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Pets and parenting

I spent many nights with one eye open, alert and ready to jump up at even the slightest whimper or the restlessness ...

Gulf News

According to a recent article, there’s a big difference between being the parent of a human child and the ‘owner’ of a pet.

And caring for a pet is not the same as parenting.

‘What was that again?’ I ask, and hasten to read the article that caught my eye. Especially as this is a topic close to my heart. A bit too close perhaps. That is because, decades ago, before our child was even thought about, we acquired a pet.

She came to us late one winter evening when we were living in a small cantonment in North India. It was bitterly cold. She was only four weeks old and she had probably been snatched away from her mother’s warm and furry body. She was shivering and whimpering and looked so tiny and helpless that there was no question in my mind. She came straight into bed with me and lay on my chest, hearing my heartbeat and feeling my steady breathing. I hoped both would lull her to sleep and by morning she would not be as terrified as she seemed.

That was only the beginning of almost a decade-and-a-half of a beautiful relationship.

It was my introduction to parenting: I learnt patience. I learnt sacrifice. I learnt to care for someone else above all else.

I spent many nights with one eye open, alert and ready to jump up at even the slightest whimper or the restlessness she displayed when she wanted to relieve herself. She was carried and cuddled and cosseted and — had she been a human child — she could have grown up to be impossibly spoilt and demanding.

But she didn’t. She couldn’t. She was not a human — and she could not make impossible demands.

It’s true that all I had to do was toilet-train her — and that was done in a couple of months. I didn’t have to spend years with dirty diapers and I didn’t have to get her ready for kindergarten and take her step by step through each stage of school with all its challenges and intricacies. True, I didn’t have to counsel and advise and break up fights and other debacles as she grew older, though when I took her on play dates with her friends there were times I had to get into the fray and separate her from the ones she disagreed with.

True also that as she entered the equivalent of the teen years I didn’t have to make sure she had done her homework or take up her lessons, give career counselling or listen to her tales of each day’s activities. But I had to hear what she didn’t say and I had to read her responses from her body language — and I learnt to decipher what she was saying by her gestures.

When she reached old age and grew a trifle over-sensitive, I learnt to anticipate her needs and give her the one thing she really needed from me — my undivided attention.

All this came in handy in later years with human children and adults and elders.

But she was ‘just a pet’, as this article would have its readers believe. She didn’t have to grow up like a human child and become independent of me and one day find her own special comfortable place in the world without me. So, I was not really her parent, and I could not have learnt about actual parenting from my years with her.

Then tell me, why is it that despite it being two decades since she left us for those happy hunting grounds in the pet afterlife, we, her ‘not really parents’, have not yet learnt how to adjust and find a really comfortable place in our world without her?

Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.