Editor’s Note: FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth for September, 2021 is Parenthood. We invite submissions on the many layers of being parents, having parents and navigating the social norms of parenting throughout the month. If you’d like to contribute, kindly email your articles to firstname.lastname@example.org
One of my greatest achievements last year was getting Olive to fall in love with me. At first, she was shy and a bit standoffish. She took to my husband instantly, following him around the house and sitting on his lap for cuddles. But for her to love me, it took me instances like getting up in the middle of the night to feed her, or give her water, or play with her.
It took patience and perseverance to interpret her every action and try to understand what she wanted. But finally, one random June morning, Olive was not satisfied with cuddles from her dad, she wanted her mommy. Olive is our 2-year-old cat.
We first got Olive and her brother, Mushroom, when they were about 4 weeks old. My husband and I had been contemplating getting cats for a while. Finally, we decided to go for it. We called up an NGO to ask about the adoption process. The kind lady at the organisation explained the process and told us to visit her shelter over the weekend to look at the cats there.
We were excited and nervous. About half an hour later, the lady from the NGO called again. They had found 4 baby kittens. Their mother had been killed in a motorcycle accident. Would we be interested in adopting 2 of them? It felt like fate. They came to our house that very same night in a big brown box. Two shivering little babies, meowing in hunger, disoriented at the sudden change in their lives.
As a first-time pet parent, I had a lot to learn, their food habits (they would howl for food when they were little), litter box hygiene (we scoop poop every day), vet visits (oh the vehement protests in the carrier), vaccinations (they have a little vaccination record with their names and birthdays), neutering surgery (necessary but oh so scary), and many more.
I also learned many hilarious and adorable things, like Mushroom loves to sit in the toilet, Olive likes to drink water only out of human glasses, and that both of them are terrified of the vacuum cleaner.
I learned that cats have distinct personalities. Mushroom is very friendly with complete strangers. He rubs up against the legs of anyone who comes home. He also makes up games for himself where he drops a toy in a box and then tries to take it out. But he is shy to receive affection and runs away if we pet him for too long.
Olive on the other hand, is very shy with strangers. She runs and hides. But when it’s just us, she practically demands cuddles from my husband and me. She is also incredibly agile. She jumps on the tallest cupboard and lands back down with precision. Olive is very attached to my husband, and he, in turn, is her slave.
I remember, once, we had to go out of town for two days and when we came back Olive was furious at my husband. She refused to look at him or come near him. How dare you leave me? She seemed to say. And we agree. Ever since we got the cats, travelling anywhere comes with a massive dollop of guilt.
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It is heartbreaking leaving them alone, albeit with a trusted cat sitter. We were never travel bugs, but now it takes a truly special occasion to convince us to go anywhere. I do wish we had more options so that we could travel with them. India is not a pet-friendly country yet. But we are getting there. India is one of the fastest-growing pet care markets in the world.
On Instagram, I keep getting advertisements for every kind of pet product imaginable, from cat trees to specialty cooked food, to designer dresses for cats. In the beginning, we spent a fair bit of money on buying fancy toys for them. Now we know better, there is no toy that grabs their attention more than a crumpled-up piece of foil or an old shoelace.
Living with two loving, affectionate, intelligent cats has taught me to be more empathetic to all creatures around me. I cannot watch any movie or TV show where an animal gets hurt. Seeing stray dogs and cats wandering about hungry and unloved breaks my heart. I plan to start fostering cats as soon as we have more space.
Had I not turned vegetarian already many years ago, I certainly would have now. It baffles me how we as humans have, arrogantly, placed ourselves above animals when we have so much to learn from them. Cats are marvelous in how they take care of their needs, enforce boundaries, and still love with such vulnerability. Their relationship with each other is truly fascinating to watch.
They have their own method of communication. Cats never meow to each other, only to humans and kittens. Using that method of communication, they have divided our house into territories for themselves and they harmoniously eat, play, and sleep, sometimes in their own spots and sometimes cuddled up together.
When we step out for work, they curl up into their spots and sleep. When we get back, they are happy to greet us and demand our attention immediately. In the elevator, on my way home, I feel a surge of happiness knowing that I am about to meet my babies. When I go to other houses my eyes dart at the knee level, looking for them.
I expect a house to have cats. Our house certainly doesn’t feel like a home without them. I didn’t expect to love two cats so viscerally. But they are charmers and have charmed their way into the hearts of the most pet-averse people. A friend of mine who has been afraid of cats all her life recently warmed up to Mushroom only because, and I quote, ‘He was afraid too but he made the effort to try to be my friend.’
My husband and I have decided, after much deliberation, to remain childfree. We don’t want to bring an innocent child into this uncertain world. We also aren’t willing to take on the responsibility. Life is hard enough just to take care of ourselves! With that background, our two little kitties give us an outlet to express all our love and affection. We give them our undivided attention and they in turn, shower us with love.
We don’t have to worry about preparing them for the outside world. We can just enjoy their company. We enjoy being parents to them. I know some older parents who have been very strict parents to their human children all their lives, but now unabashedly love on their fur babies.
This is the form of parenthood that works for me. It may be unconventional but it suits me to a tee. And I believe that, at the core of it, the love is the same. Raising a human child is much, much more difficult and time-intensive and has different challenges. For pet parents, there is the almost certain knowledge that our fur babies have a much shorter life span.
We know our time with them is limited. We know that we probably will have to watch them live the last few years of their lives in pain and suffering. We also worry that we may have to make a heart-breaking decision to free them from their pain. I don’t know how I will deal with that when the time comes but I do know that I want to give them the happiest lives possible while I can.
There are some ethical dilemmas over pet ownership. Are we taking away the freedom or the agency of the animals? My husband and I, particularly, wrestled with this when we had to neuter them. Do we really have the right to take away this fundamental instinct?
I still do not know the answer to that question. We have made our peace with it by considering the health benefits and the increased life span that indoor cats have compared to outdoor cats who, typically, only live for 3-4 years. The safety we provide them lets them be playful and relaxed. Watching them sleep with their bellies exposed (cats only expose their vulnerable bellies when they feel completely safe in their environment) makes me feel that we must be doing something right.
I have to learn as I go along because I didn’t grow up with animals. In fact, I was the person who introduced cats to my mother. My mother has never been an animal person. She is scared of all creatures big or small. But now whenever anyone asks her about grandkids, she whips out her phone to introduce her grandbabies, Olive and Mushroom.
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Manasi Bavkar is an entrepreneur, running a medical animation company in Mumbai. She has a background in medicine and has completed her MBBS from Grant Govt Medical College, Byculla. She enjoys writing, knitting, board games and raising her two cats. She may be found on Instagram and Twitter
Featured Image: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India