The Hardwired Bonds of Nurturing
I have a theory about pets and people without children. This theory is born out of mere anecdotal observation of friends and family, and as such it’s not very scientific. But I believe it anyway.
I have known a lot of people, couples and singles, who believe or know they are not going to have children. Sometimes this is their personal choice; sometimes the dice of circumstances or nature just rolled that way. Many of these people have pets, and when I was a younger man I could never understand their close relationship to them. Maybe a friend couldn’t go out for a beer after work because they had to go home and feed the dogs and run them; maybe they waived off a weekend rafting trip because their cats would freak out if they were gone for more than twenty-four hours; maybe they were late to work because they were up all night worried about some furball’s unexplained lethargy. It all seemed ridiculous to me at the time. You’re dogs really can’t wait another hour for kibble? So what if you cat freaks out; it’s a cat. I would roll my eyes, and promise myself I would never let myself be a slave to critters like those poor bastards.
Famous last words, eh?
Of course my wife and I did become slaves to critters – two of them in fact. We’re less slaves now that they’re teenagers than we were when they were toddlers, of course, but we’re slaves nonetheless. Willing, loving slaves. Since becoming a father, I understand better my childless friends devotion to their pets, because I see it reflected in my own devotion to my boys. Which brings me back to my completely unscientific theory:
I think that those parts of our brains that are hardwired to bond with our own children exist in people who have no children with which to bond. I think that many times nurturing a pet triggers these same neural pathways, and creates attachments to those pets that are the same as mine to my boys. I think when people joke that their dog or cat is their child, they are unwittingly acknowledging a very profound truth.
Over at Balloon Juice, John Cole is grieving over the death of his beloved cat, Tunch. As even the most casual reader of BJ knows, Tunch was also the site’s unofficial mascot, beloved as much for his improbable girth as his cool demeanor. As John describes his grief in post after post, I find my heart breaking for him. I have cats of my own that I love dearly, and I would be incredibly sad if they were to pass on. But I suspect that what John is feeling right now is closer to what I would be feeling if one of my boys were taken from me. I can’t imagine what that would feel like; I’m not brave enough to even try.
My deepest and most sincere sympathies to John, and to everyone else who has lost a critter of any type that they have spent their entire heart nurturing.
Rest in peace, Tunch.