Three years ago, we got our first baby – an adorable cat. We went to pick him up in a village located in the Dutch bible belt. It might be surprising that such a place exists in this country well known for its legalized drugs and red light districts. Yet in these flat lands everyone is allowed to be in ecstasies spiritually, chemically or sexually.
When my partner and I went to get our kitten, we received a box filled with food, toys and obviously a bible. Was it for us or for our cat? Hard to know. But when we saw the sacred book, we knew that we should never disclose to these cat breeders the name that we had picked for our adorable kitten which was… Mao. I am sure that they would not have approved of the name: communism is not a political regime that appreciates having to share its power with the Almighty.
We are not communists. Oh non. We chose this name because we thought it would be funny to scream the name of a mass murderer in our bourgeois neighbourhood: “Mao! Mao! Come home now!” Ah, the naughty little pleasures of life.
A baby pet is like a baby human
The adoration, the love we have for animals and their dependence on us is similar to children.
The first few months, the resemblance to a human baby was striking. Mao would cry at night to be comforted; he had to be taught boundaries – for instance, not to bite, just like my 1 year old daughter; and we had to learn to accept his personality. Just like every parent, we had an ideal picture of how he should be, but unconditional love does not work this way.
Indeed, the first year I often had to have serious talks with my cat:
-“Mao, this is not the first time that I am addressing this subject with you. I think you are acting quite ungratefully. We allow you to go out to play in the garden, but each time, J. needs to pick you up after. And then you cry so loud that you can be heard as far as the first functioning windmill. Do you realize that you are the only cat who has its owners constantly coming to pick him up? And do you realize that you never say thank you to J.? He climbs walls to grab you, he rings at every door to find you. And yet – no thank you.”
He looked at me and unperturbedly, he replied:
-“I am testing your parental skills. You are two selfish adults who are unaware how it is to genuinely worry about someone else. I am teaching you how to do so. In other words, I am helping you by giving you a glimpse of how things will be when you will have an actual bébé. And he will most certainly not say thank you! So just get over yourselves.”
As he said these last words, he then turned his back on me, tail pointing straight up to show me his perfectly cleaned circular digestive exit, and walked elegantly away. I was speechless because he was very right.
Mao’s thirst for freedom has not been without any consequences. And I am not talking about his weekly escapades in the neighbors’ gardens in order to give us a moral lesson.
One Saturday evening, my partner and I went out and when we came home, feeling light and joyous, our little one was at the door of our balcony waiting for us to come home. We opened the door to let him back in and his right back leg was up in the air. My partner, the cardiologist, palped it and he recommended that we wait and see. With this answer, he was the perfect archetype of the Dutch doctor. Indeed, that is what all Batavian medical staff with “Dr.” as their initials would say, regardless of disease: drink some water and take a paracetamol. Anyway, I needed to trust my partner.
Sunday came and went: Mao was still limping- and we were still wondering how on earth did he hurt his leg like that. Anyways, Dr. “time is the best medicine” recommended we wait one more day.
Monday: I called the vet at work , who urgently told me to come in first thing on Tuesday. Straight away, I informed my boss that the next day, I would be arriving later at work. My cat maybe had a broken leg.
Tuesday: I went to the vet and waited nervously for the diagnosis: Mao needed an operation the next day. I brought back my cat home and worked from home.
Wednesday: I went to work for one meeting, left work mid-morning, picked up the cat, and brought him for his operation. I kissed my cat good luck, and then rushed back to the office. At noon, they informed me that he was being operated upon. At one they called to tell me he was still alive, asking when I could come by to pick him up. People at the office were understanding and so I left straight away to pick up our baby. When I arrived there, the vet, a man with an average Dutch height, about two meters tall, explained to me that my cat would need to be locked in a big cage for the next six weeks.
So here we were , our little sweet family with our bébé in a 1 x 2 m cage in the middle of our living room; living, swearing like a drunk hooligan, indulging in his role as the living proof of the paradoxical concept of freedom: it was by indulging too much in his freedom that he had lost it entirely. Oh Mao!
My company is very pet friendly. We do not officially have a “pawternity leave”, but it is as though we do have it. While I was thanking my now ex-boss for her flexibility, we started chatting about animals.
-“V. I understand the stress that you have endured,” she began with genuine empathy. “But we shall not forget that in the end, pets are not human children.”
“They are not children.” I slowly echoed her words before continuing:
-”If my child had a broken leg, I do not think I would have dropped him off at the hospital and then rushed back to answer clients’ emails. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, I would not put him in a cage in the middle of my living room.” I answered.
-“Hmmm…” she replied nicely, flashing me a kind smile that meant as well please stop talking to me you are annoying.
But then I couldn’t resist to go all French on her, ready to throw my fist in the air, wanting to march through the canals, and I went for a long tirade that I will sum up here in a few words:
-“I do not understand why we do not have a pawternity leave. The last few days, I had the freedom to come and go to take care of Mao. But I sincerely do not understand why it is not in our company’s handbooks and contracts. If we have animals we must be entitled to 3/4 days a year of pawternity leave. We may do things to them that we wouldn’t do to our children. I mean we spray Mao with water to teach him not to climb on the dining table and we wouldn’t do that to our child. We may apply different methodologies on them , but they are a family member. They are in us. […]” and I went on, and on, carried away by the sound of my voice and my revolutionary humanistic thoughts. This ex-boss really couldn’t stand me.
Although there was some pretentiousness in the delivery of my speech, the content is indisputable. It must be a basic right. Therefore pawternity leave should be granted to every employee. If my cat is sick it should be taken as seriously as if it were my bébé. Because it is like my bébé. And still is, even if I have a daughter.
Is the love for your pet as strong as for your baby?
When I was pregnant, I heard a lot of mothers telling me: you see, right now you have projected all your motherly love on your cat. But, once your daughter will be here, your cat will not be as important.
Indeed, for the first 8 weeks when my daughter was born, Mao and I were not on the best of terms. He was angry that I had in my arms such a noisy and ugly looking thing, while I could not focus on anythingelse than my beautiful mole that I had created. However, when things settled, I realized that my love for Mao had remained intact. I had missed him terribly for two months. As Anatole France says: “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
And every day, I am reminded of my deep connection for my Mao as well as for my daughter.
Last week, J. left for work, and then came back seven minutes later. I saw him pull over in front of the house. He went out of the car, looked at me, then slowly opened the back door of the car, and gently, delicately, took out Mao, who was immobile. He stood there for a few seconds holding our baby. I broke down. I immediately understood that he was dead. He had been hit by a car.
I was in hysterics. The pain was as if I had lost one of my best friends. At that moment, I did not even think of my one year old daughter, who was standing next to me, looking at me, clueless.
The only difference that lies between my love for my animals and children, is, if god forbids, something happened to my daughter, I am terrified to even put these lines down, I know I would not survive. I know that it would be my end. That is the only difference.
Right now, I am mourning a family member, my blood, my flesh, my best friend, who loved freedom over everything and perhaps paid the price for it too young. But my partner and I do not regret granting him this liberty because without it he would have been extremely unhappy; he wouldn’t have been our beloved Mao. There is only one way of loving someone or an animal and it is not about preserving them, it is about accepting who they are.
Thank you, Mao for teaching us this lesson of unconditional love.
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