All Kinds of Mamas

By definition Mother’s Day is about moms.  Of course we immediately think of the women who have carried babies in their wombs, birthed them and then raised (or are in the process of raising) them to be people.  Then we think of moms who were not physically able to carry a human in their own body, so they take in a child who does not share their DNA.  And there are the women who care so much for the human being that they create and carry that they choose to give them to another who is better equipped to care for a child.  All of these women are celebrated on this calendar day.

But there are two other types of “moms” out there who get overlooked.  They are not readily categorized as moms, yet they perform most (if not all) of the same duties and exhibit most (if not all) of the same character traits as traditional moms.  They are silent and sometimes invisible, but they should be celebrated just as the rest of us are.

I know mothers who have experienced newborns, toddlers, preschoolers and up might chuckle if I add parents of “fur babies” (or pet owners) to the ranks of momhood.  But I became a mom long before I married and had human babies because when I was 20 I adopted a cat named Pepper.  She was my baby and I took care of her like she was my own child.

If you choose to adopt a homeless animal, you become a parent.  You may be “owner” on paper, but that dog or cat (or bunny or ferret or whatever crawls, flies, swims or slithers into your heart) becomes your child.  (And if you don’t think of them at least a little as your child, then you may not need to be a pet owner.)  It’s not easier to be the parent of a fur-baby, and it’s not harder (well, maybe – and I’ll get to that), it’s just different.  My job as the mom of a human offspring is to raise them to be able to take care of themselves and to eventually become a contributing member of a community.  At some point, they can make their own lunches.  At some point, they can be responsible for their own transportation.  And at some point they become completely independent.  Not so for fur-babies.  For the life of your pet, you will be their source of food, exercise, entertainment, and health care.  You will be their life for their entire life.  That’s a huge, time consuming responsibility.  It’s almost like perpetually having a toddler in the house.  Until . . . the animal becomes geriatric.  Then it is like perpetually having an infant.  You have to clean up “accidents”.  You get up in the middle of the night to let them go to the bathroom.  You have to pick them up and carry them places.  And you have to interpret non-verbal signals about their health and well being.

Here’s where, I think, it becomes harder to be a parent to a pet.  Odds are that you will outlive your fur-baby.  By a lot.  When you have a human child, there is a very great chance that you will never have to deal with the loss of that child.  Not so with a furry companion.  You WILL have to experience their decline and their loss.  It is hard.  It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done – and I’ve done it four times so far.  I’ve also signed up to do it at least three more times now that we’ve adopted two cats and a dog.  Yet, we moms of companion animals go back willingly again and again because we can.  Because our hearts are not a fixed size and can expand to encompass many sizes and shapes of love.  And because we know we can make a difference.

Yes, parenting humans is challenging and difficult and stressful because there is a LOT at stake.  The way you parent a human can affect countless lives, as well as society overall, for a long time.  But parenting a rescue is just as important and transformative on a smaller scale.  It’s especially important and trasformative to the fuzzy little life that you save.

I have noticed another group of “moms” who have become more numerous lately, yet who are anonymous and invisible.  These are the women who have become mothers to their own aging parents.  Blessedly, I have not experienced this with my own parents (and I pray I don’t have to), but I have friends and family members who have gone through, or are going through, this unexpected stage of life.  It’s heartbreaking.  It’s hard.  I can’t imagine the toll it takes.

I have two dear friends (not a couple – just FYI) who chose early on not to be mothers to human offspring.  They and their husbands have been wonderful parents to a variety of cats and dogs over the years.  I see them now using incredible mama skills – patience, endurance, wisdom and unconditional love – with their own parents.  In my eyes – as a woman who is in the process of raising little humans that I co-created – what my friends are doing is much harder than anything I’ve ever done or will do as a mom.

My journey as a mother to my kids is one that is measured by celebrations of progress – walking, talking, potty training, reading, skip to driving, graduation and then life on their own.  My role as a mother will constantly evolve and diminish until I become more of an adviser than a caregiver.  In other words, I train my kids to take over my job.  My friends’ role as mothers to their own parents is the opposite.  It will continually increase from child to assistant to caregiver.  They don’t work their way out of a job, they work their way into it.

I chose to become a mother.  I (kind of) knew what I was getting into.   My friends with aging parents had the mother role thrust upon them.  They chose to accept that role even though they had never planned on it.  And they are dealing with the same things I dealt with when I took on that role.  I read their blogs and Facebook posts about having to find a “baby sitter” for their parent if they want to go on a date with their spouse, shuttling their parent to appointment after appointment, dealing with picky eaters and cleaning up poop.  But these entries are not about cute little children who can basically be physically carried if they cannot or will not walk on their own.  These entries are about confused adults – with adult sized bodies large enough to cause major ambulatory problems if they cannot or will not walk willingly.  I am in awe of these women.

Being a mom is hard in every form – mom to human, mom to animal, mom to mom.  It requires more of you than you knew you had to give.  I’m glad that there is at least one day where we can pause and breathe and acknowledge the work that women do for others.  Thank you to my own mom Juanice, to my friends Adette and Dana who have adopted and cared for many orphaned fur-babies and for my friends Melissa and Lisa who have had to take a reverse role as mom of a parent.  We’re all pretty darned wonderful.  Let’s have a piece of chocolate and pat ourselves on the back.

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