Gum, spit, piss, bird shit, dog shit, broken glass, cigarette butts, the occasional splash of vomit, and garbage of all sorts – I keep my eyes peeled for the everyday detritus of the sidewalk. I try to also keep an eye on what’s ahead and behind: dogs that come sprinting out of nowhere, kids that come shrieking and cycling and bouncing balls, motorbikes and bicycles and trucks that come careening through intersections and over the curb.
I didn’t used to give too much thought to any of the stink and strangers of cities. In ballet flats and combat boots, I schlepped myself through scummy scenes of San Francisco, Portland, Dublin, London, Berlin, Galway, and Los Angeles. Always with headphones, sometimes quite drunk, mostly in a bubble of my own.
That was before. When I moved through life alone.
Now I walk with a little one. The light of my life. Who is easily startled by some of these things we encounter, and steps obliviously right into the others. Who, when we go home for the evening, will roll happily on my pillows, lick her toes, and then lick my face.
We toddle our way along slowly, stopping often, sometimes out of wariness, others out of curiosity. Sometimes we watch strangers walk by in wide-eyed silence, and other times we cackle abuse at the birds in the trees.
I should probably mention that my little one is a cat.
Yes, I walk my cat. She’s my kitty-baby, and my love for her is absolute. There isn’t anywhere I could go that I wouldn’t want her with me, and so we go everywhere that we can together. Some of the time I carry her in a bag or backpack, and some of the time she strolls on her own paws at the end of a leash. If we’re going far, we’ll go by bicycle or train, or even planes and ferries. We’ve been out exploring for several years now, schlepping between several residences in the States, Deutschland, and Ireland, and we’re only just getting warmed up.
I was 25 when I adopted Aífe. I have recently turned 32. And after about two years of soul-searching and ambivalence, I have decided that I would, in fact, like to try to become a mom to a human being as well as a cat. I would like to try to get pregnant.
This is a supposedly a normal thing for women to want. But if you had told me, at any point, in the first thirty years of my life, that I would ever have any interest in pregnancy or parenting, or feel that procreating could possibly have any place in my odd little life, I would have told you to go to hell (possibly then kicking you with my Doc Marten’s and running away). Every aspect of the breeder’s life sounded abhorrent, and filled me with a visceral, skin-crawling aversion, like the idea of eating live worms. The idea that I was ‘supposed to’ be eager to put my own life aside for some little slobbering blob was both ridiculous and enraging, as was the fact that I had to go through life perpetually tending to a bleeding, treacherous womb that I absolutely never wanted to use.
I still firmly support women who feel that way, and our absolute right to remain child-free if we wish. There are a lot of other amazing things to do in this life besides procreate, and a lot of centuries of oppression to make up for.
What changed for me? Well, I’m in my 30s now, and very suddenly I’ve found that nearly all of my lady peers are either looking to get pregnant, in the midst of being pregnant, or putting up Instagram pics of their big-eyed, big-dimpled babies. So I’d wager that for all of us, there’s a certain threshold of maturity that we’ve crossed now that our 20s are over, and a certain amount of biology just ticking over. I’ve also been absorbing a lot of Zooborns and National Geographic images on Instagram, and the idea of having a tiny spawn clinging to me seems more the natural order of things for mammals like myself, and less like a hideous punishment. Being an animal, part of the physical world, part of the ongoing evolution, part of an intensely loving bond, now seems like a remarkable experience to share in.
More than that though, this is the first time in my life that I’ve felt really comfortable in my own skin – the first time I feel like my own life is definitely worth living, and possibly even sturdy enough to build other lives upon. My writing is coming together, and I’m writing whole books and essays that I’m proud of. I’ve gotten married to the love of my life, and we’re profoundly sappy and hormonal towards each other. (“Life is amazing, let’s lob a diapered grenade into the middle of it!”) My husband has a daughter from a previous marriage, so that’s forced my life to become more family-oriented already, and allowed me to see what a wonderful father my partner already is.
But there’s one reason above all others that I am willing to take this leap of faith, to try to cross the terrifying chasm between child-free and motherhood. One reason why I believe that unconditional love is possible, is the greatest thing, the thing that makes each day worth living. And one reason why I think there’s a chance I might actually be good at momming.
Six years ago, I took on the sacred duty of being a forever home to a little brown tabby. And by forever, I mean I will be her home until one of us dies, and that is not negotiable. At the time I brought her home, I just really wanted a cute little pet, and could never have imagined how our relationship would transform me. But it certainly has – I am a very different, and much better person for my years as a cat-mom.
I am proud of being a cat-mom, and proud of my fur-baby, and I think all the devoted moms to fur-babies (feline, canine, and otherwise) deserve props on Mother’s Day. I know some people see their critters as just ‘pets’. But for a growing number of us, they are amongst our most important relationships in our whole lives. I do fully appreciate that human babies are not the same as fur-babies, and phenomenally more demanding (hence my life-long keenness to take on a fur-baby, and thirty-year aversion to sign up for a human one). But there are a lot of joys and difficulties that I hear women go on about in connection to mothering human babies, and I think, “Hang on, that sounds pretty similar to what I’ve gotten from loving my kitty-baby!”
