Paws Off My Motherhood

A #Dogmom Manifesto

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Have you ever said that to someone? Maybe you framed it as a joke, or said it with an eye-roll behind someone’s back?

If so, that “someone” is probably a woman in her 30s. She’s childless and unmarried, and frequently posts on social media about her dog, whom she goes so far as to call her “baby.” It bothers you.

If so, you are probably a mother. In my experience, that’s who usually feels the need to point out to me that my dog, a Doberman puppy named Liesl, is not my biological offspring.

I don’t think anyone actually thinks I’m delusional enough to believe that Liesl is my child, and that she’s going to grow up, go to college, and change my diapers in my old age. We’re all clear on the fact that she’s a dog; that’s not what’s really being contested here. This is about who gets to lay claim to the word “mom.”

Mother’s Day is when this conflict really pops off, but Mothers Against #Dogmoms are a vocal coalition year-round. According to them, childless women are not allowed to lay claim to any kind of motherhood, including the kind prefixed by a hashtag and the word “dog.”

Not unlike the straight people who doubled down on the term “marriage” to keep the gays out, the moms against #dogmoms are framing the issue in terms of semantics, because it’s easier for them to claim ownership over the word “mom” than it is to actually engage in a discussion about motherhood, patriarchy — and most importantly, why this is all so triggering.

I have come to see this perspective as a bid for acknowledgment, albeit one couched in misdirected hostility. The fact is that moms in America have it rough. They work harder for less money than their male counterparts at work, and harder for less glory than their husbands at home. It’s unfair, and it’s sexist, and the United States is particularly shitty about providing any support whatsoever.

So when moms who already feel under-appreciated and undervalued see childless women calling themselves #dogmoms, they feel that it infringes on one of the only high-status social identities that fully belongs to them and no one else— motherhood.

No one can take your motherhood away from you. But stop trying to take ours from us.

#Dogmoms don’t see ourselves as literal moms to human children. But that doesn’t mean our relationships with our dogs aren’t parental, or that using parental terminology as shorthand doesn’t get right to the heart of the matter. We love our dogs, and have emotionally satisfying relationships with them based on care, nurture, and mutual affection.

This is called alloparenting and it has deep roots in human evolution and culture. In some parts of the world, people breastfeed monkeys and other small animals. Now, I’m not saying I’d actually go so far as to breastfeed Liesl — though if I do, I’ll be sure to set up an OnlyFans first — but I think we can look at the wide array of parenting and alloparenting behaviors that come naturally to humans beings as a beautiful thing, and evidence of our loving nature.

This is a unique historical time when it comes to motherhood. Fertility rates are low, in part because our society effectively punishes women for choosing to create life, and also because women have more options for self-realization and fulfillment outside traditional roles of wife and mother. Both paths involve considerable sacrifice, and both deserve respect.

Next time you see a 33-year-old woman referring to her dog as her “baby,” remember that what’s actually remarkable about the situation is that you’re witnessing a female human being who has the freedom to define herself and her relationship to motherhood however she wants, perhaps for the first time in human history.

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