This is the first in a series of articles about our intense relationship with our pets, which seems to grow stronger as we get older.
The bond they share is beautiful, unbreakable, and obvious to anyone who sees them together. He gazes at her with absolute innocent trust, she is fiercely protective of him, and they clearly delight in each other. If theirs seems like a typically loving mother-son relationship, it is—except that she is Lisa DePaulo, a midlife single woman, and he is Joey Obama DePaulo, a nine-year-old Havanese. That’s right, Lisa’s baby has four paws, a wet button nose, and a waggly tail.
“People make fun of you behind your back for the way you boast about your dog!”
“I wasn’t even sure I wanted a puppy, but the moment I saw him poke his head up, I knew he was mine!” Lisa recalls, and if you swap the word baby for puppy, her sentiment echoes that of many “real” moms. Now, for the most part, those in Lisa’s circle accept her devotion to Joey and coo accordingly over her Facebook page, heavily peppered with his images and adventures. So she never expected to open an email from a longtime colleague that read, in sum: “I feel sorry for you because your ‘child’ is an animal. People make fun of you behind your back for the way you boast about your dog!”
“I was appalled!” Lisa says of the apropos-of-nothing message. “This woman is a mom herself—she has one human child—so I guess I took it for granted that she was a kind, sensitive person. How dare she try to make my love for Joey into something ugly!”
Harsh as Lisa’s experience was, most pet parents can relate on some level. As a “cat lady” myself, I’ve seen enough rolled eyes to know that the “crazy” adjective before “cat lady” is tacit, if not spoken aloud. Those of us who dote on members of another species—particularly if we don’t have furless kids, too—are often perceived as loony, lonely losers. The stereotype is at its worst for mature single women—people assume some twisted maternal instinct is to blame, that we are akin to a pathetic character in a gothic novel.
It’s not just ridicule pet parents endure, it’s doggone discrimination. “No one thinks twice if a woman leaves work early or takes time off when her kids have the measles or get in trouble at school,” points out Denise Francis*. “But over the years I’ve had several emergencies with my beagle Boone. You would not believe the crap I took from my boss the one time I told the truth about coming in late because I had to tend to my dog.”
You would not believe the crap I took from my boss the one time I told the truth about coming in late because I had to tend to my dog.”
The notion of “it’s just a dumb animal” is anathema to pet parents, yet when Denise ultimately did lose Boone, she got no sympathy from her boss. “That dog was with me for 11 years, he was my everything—I was inconsolable—and her response was just, ‘It was inevitable,’ before asking when I’d be back in the office,” she says. “I swear, if I ever change jobs I’m putting a picture of a fake family on my desk so I’ll rate the same treatment and respect other moms get!”
Well, business is business, you may say—and who among us hasn’t worked for an icy super-Scrooge? But those closest to us can also be awfully cold when it comes to other facets of pet parenthood. “Friends will make snide remarks about how I cook for my dogs and dress them up,” says Bambi DeVille, who owns an eponymous vintage boutique in New Orleans and recently adopted her fourth rescue. “An ex-boyfriend once bemoaned that he wished I was as good to him as I was to my dogs.” Even her sisters can give Bambi a hard time when she brings her eldest canine for stay-over visits. “They don’t understand my attachment,” she says. “But Heidi is 12, she’s been with me since she was six weeks old, and I’m not leaving her at home!”
How Deep Is Our Love?
Pet parents take umbrage when our deepest, most natural emotions are dissed or dismissed. “I feel slighted when people say or imply that I love my cats so much because I don’t have children, as though I’m missing out and overcompensating,” says Sheila Ramsey, who has two aging kitty kids. After all, only we pet people know what combination of physical, psychological, financial, and romantic factors led us to not produce the fruit of our loins. So what gives other folks the right to lord superiority over us, as if our feelings are any less valid and visceral?
This past December, Iggy, my alpha, stopped eating. The vet was stymied for a diagnosis, but she did warn that without proper nutrition he would quickly go into organ failure and die. That meant swaddling him in a blanket to syringe-feed him five times a day. It also meant not traveling with my husband to see family for the holidays. (Fortunately, my in-laws are all awesome animal lovers who completely understood.) I cancelled my plane ticket and did all I could for our darling boy, caring for him, praying for him, gently encouraging and stroking him—and as I did, I could not imagine loving anyone more intensely. On Christmas Eve, after nearly a month, Iggy started eating on his own again. Would I have felt greater relief if I was a “real” mom? It’s just not possible.
So we persevere, not just we dog and cat mamas but the parents of parrots and turtles (who might just outlive us) and any other creatures with whom we share our hearts and homes. And there are plenty of us out there. As Sheila points out, “think of all the people who didn’t evacuate for Hurricane Katrina because they refused to leave their pets.”
“People from all over stepped up, saying how wrong it is to judge or criticize pet parents. The response was incredible!”
Lisa DePaulo, for one, learned she had no reason to justify her love. Though stunned by the cruel and ignorant email, she soon realized “that woman who wrote to me should be so lucky as to have the kind of unconditional love and affection I get from my dog.” So she took to Facebook to tell her tale. “Within 24 hours, I got more than 900 positive comments,” Lisa says. “People from all over stepped up, saying how wrong it is to judge or criticize pet parents. The response was incredible!”
Yes, Lisa allows that the social-media support made her feel better. It was comforting, it was inspiring, it was nice. But did she genuinely need it? Not one whit. “I was sitting there in tears, reading all the feedback,” she says. “Joey was right next to me, looking at me, like, ‘WTF, Mom? Get over it.’ And just like that, I did.”