Here are six lessons that I’ve learned in my six years as a cat-mom. Lessons that I know have already helped me on my journey towards becoming a good wife, stepmom, daughter, writer, and human being, and which I firmly believe will serve me well in motherhood, should the opportunity arise. (And if it doesn’t arise, I know that I will continue to experience profound love and joy each and every day that I get to spend with my darling fur-baby by my side, so that’s a great life, too.)
Unconditional love is real, and it really is the most profoundly worthwhile experience in this silly life.
I knew that I ‘loved cats’ in a general, ‘aren’t they adorable’ kind of way. But I didn’t know what it was to really love a creature; to love them unconditionally. To love with your whole heart absolutely open, without fear or reservation. To know that their happiness and wellbeing depends entirely on you, and that your happiness is contingent upon theirs, too.
Practically every waking moment, Aífe and I are aware of each other. I wake up, she’s on my pillow, or curled up against my thighs. We get up, and spends all the day following me from room to room, sitting on rug, chair, desk, windowsill, fridge, whatever gives her the best vantage point for being near me and watching what I do. If she’s hungry, I’m the one who she comes to for food. If she’s bored, I’m the one she comes to for play. If she’s cold or lonesome, I’m the one she comes to for cuddles. If I leave the house without her, she’s waiting by the door for me to get back (I often find her toys piled up in the entry way when I return). When I turn out the lights for the night, she hops back into bed, and we doze off the same way we woke up. If I wake up in the night, I check to see that she’s sleeping near me. There is almost no conscious moment, day or night, that we aren’t aware of the other. Every silly expression, every purr, every one of her tiny bean-shaped toes, fills me with a total, pure delight. If there’s any variation from her eating or litter box routines, if she seems less exuberant than usual, whatever, I’m anxious until she returns to normal.
My own mother is also a great animal lover. When I go home to visit, she sometimes calls me by her dog’s name, and her dog by my name, so you can tell we share roughly the same status in Mom’s noodle. And even she insists that if you give birth to a baby, you love it even more than a cat or dog. She swears that her first words after my delivery were, “This is even better than a puppy or kitty.” I remain skeptical – I feel that my heart would explode if it loved anything even a fraction more than I love my cat, that it simply wouldn’t be able to handle it. But if it is true, if it is possible to love a human baby more than my kitty-baby, I think I would like to know what that’s like.
Responsibility is a good thing.
I got my kitty during what some would call a quarter-life crisis. I’d just finished grad school, fled a toxic relationship, and moved country. I was living all alone for the first time in my life. I was depressed, lonely, desperately grasping at straws to move my life forward and pay my bills. I applied for hundreds of jobs, and went on dozens of internet dates. I drank a lot, and cried a lot. I did not feel that I had much connection to the world, and didn’t feel like it would matter to too many folks if I made it home at night, or if I lived or died.
My kitty sure cared though. To her, I was the only human that mattered. She cared whether or not I got out of bed every morning, and cared whether or not I came home every night. She wanted to know what I was doing, and have me within eyesight at all times – she didn’t even like it if I shut the bathroom door to pee. She tolerated my weeping, my hangovers. And when I got healthier, and sober, and started writing, she tolerated my sitting at my desk at all hours in my jammies. She proved that she would still love me and hang out by my side no matter what nonsense I got up to, but I needed to feed her, and play with her, and admire her fluffy belly. I needed to keep an eye on the litter box, to make sure there was always kitty litter and food on hand, clean up any items she might chew on, not leave cups and things on ledges where she might knock them over.
What I’ve learned is that being totally free, totally alone in life, is not good for a human. Some humans may be better at it than others, but overall, it is not a good thing. We’re social animals, who need connection. Being able to have a certain amount of autonomy over your own life, and being able to spend some time alone, are crucial elements to a good life. But so is love. And so is being needed, and being accountable to others. Yes, it is amazing to be able to hop on a train and run off to wherever it takes you. But you can’t run away from loneliness, and no adventure can’t be improved by the knowledge that you have a home to go back to. And home is not a building where you keep your stuff. It’s love.
You are capable of more nurturing than you have ever been allowed to know.
Before I got Aífe, I would never have described myself as a nurturing person. I don’t think a single other person who had ever met me would have used that word in association with me, either.
But things change. And so do people. And once I had an outlet, I discovered out that I really do have a very strong nurturing streak. If my kitty is hungry, scared, bored, ill, or just wants to play, to get a belly rub, whatever, I am on it. And I am pretty much unfailingly delighted to do so, day or night. When I trim her nails every fortnight or so, it is a highlight of my day. I can take pleasure in taking care of, and mothering other creatures. Who knew?
