Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and Laurel and I put up a link on Facebook to an article that Karen London wrote in Bark about making Mother’s Day more inclusive, adding in women who care for dogs into the picture. (Laurel is my social media queen; she helps me with Facebook and Instagram and I kiss the ground she walks on on a weekly basis for doing so.) I shouldn’t be surprised at some of the reactions–motherhood is about as primal as it gets, and clearly the article hit a nerve. It also got a large range of reactions, from “I think of myself as my dog’s mother,” to “How dare you compare caring for a dog with raising a child!”
As I often do on Sunday, I stayed off line most of yesterday, and focused on my husband, my dogs and my garden. (And oh yeah, the crab cakes I made last night. Yum.) But once I was snuggled into bed last night I somehow couldn’t resist checking email, which led to checking Facebook, which led to lying in bed thinking about who are we to our dogs? In our perception, if not language?
So here I go, into the breach, for no other reason than I am truly, deeply curious about how we categorize ourselves in regards to our dogs. Here’s my take on it:
First, take a breath and bear with me here, I do indeed call myself my dog’s owner. I understand that many will take issue with that, but the fact is, they are my dogs. I initially capitalized the word “my,” because I can’t stress enough that no one has the right to do anything, anything (do you see how I stopped myself from using capitals again?) to my dogs without my permission. I feel as possessive of my dogs as I’ve ever felt about anything. I am reminded of a woman who introduced her boyfriend thus: “This is John. My John.” I loved her instantly for it.
But, of course, “owner” is completely inadequate. I also own a car and some plants and a microwave, and putting dogs into the same category (as the law often does) is offensive and absurd.
My dogs are part of my family, purely and simply. Do I then put them in the same category as my husband and his grandchildren? My sisters? My nieces and nephew? No. But do I love Maggie and Skip, care for them, protect them, and cherish them as integral parts of my family? Yes. Do I have a deeply-rooted emotional connection with them? Yes. As we all know, in recent years there has been a trend to call ourselves “guardians,” and I welcome its attempt to acknowledge that dogs are sentient creatures who many of us consider as parts of our family, and we could no more “own” them than we could another member of our family.
I’m okay also calling myself my dog’s guardians, but the word doesn’t begin to capture our relationship. Legally, guardians are people appointed by law to make decisions for their “wards” and represent their personal and financial interests. In many ways, they have far fewer rights than owners to care for an individual, and there is no suggestion that guardians have an emotional attachment to their charges. So, from my perspective, I am both my dog’s owner and their guardian, and both terms are painfully inadequate.
Am I my dog’s mother? Should I be celebrated for that on Mother’s Day? Here’s where the rubber met the road–or perhaps I should say, the flower arrangement met the breakfast in bed–on Facebook. I personally don’t think of myself as my dog’s mother or parent, even though I fill some of those roles. However, I truly appreciate Dr. London’s column, the one that started all this, for its acknowledgement that Mother’s Day is not a happy holiday for many people, and that being more inclusive is one way to ameliorate that. I say that as a woman who desperately wanted children in her thirties, and who cried off and on for years for the lack of them, and, abashedly, admit to snapping at wait staff who relentlessly greeted me as a mother at restaurants on Mother’s Day. I actually once said (cringe), “No, I’m not a mother, and it breaks my heart. Thanks for reminding me.” Ouch.
Mother’s Day is a saccharine invention, a national fairy tale in a nation that does almost nothing to support mothers. But it is also a day for contemplating the ways in which we’re connected to one another, through times of joy and times of sorrow, across time and across species. So my children will come over for brunch, and I will set out mealworms for the bluebirds to feed their babies.
[I should note here: This is a male bluebird feeding one of his babies. A good reminder that this issue may have been motivated by Mother’s Day, but the issue relates to both men and women.]
I love Ms. Renkl’s focus on life giving life, and on the connections between us all, because that’s what our relationship with dogs is all about–our connection, miracle that it is, to dogs. Lucky us.
One last thing: I have no problem with people who think of themselves as their dog’s parent, it just doesn’t fit for me. I don’t see it as demeaning to those who have or are raising children, but I can understand why some might think so. Also (please be kind here), I’ve never been big fan of the term “furbaby.” I think of my dogs, once they are are grown, as adult, sentient, intelligent individuals, so it’s the “baby” part that doesn’t feel right to me. And yet, because dogs are unable to use complex language and are relatively helpless, it’s understandable to compare them in some ways to young human children.
I talk about this at length in For the Love of a Dog, as part of why we love dogs so much–they are both helpless in many ways (can’t open doors or feed themselves) and evoke our hard-wired nurturing instincts, and at the same time give us the unconditional love we all wanted from our parents. So in that sense, dogs are both our kids and our parents. How do we come up with a term for that?
I have no answers here about how we should describe our relationship to our dogs. But I’m curious what you think, and what terms you use to describe yourself with/to your dogs. Henry Beston, in the Outermost House, best sums up where I am right now with all of this:
“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
Caught up in the net of life. Me and Skip. Me and Maggie. Yup, that’s us.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Maggie and Skip had a chiropractic appointment last week, and I don’t work them on sheep on the same day. This was their response that evening.
Maggie came up slightly lame a few days ago, so she’s not allowed to play or work sheep right now until it gets sorted out. But we took the dogs on a lovely leash walk on Sunday so that they could enjoy new smells. Here Jim is trying to encourage Maggie to pose for the camera:
I snapped a shot of the tree shadows of the trees at a Brigham Park, I love the patterns they made.
A friend asked for a barn rehab update recently, so here’s a shot of the old and the new. Our major barn project is almost done, we’re just waiting for the last grading to be done around the outside, and then we can get to painting all the new concrete and seeding the area around it. I rather like this image of old/new/inside/outside. (I asked them to keep the little window you see on the right, because the sheep like to stick their heads in it and look at me when I’m in the barn. What makes that so charming? No idea, but why not keep it?)
Not many special photos today, too busy working like a field hand in the garden. And will have to move all the tender plants I’ve purchased inside tonight, as well as covering up all the lilies. Getting a bit old, have to say. Maybe tomorrow I can plant?
But I’ll take lots of breaks, and look forward to reading about who you call yourself–male or female–in relation to our dogs.