Man, some titles just write themselves, you know what I mean?
But seriously, yesterday, Mother’s Day, did indeed find me pounding the polished floors of Whole Paycheck for a quick pickup of vegan donuts (fail. The vegans come early on Sundays, I guess) and a last minute (sorry, mom!) bouquet of peonies to bring to brunch at the in laws. I figured I’d grab a quick cappuccino for my troubles on the way out, since I’d otherwise be leaving the premises for under $30 and therefore probably stopped and searched.
I stepped into a robust line of caffeine seekers bellying up to the coffee bar and observed the friendly chaos bustling around me. Off to the cafe side of the store wound a busy buffet line filled with happy breakfasters loading up recyclable paper plates with all manner of frittatas and free range goodies. I correctly deduced it to be some kind of Mother’s Day brunch, and it smelled fantastic.
As I waited for my dry cappuccino to materialize from behind the bank of espresso machines, a young woman carrying a ceramic teapot let herself behind the bar to fill up with hot water and chat up the barista on duty. Gesturing to the busy crowd of diners she remarked on the morning’s success to her (I presumed) co-worker.
“So are you a mom?” teapot girl asked barista girl
“Oh, no. Well, I mean, I’m a dog mom, I guess.”
Teapot girl excitedly clapped her teapot lid back down and put a reassuring arm on barista girl’s shoulder while giggling delightedly,
“Well that’s a mom! Of course that’s a mom! Happy Mother’s Day to you!”
Barista girl smiled and returned the question, causing teapot girl’s smile to waver.
“Oh, I just don’t have enough to give to an animal right now. I really want a cat, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be around enough to give it what it needs.”
Barista girl nodded sagely and complimented teapot girl on her maturity and discernment and the conversation came to a close, but not without a final “Happy Mother’s Day!” and a giggle exchanged for the canine caretaker.
On the one hand it was funny, because here I was witnessing a living, breathing Whole Foods stereotype as it played out before my own eyes. You can’t Youtube parody something that good.
On the other hand, I felt a deep pang of sadness and, honestly, something a little bit like anger, because ladies, ladies…being a pet owner does not make you a mother.
I understand (intellectually, at least, because poop in the grass and shedding….ugh) that a dog can theoretically be a delightful companion, and that people can – and do – form real bonds with animals.
But at the same time my heart aches over the idea that the lofty calling, the sacred vocation of motherhood which is written into the very fabric of the feminine soul…has come to mean so little, at least in some circles.
And before anybody brings it up, yes, I realize they could have been joking, and yes, sarcasm and all that…but if you could have heard the sincerity in their exchange and seen the fervor in their eyes as they discussed responsible pet parenting, you wouldn’t be so quick to jump to that perhaps more logical conclusion. Maybe if the exchange had taken place in Costco or Trader Joe’s.
We live in a culture that has been quick to discard traditional roles and definitions of virtue, and where the rights of self definition and choose-your-own identity have come to be regarded as synonymous with freedom.
And yet the human heart still aches to do what it was made for: to give and to receive love.
Not merely affection, not only companionship, not just a salve for loneliness and a convenient prop for selfies, but real love. Demanding love. Painful and pain-filled love. A love that suffers and, yes, perhaps even dies for the beloved.
So unless you are Lassie’s mommy, this probably doesn’t carry over into the typical scenario of pet ownership.
Yes, pets can be wonderful companions and bring life and joy to the family – but they can never be your family. They cannot return life-giving love, nor do they demand it in return.
No matter how much you feel your dog loves you, the absence of a rational, immortal soul renders that sweet and furry creature incapable of truly returning your affection. Slobbery kisses, maybe, but the capacity to truly “will the good of the other” as defines human love, even unto to the point of death?
Sorry, ain’t happening.
And the other thing about dog “motherhood?” Well it’s the perfect substitution for a generation such as ours, because it’s so much less demanding than the real thing, as Pope Francis himself helpfully illustrated last summer. And we’re nothing if not stingy in our capacity for self donation. (yours truly vvvvvvvery much included in this indictment.)
No matter how tiny and needy and cute, a puppy will never, ever ask of you what a baby will.
A dog can (usually) be satiated with a dish of food and a warm place to sleep. He can be dropped off with a neighbor or checked into a kennel for a spontaneous girl’s weekend in Vegas. When a major illness or a life threatening injury strikes, he can even be euthanized to spare him from additional suffering.
In other words? Dogs don’t suffer much from the narcissistic shortcomings of their “parents,” and there’s a finite capacity of self investment required.
Well, not quite. Because there is still that pesky, innate desire to nurture and to be needed, that capacity for self gift and receptivity which every woman is uniquely designed with, whether or not she ever actually physically bears children.
Isn’t that wild?
St. John Paul II spoke almost constantly of the feminine genius of receptivity, and that every woman is uniquely and unequivocally called to motherhood, regardless of her state in life or even her physical capacity to bear it out.
Ven. Fulton Sheen put it in plainer terms: “Every woman in the world was made to be a mother either physically or spiritually.”
To conflate motherhood with pet ownership is wrong because the object of the love is too finite, yes, but also because the lover in question – the mother – is capable of so much more, and indeed, is called to so much more. Even if she cannot physically bear children. Even then.
Because fostering. Adoption. Mentoring. Investing in human relationships with one’s nieces, nephews, neighbor kids, homeless youth, et cetera ad naseum.
There are a hundred ways to mother in a fully human sense of the word. But adopting a 4-legged friend is, emphatically, not one of them.
So I propose a striking of the term “dog mother/ pet parent” from the collective lexicon. It might be good for a laugh, but when you start to notice real conviction and fervent practice behind the concept, it’s not quite so cute.
(Thanks for the great material, Whole Foods. And in all seriousness, your vegan donuts are absolutely delicious. Next time I’ll come earlier.)