You can learn to embrace broken sleep.
She’s pretty good now, but for the first several years of her life, Aífe woke me up heaps. Sometimes by knocking stuff over, sometimes by meowing, sometimes by vomiting. There’s nothing to wake you up from a deep sleep like realizing your cat has just sent a cascade of puke across the top of your brand new record player. Now that she’s six, she’s better about coming to bed with me, and sleeping through the night. But I still know that I’m lucky when she doesn’t wake me at dawn. And the thing is, I kind of don’t even mind. I get a little grumpy about it once in a while, but usually her uncontainable excitement for the new day, for breakfast, is adorable and infectious. Sometimes, I can pull her under the covers, and cuddle and sleep for another hour or so, and that is a kind of heaven worth being woken up for. Other times, I just surrender, get up with her, and go enjoy the early, quiet hours of the morning, which are now some of my favorite.
You can get used to someone making messes and breaking all of your possessions.
Candles, cups, bags, houseplants, hairbrushes, snow globes, magazines… Aífe has chewed up, shattered, and vomited on quite a number of my things over the years. She sheds freely on every bit of clothing and linen, and has very occasionally peed on a few things, too. I have caught her sticking her tongue into unguarded glasses of water and bowls of cereal and ice cream, and devouring whole plates of cheese. I have found bits of half-digested plastic bags, ribbons, and onion nets sticking out of her poop. I have found my knitting yard tangled around table legs, and sometimes munched right off the needles. She is a little monster, there is no doubt about it. But it doesn’t really matter. I mean, I worry for her digestive track, and try my very best to keep her from ingesting anything that could hurt her. But I’ve adjusted to the fact that the stuff is just mostly just stuff.
You can get used to cleaning up someone else’s poop and vomit.
Indeed, you can learn to take an avid interest in both. Monitor them for changes, inspect them for foreign objects. It’s not that it’s not still a little bit icky, it just becomes a fact of life; just one inevitable facet of the cat-mom life, and not that big of a deal. One time when she was walking on leash, I didn’t realize she had stepped right in some dog poop, and then when I picked her up she smooshed her paw right into my cheek. We were in the middle of moving country, and had been traveling for three days with only scraps of broken sleep, and I now had fucking dog poop on my face. Luckily, I try to keep baby wipes in her bag for just such an occasion. So I’m already momming it pretty well in that department.
It’s actually easier to go places with a baby than with a cat.
In the last six years, I’ve moved house many times, and several of those moves were international. It was very involved getting the paperwork together to bring my kitty across borders, and took a lot of work finding airlines that would let me carry her on board with me. When we moved from Germany to Ireland, it turned out that no airlines would let me carry her on, and so we had to take nine trains and two ferry rides instead. My husband’s work is taking us to Singapore next, and they make it incredibly difficult to bring an animal into – or back out – of the country. I’m being asked to fill in customs forms with questions like what my cat’s ‘value’ is. They mean in dollars. Because legally, she is just a thing, and a thing which immigration authorities the world over reserve the right to confiscate, quarantine, or ‘destroy’ at any boarder crossing, if your paperwork isn’t up to snuff. It’s actually quite scary.
She’s also not allowed into lots of stores, supermarkets, hotels. She’s not allowed on buses, and not allowed on trains in some places, either. If I want to run errands while I’m out and about with her, I have to smuggle her, and hope that no one looks to closely through the mesh of her carrier bag.
So even though you’re way more tied down with a baby in some ways, and can’t leave it alone for any amount of time, at least you are allowed to take it places with you. It might not be a cakewalk to bring a baby onto an airplane, to take it on a long bus ride, or to take it into a restaurant or supermarket, but at least they’re allowed.
Everyone’s a critic.
No matter how much you love your fur-baby, how much time and energy you put into trying to give them the best, healthiest, happiest life possible, you are going to be told you’re doing it wrong. For example: I have a chubby kitty. I have tried lots of different things to help her lose the weight: newer and more expensive gourmet pet foods, more playtime, more exercise outside. I’ve put a ridiculous amount of time into leash-training her, so that she can go for walks with me. But people seem quick to want to suggest that you’re an incompetent, rubbish cat-mom. Every vet I go to has a different opinion about animal nutrition, and is annoyed at me for listening to the last guy, and acts like I’m trying to hurt my cat with food. Women on the street stop to criticize her weight, and sometimes to tell me that it’s wrong of me to have my cat outside with me at all.
My love for my cat is the core of my day to day, and it’s hurtful when people who don’t even know me think they have the right to give me crap. All I know is that I’m doing my best, we’re both actually pretty healthy and definitely very happy together. That’s about the best you can do. The only other thing you can do is learn polite ways to tell people to fuck off.
So happy Mother’s Day, all you mother-ers of humans, cats, dogs, raccoons, chimps, and what have you. You not only make and maintain life, you make it worth living.