First of all, I must say this: a cat is not a baby.
It’s true that I bottle-fed her, like a baby. And it’s true that she thinks I’m her mother, that when she kneads the blanket that covers me, she imitates the “milk trampling” of a kitten feeding. It’s also true that when everyone else I knew seemed to be pregnant and I wasn’t, I fantasized about responding to their baby photos with images of Mackerel (my cat’s name is Mackerel , because I think it’s funny to name a cat after a fish), just to see what people were saying.
But the truth remains that a cat is not a baby.
Maybe the baby picture is an illustration of how naughty I was then. I certainly felt mean, or at least jealous. I left WhatsApp groups, I avoided baby showers. I was very happy for people in public, then I went home and cried.
At the same time, I didn’t know if I should become a mother. It was a very confusing time. You might call it a personal crisis, but that makes it unique. I think a lot of women go through this: the back and forth of desire and fear. I was all scared.
I was certainly aware that there were different levels of love. Feeling love for a baby was normal. Feeling love, or at least some kind of maternal love, for a cat was somehow inappropriate.
But as Mary Gaitskill writes in her essay Lost Cat: “Who decides which relationships are appropriate and which are not? I loved – love – the mackerel. She makes me laugh every day, with her impassive face, her burlesque antics. Some days I think she might even like me, but like most cat owners, I’m probably kidding myself.
What she did, however, was teach me how to care again.
I spent most of my late teens and 20s trying to avoid caring for anyone. It didn’t always go as planned. Again and again I seemed to find myself in situations with people who needed care, some of which I designed myself.
I moved to Paris to become an au pair and, unable to deal with the behavioral problems of a child, I left one family and fell in love with another. I spent my year off caring for six amazing children, but when I returned to London with a French boyfriend in tow – who also needed care – I was craving independence.
I had grown up with a severely disabled brother – he had autism and epilepsy – and I was well acquainted with routines and self-sacrifice, exhaustion and shit, and above all, the love that comes with taking caring for a more vulnerable person. . I didn’t want any of this, I wasn’t even sure I would be, or ever could, be a mother. I felt I had done enough bottom wiping. I wanted glamour, adventure: freedom!
I also knew that the love I felt for my brother was enormous and, at times, terrifying. I wasn’t sure I had room for anything else. Not when I wanted to write.
Moreover, my life seemed unstable. I had a freelance career, I lived in rented accommodation. We had roommates. Episodes of PTSD ended this decade. Even a cat seemed unachievable.
The cat upstairs came to our house, and we fed him, despite the fact that he was supposed to be a vegetarian. I loved the feeling of domesticity that the neighbor’s cat brought with it – I had grown up with cats and a house never felt like a home without them. Once, I even went to see kittens with a view to adopting one, but I gave up at the last minute.
I was determined not to take on more responsibility, but my heart had other ideas.
Jhe kitten was tiny when my husband and I brought him home in the mind-blowing hot spring of 2020: the first lockdown, a time most of us have yet to fully embrace. Her mother had stopped feeding her, and so at only six weeks old she needed more care than perhaps I had anticipated. She also seemed so small, so vulnerable.
Several times she disappeared. She climbed and jumped off a bookcase, injuring herself. When I took her to the vet to be neutered, they couldn’t find her belly and had to slice her vertically, like they would a dog. She was determined to disembowel herself, so I slept next to her on the kitchen floor that night. I didn’t mind. In fact, I liked taking care of her. It gave me a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Caring for a kitten made me happy at a very difficult time, and on the worst days of the pandemic, feeding him was the only thing that got me out of bed in the morning. It was good to be needed. As in the case of a friend who adopted a cat shortly after a miscarriage, caring for a pet has helped me understand my complicated desire to have a baby.
At the same time, I was aware of historical stereotypes about women and cats: that women who love cats too much are mentally unstable loners who live on the fringes, fulfilling their thwarted desire to be mothers. Look at the persecution of witches. These were often women who lived alone and either had no children or possessed the wisdom of plants to terminate a pregnancy. A woman without children was suspicious, even diabolical.
Maybe if we hadn’t been confined, I would have received more sharp comments; people would have assumed that I was using the cat as some kind of starter baby. However, confined as we were to the domestic sphere, I managed to escape these remarks. But the gendered assumptions about cat ownership interested me. The threat posed by childless and childless women to the “natural order” seemed to me to be inherent in this idea of the “crazy cat.” And even though I had always felt on some level that I wanted children, and if something like this cat only increased that desire, the more I read about cat women, the more I felt deeply aware of the dichotomy that emerges between the lives of women who have children and those who do not.
Mackerel turned out to be a Trojan cat for all the things I didn’t want to face: my fear that I couldn’t give a child the life they deserved, that my mental health history meant I wasn’t not fit to be a mother. My determination not to be needed, even though being needed is part of what makes us human.
About the time I finished writing a book about it, the pope criticized people of my generation for their tendency to have pets instead of children – that it’s a form of selfishness, a dereliction of duty (I thought back to the witches, and how their persecution coincided with worries about the birth rate). Yet loving and caring for an animal is as worthwhile an endeavor as any other form of care. I really believe it.
I’m lucky. Largely thanks to Mackerel, I was able to overcome my fear and started to believe that I could be a mother. And I have to have my baby: my adorable smiling blue-eyed boy. Although it was a challenge at times, and even though I feared for him as I thought, I am happy with my choice while having immense respect for those who choose the other path. There is no one way to live a happy and fulfilled life. There are so many kinds of love in the world.
Mackerel has adapted well to my son’s presence. And he loves her too, desperately trying to caress her, although she hasn’t granted him that privilege yet.. She behaves as if she were our firstborn. Even insists. I have to remove her from her crib to put her down.
I wrote this essay in a nearby pub, after leaving them both at home with my mother, and during a break I chatted with a man about his puppy, how some people say they can be harder to work with than human newborns. But he didn’t seem to regret it. It’s another heartbeat in the house, he says. I liked that. I thought it was beautiful.