In December 2020, nine months after finding out I would never bear a biological child, my husband and I brought home a sweet 11-month-old from Cobham. We followed a strict settling-in regime and, for the first two weeks, we took turns sleeping on lilos on the floor next to her. A year on, Sybil is happy, confident and loved by our entire extended family. She is also a golden retriever.
When Pope Francis called pet ownership “selfish” during a general audience at the Vatican – also “a denial of fatherhood and motherhood [that] diminishes us, [and] takes away our humanity”, which seems a bit on the harsh side – there was the same uproar among pet owners that comes whenever anyone calls us selfish or uses the dreaded American phrase “fur babies”. As one owner drily put it: “The old guy with no children. Sure, he knows best.” No pets, either.
When the Pope said that people were choosing pets over parenthood, it felt very much as though he was missing the point. There are so many reasons why someone may not have a child (whither the Pope’s utterances on the scandalous cost of childcare?) and may have a pet instead, or as well. Blaming Italy’s plummeting birth rate on a fondness for animals is like saying that if we only recycle more, we can make up for airlines flying empty planes.
It’s another either/or discourse which we could do without, but then again: we’re never making the right decision, are we? Were the blessed Virgin around today, you suspect that the Saints would be pointing at her Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ and going, “Don’t you worry he’s going to be TERRIBLY LONELY without a sibling?”
While crowdfunding No One Talks About This Stuff, my book about the grief and hope that comes from trying to have a family, people from all backgrounds have told me about the very particular joy their pets have brought them; companionship, teaching their children animal husbandry and giving them something to hold on for during the darkest times. As one woman said of her cats: “They sat with me during our second miscarriage as I cried and waited for my husband to come home from work. They have given us both so much companionship and love during some truly difficult times. The role pets play in people’s lives should be recognised.”
Blood is important, but it isn’t the be all and end all. The LGBT+ community have long had their “chosen family”, created from supportive friends, often when their blood families have cast them out. Deep relationships come together through sports, music and community. Families come in all forms, and if one member has more legs than the others, so much the better.