Are pets a gateway drug to parenting?

Loving a cat or dog can open your heart to the potential of caring for a tiny human.

Adulting in 2022

“Family is everything!” screamed countless Facebook friends sharing photos of their newborn babies in post after post on my news feed back in 2015 (and, well, today). Back then, it actually offended me. The family I grew up in was stressful to be part of as both a child and an adult. It was part of the reason I decided to never have children. I never wanted to recreate the stress of the childhood I grew up in for someone else.

I had three cats, a dog, and a lucrative career at a major media company. Regardless of the abundance of love and responsibility that awarded me, the idea of having my own child was creeping up. More and more friends were getting pregnant. I had friends who battled infertility for years, which only contributed to the volume of the ticking of my biological clock. I kept pushing the thought of my own children away, claiming my pets were the only children I would ever have. It was a much simpler relationship and I was an amazing pet mother.

This was also happening during a turning point in my comedy career. I had spent seven years climbing the comedy pyramid at a theater company I loved and when I finally got an invite to join the troupe, my castmates told me, “we’re family for life now that we’re in this show together. We’ll always be family.” I was so happy. I’d found a chosen family. Our projects were our babies. Six months later I got cut from the troupe and never heard from my “family” again.

I was in a spiral of depression. Then, my three elderly cats died in rapid succession and my dog contracted a fast moving, incurable cancer soon after.

Panic set in as I watched my colleagues posting happy photos and videos with their children over and over again. “I wish I had a family,” I whispered to myself late one night after torturing myself with a social media binge.

A human family of my own was well within reach. I was a regularly ovulating 30-something with a partner who would make a great father. I had been so scared of human motherhood but it became clear if I wanted human babies, I could probably make my own. I got knocked up on the very first try.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly brought me to that point, but having three pets I loved and cared for so deeply was definitely a factor. Parenthood as I understand it now, is full of love and laughter and all the cute shit that people post on IG — but it’s also terrifying, exhausting, and sometimes just plain sad. I had experienced all of this already with my fur children. I was ready for what felt like the next step. Were my pets a gateway drug to human parenting? Had pet parenting stoked the flames of human baby fever?

Having a “traditional” family with human children isn’t the American dream that it used to be. According to CDC statistics, birth rates in the United States have declined 20% between 2007 and 2020. One significant reason may be finances. The cost of raising children was already on the rise before the pandemic, but since 2020, parents are facing a 41% increase in child care costs. Some parents are spending as much as 30% of their income on child care.

There’s also the small issue of the entire planet being on fire. Recent studies have shown that a significant number of would-be parents are forgoing babymaking because of climate change. We can argue that having a pet, in contrast, is a noble, healthy, economically sound alternative — especially if they’re a rescue. There is something to be said, however, about how loving a cat or dog can open your heart to the potential of caring for a tiny human. Caring for my pets did this for me but it’s not a thing for everyone.

Melissa Geraghty is an Illinois-based health psychotherapist and self-proclaimed happy-to-be-childless fur baby mother. While she doesn’t consider pets a “gateway drug” to human parenting, she’s definitely observed a trend in couples practicing their parenting skills on a pet before they decide to dive into human procreation.

Loving a cat or dog can open your heart to the potential of caring for a tiny human.

“I’ve seen that a lot of couples want to start out with a dog to test out fur baby behaviors and see how they do with a puppy— trying to iron out some strategies before they have a human child,” she says. It is a very intentional practice run with the kind of baby that you can give back if it doesn’t work out. Also, raising a child together requires a lot of compromise; we’re all raised differently and that reflects our cultural values. Figuring out how to navigate these differences can be challenging and doing so with a pet could be great practice.

Geraghty has witnessed a huge shift in couples making a commitment to parenting pets only instead of having children. Issues like the massive cost of childcare, concerns about climate change, and the desire to pursue professional pursuits over parenting as strong drivers for those who choose pet parenting over child parenting. She also points to the substantial number of newly disabled people managing long COVID who are facing extra physical and mental stressors that may delay or completely disrupt their desires to have children.

So yes, there are plenty of practical reasons not to have children but what about that biological drive to procreate and propagate the planet? Geraghty believes the pressure is more social than it is biological.

“What I’ve seen in more recent years is many people talking about how they do not feel a motherly or fatherly urge to parent, but they didn't feel comfortable previously saying so because of societal expectations and societal norms; this is especially the case with women. People who do not have/want children are often wrongfully labeled as selfish,“ says Geraghty.

Zoey

Photo from Michelle Harris

Michelle Harris, a 35-year-old copywriter from Buffalo, New York, is mother to a rescued 11-year-old shih tzu terrier mix named Zoey. She was in her mid-20s when she realized human parenting wasn’t for her.

“I remember as a kid assuming I would have children of my own, because that’s the societal expectation, but I never had an actual desire to have children. Once I hit my 20s and my friends were all starting to think about marriage and families, I took the time to analyze my own feelings,” Harris says. “I kept asking my friends who knew they wanted kids ‘how’ they knew. Everyone described this strong internal desire to be a parent. I just couldn’t relate.”

Harris says adopting Zoey from a shelter has fulfilled all of her needs to nurture another living being without cramping her desire to live her own life to the fullest. “I just prefer a child-free life. I didn’t want to put my body through the trauma of pregnancy and delivery. I didn’t want to have to schedule my life around nap times or play dates or school events or anything like that. My life is my own, and that’s so important to me.”

Pet parenting may be a bridge to human parenting, a replacement for human parenting, or even a human baby deterrent for those who realize nurturing anything is just too much responsibility, but it doesn’t appear to be a gateway drug. Whether fur baby or human baby parenting is your ultimate caregiving high, in the end it’s all about creating a life that feels fulfilling — and rejecting any type of judgment thrown your way.