Like many women, I don’t know if I’ll ever choose to bear (or have the capacity to bear) an actual human child from my actual human body. I do have a child, though, who I also consider to be my brother, mentor, best friend, role model, confidante and co-conspirator. His name is Rocky – né Rocco – and he is a fluffy-as-hell 13-year-old dog my family and I adopted in 2007. Rocky was found greasy and terrified, wandering the streets of Philadelphia in the middle of winter. Ever since he came into our home, and we taught him how to most-of-the-time poop outside and most-of-the-time sit when asked, he has brought an endless amount of joy to me, my human sister, my human mother, my human father and my human grandmother in the months before her death.
I refer to Rocky as my son not in the literal sense – it bears repeating that I did not bear him – but in the sense that he is, and always will be, family to me. He can’t talk. He can’t tell me he loves me. In fact, he probably just sees me as a giant can-opener who, on occasion, gives him pleasing belly rubs; I accept all of this. I don’t labor under the delusion that a dog who sucks on his feet regularly has the intellectual capacity to understand and love me as complexly as I understand and love him. But as someone grew up in a small family and who questions the rigid, limiting requirements with which society defines a “family,” Rocky is one of the gang. Our gang. We take care of him when he’s sick, and he takes care of us when we’re sick, curling up in a little ball next to us on the couch or licking the salty tears off our faces. (So delicious.)
I think there’s space to be flexible with language, especially when it comes to the ideas of family. For people who choose not to have children, or who can’t even though they desperately want to, it can be incredibly meaningful to pour love into an animal. (That shouldn’t diminish or trivialize the incredible, miraculous amount of work that goes into raising a human.)
In an essay for The Cut, M.A. Wallace puts forth a compelling case for not referring to our pets as our children; she calls it a “delusion,” arguing that pets are essentially just “biological Tamagotchis.”
“We now prefer the simulation to reality, where having a pet is like playing with a living doll, a chance to enjoy the activity and ritual of parenthood without any of the purpose, consequences, or hard work,” she writes.
While I am not equating raising a puppy to raising a kid, I reject the idea that raising a pet comes with none of the purpose, consequences or hard work. Less of, yes, but not none of. Let me get my father on the phone, and he’ll talk about how he cleans Rocky’s poop off our now-unrecognizable living room rug every week. Or my mother, who leaves work and rushes him to the vet every time he eats something dumb off the street and vomits on the couch. Or me, who rushes home every time I’m in a deep bout of depression to bury my face into his neck and tell him what a good boy he is.
One person commented on the essay, “I can’t have kids so my pets are my ‘chosen’ children. I’ll love them as I see fit and if I want/need to take a sick day from work to take my pets to the vet, then I will. You do your thing with your two-legged children, and I’ll do mine with my four-legged ones.” Another commented, “My girl kitty is currently ‘making biscuits’ on me as she does every night, so clearly she thinks I am her mama.”
Now that I live in New York City, Rocky is more of a brother to me; the burden (and joy) of his care-giving falls on the shoulders of my parents, who sleep in the same bed as him and give him his tick medicine and take him on strolls five times a day and cherish him and spoil him. I only see Rocky once a month, when I return to Philadelphia and play rope with him for hours on end. To me, he’s a brother-son, I’d say. Is that weird? Sure! Are most things weird? Definitely! Do I prefer him to most people? No doubt. Do I respect and admire women who bear and raise human children? Of course.
I have a nephew, who also happens to be my godson, named Frank. Frank is a pug. I have another godson, named Wallace, who is a cat. I feel lucky to finally have such a full, big family. And they all bring me so much joy, even when they (not naming names) eat the blueberry muffin out of my coat pocket and act like nothing happened.