Essays · Friendship

Comparing Pets and Children

Is it obvious that we should be more interested in hearing about kids than about pets?

One question I received (and answered) came from someone who doesn’t connect with pet stories, and wants to know how not to be a jerk when faced with friends sharing pictures and anecdotes about their animals. That question got me thinking about how some folks (not necessarily that writer) take such deep offense at the idea of comparing children to pets. I haven’t been able to shake the desire to pontificate a bit more on the topic, and I think I know why.

It’s because there’s absolutely no reason to compare pets and children.

You can treat your children as though they are your whole world, and I can treat my cats as though they are my whole world, and the whole world will continue spinning.

I know, mind blowing, right? I’m sure you’ve read at least one article about the put-upon parent who has to listen to their insufferable childfree friends talk about their ‘babies,’ with the full knowledge that said babies each have four legs and a tail. These articles often take the perspective that by referring to pets as children, pet caretakers are minimizing what ‘real’ parents do.

Wait, what?

Do they genuinely think that their value as a parent in society has dropped because someone else uses the term ‘fur babies?’ Did I miss the part where people who have dogs are preventing Congress from passing meaningful parental leave legislation? Is Big Kitten opposing equitable school funding?

So weird.

I’ve heard people who have both children and pets discuss this, and until recently, they all said basically some version of the same refrain: “I used to spend so much time with my dog, but now that I have my kid, I don’t, and I realize that he’s just a dog.” The (usually implicit, although sometimes explicit) sentiment behind this is that any previous thoughts about the importance of the family dog or cat were clearly misplaced.

The problem is, these folks seem to be going with the least charitable understanding of what pet owners are saying when we talk about our pets as dear loved ones. Literally no one who I have met as a person in real life (internet commenters don’t count) thinks that what is necessary for raising a tiny human is the same as what it takes to care for a pet.

What we are saying, however, is that the love we have for our pets is special, and we are acknowledging that these beings take up important space in our lives, both as emotional support and as creatures that depend on us for survival.

Thankfully I’ve recently heard one parent offer up some thoughts that diverge from what I’ve come to expect. This person has both a beloved family pet and a child, and kindly reminded me that no one else gets to tell us what feelings we have. You don’t get to say what my love for my animals means, and I don’t get to say what your love for your child means.

Even if you’ve experienced both! Even then, you’ve only experienced both in your heart, not mine. Having a child brings you a special insight into your relationship with your child, and may alter your view of your pet. But it does not give you special insight into my relationship with my pet.

Basically, I think it is silly to assume that stories about an “actual human child” will be any more compelling or of interest to someone just because the stories involve a person. Given the generic choice of story about a kitten or story about a baby, I’ll choose a kitten story*.

(It’s probably best that I’m not reproducing.)

Of course there are times when I would – and do – choose a story about a child, and that’s when I care about the friend who is responsible for that child. If that friend is experiencing joy or pain, I want to know. I may not have children, and I may not be someone who ‘loves kids’ in the abstract, but I love my friends, and I want to be there for them if they want to talk about the politics of their child’s soccer team, or the frustration in figuring out how to explain racism to their five-year-old.

At the same time, as their friend, I do not think it is worthy of scorn or even an eye roll to suggest that I expect concern for my emotional wellbeing as it relates to a family member who has fur instead of hair.

So here it is folks: I’d like to gently (too late) suggest that it is a bit of a jerk move to get upset when people share stories about their pets as though they are children. That’s part of being in any relationship – friendship, romantic, whatever. You listen even when you can’t directly relate to what the other person is experiencing.

Look, when I come home every day, there are two adorable little ginger cats being assholes and also demanding love. They cannot feed themselves, they cannot take themselves to the vet, they cannot even tell me when something is wrong. They are dependent on me and my partner to take care of them, and that is a trust that I have to treat as special. And yes, sometimes they do fucking adorable things that I find way more compelling than another story about how someone’s kid threw up in their mother’s mouth. I just do.

And that’s okay. Because it isn’t a contest. And if parents choose to view it that way, honestly, they’re the ones that end up losing out.

Because my cat stories are fucking fantastic.

*Obviously I care about children who are hurt / abused / neglected / etc. I’m not a monster. At least, not totally.

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