that society at large would embrace my decision? Or would it be more likely the case that I would be labled as desperate, a biological clock having ticked down it's final clicks, seeking to adopt in my last ditch attempts to be a mother. Would there be whispers about my inabilities to secure a reliable mate to procreate with on my own terms? I am not saying this is true, but let's face it - single women who have children without men (whether biological or adopted) are not exactly viewed favourably. Single men wanting to adopt or foster are likewise given a quizzical raised eyebrow. Even if we pardon inherit heterosexual-coupled-up bias, the author makes it sound as though adopting or fostering is an easy-peasy process, as easy as adopting a dog (newsflash: it is not).
And perhaps most disturbingly, the author claims that fostering an older child is less demanding than adopting a puppy:
“Needless to say, these young adults don’t need the massive resources of time and money that a newborn baby—or puppy, for that matter—demands. Mostly, they just need someone willing to commit to caring about them.“
Demonstrating an utter lack of understanding for why, how, and what children who go through the foster system might need, I find this such an incredibly undermining statement to even think, let alone write. Fostering a child of any age comes with its own unique set of demands - every child is an individual, and there is no way one could ever claim that fostering a child “mostly” just needs someone willing to commit to caring. I'd also add that there are many children who are in foster care temporarily, waiting for parents or grandparents to take them back into their homes. I imagine there are many adults for whom this type of unstable process would be challenging to handle long term, especially after fostering a child for a while and building a bond.
The article helpfully dodges the nuances around when and why people might decide to be parents or not, along with the challenges of infertility. It helpfully bypasses the decades of research that indicates couples with children are some of the unhappiest in our society. It helpfully dodges the ways our society does not aid parents once they have children. Systemic policies and ideas disable both mothers and fathers in different ways. Self-employed women in the UK are not entitled to the same financial support when they adopt as mothers who give birth. I encourage you to read this article from Not a Fictional Mum on this outdated policy. I suspect there are many such loopholes around the world. (And FYI, the current average annual cost for caring for a child under 18 is AU$13,166 to $30,472).
Not to mention how utterly disappointing the world currently is on a daily basis. The shambles in which our ‘leaders’ have handled a global pandemic, ongoing climate crisis, rising poverty, crippled public education and health systems and a number of other global issues that leave most adults weary and unable to care for themselves - is it really any wonder people would be more interested in the ease of adopting pets than having a child? I would much rather come home to slobbery kisses from a none-the-wiser dog who is delighted by the free meaty off-cuts I procure from the local butcher, than a child with awareness for raging bush fires, rising sea levels, and needs I can no longer address in the ways I want because I don’t earn enough money to provide for them.
It also dismisses the wonderful conduit that pets are for many people experiencing social isolation. The article claims that people hide behind their pets because they don’t lie, argue, or answer back. Pets will never dump you or act with the intention to emotionally damage you. Again, this is such a weak correlation it’s laughable. In almost every anecdotal scenario I know of, the truth is the exact opposite.
I have friends with severe social anxiety who, with the aid of their dog, have been able to get out of the house more, meet more people, and feel more confident knowing there is always at least one entity in the room who adores them.
After adopting an anxious dog, I have found a deeper layer of empathy I would never have tapped into previously for both animals and humans. My dog has been the main way I’ve met new people after moving to a new place, and the perfect conversational segway to build bonds.
My dog sitter, having taken up the role after retiring regularly comments how dramatically her mental health has improved since starting her business - and not just because of the dogs but because of the friendships she’s now found with the dog owners. Likewise, a very dear friend gave up a stressful career to start a business in dog walking and has never been happier - both because of the new dog and human relationships she gets to build every day.
Alongside an ever-growing body of research showing the level of emotional sentience that animals have, I damn well think we are long overdue investing a higher level of care into our pets over simply seeing them as servants we keep around the home for us to interact with when we feel like it.
Yes, some people love to dress up their pets and spend outrageous money on pet living rooms and all kinds of fantastical things, who invest in their pets' emotional care as much as their physical existence. But is condemning them for doing this instead of adopting a baby really where we're at?
On social media, the post has gleaned several comments positively regarding the article’s stance, with some claiming women who would rather invest time, care, and money into a pet as part of a ‘disturbing trend’ and ‘weird.’
Is it weird? Who cares?!
If you find you do care, you will need to take time to reflect and establish why. If my courage to eschew societal demands that I be a mother and instead devote my so-called 'maternal energy' to a dog causes you chagrin - it is not my responsibility to make you feel better about it. Neither are the financial struggles of healthcare systems or charities. And perhaps if more people were encouraged to reflect on the choices they have around becoming parents, and were allowed to see it as not simply a predetermined biological destination, we might see fewer children in foster homes requiring adoption.
My choices do not have to be the same as yours and the view that society is going "to the dogs", as the author of the article in question so eloquently puts it, because one would rather care for a pet than a baby screams judgemental narrow-mindedness.
People are allowed to live their lives however they choose. This is the magical thing about where we are now in our society. As a woman, I am no longer simply expected to marry a man and pop out some babies. I can choose to have a biological baby or not. I can choose to adopt or foster or not. I can choose to have dogs instead of children or not. None of these decisions directly impact anyone except me and the vision I have for living my life.
So no, it’s not part of a disturbing trend. It’s not weird or unusual. It doesn’t mean people don’t value, cherish or still seek to form positive human relationships because they adore their pets. The world simply does not exist in these black and white terms.
I have written previously on my thoughts around motherhood and dog ownership. I reference Anne Patchett’s essay ‘This Dog’s Life’ a lot in these pieces, and I can never say it better than her:
“I imagine there are people out there who got a dog when what they wanted was a baby, but I wonder if there aren’t other people who had a baby when all they really needed was a dog. I thought a dog would be the key to perfect happiness. And I was right. We are perfectly happy.”