Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Myth of the Cat Lady???

If you are a single woman with a cat, you no doubt have heard at least one joke, aside or comment regarding you being a cat lady now or in the future. Most people mean it as a joke and not as an insult, but I can't help but cringe. What makes a cat lady? How is a lady with a cat different than a single man with a cat or a single man (woman) with a dog? Why is there no "dog lady" or "cat gentleman?" And even more relevant in my case: why should I be ashamed to even be associated with the "cat lady" moniker? Is it only because other people seem to look down upon or treat being a "cat lady" as a negative (or at the very least, a joke)? Does it have to be a negative? Or is the negative connotation just because people don't understand why my life does not look like theirs? Would I love to be married (again) and have kids? Yes! But it hasn't happened for me (yet). Do I look for potential mates and am I open to those I find? Yes! But do I want to be married so badly that I take whatever is available, in the absence of the right person? No! Am I too picky? Absolutely not: in fact, I have so few expectations that I tend to be too forgiving and stay in relationships that don't satisfy my needs (in hindsight) far longer than most people. Is there something inherently wrong with me because I have not coupled up or had children? I hope not. While other people might find my relationship status to be a tragedy, I am intensely grateful for what I have: a wonderful family, awesome friends, and a cat that is so extraordinary he entertains all of the above. I'd love to add a husband and maybe kids to the picture, but I also realize that what I have is enough. I share my home with a cat I love deeply - who challenges me, but also loves me - more than food, more than his toys . . . more than anything. 

I feel I should make clear the difference between the "cat lady" and the "cat hoarder." I have one cat (I love him dearly, but one is enough), but many people have two or more and manage to give their cats the love and attention they need. But 100 cats? 200 cats? That's close to an illness (depending on the conditions). Each cat deserves attention, love, enough food, clean facilities, a quiet place to sleep, etc. My objection to 100 or 200 cats for one person (in one house) is that I can't imagine how each cat gets what they are entitled to. My perception is that what the person needs supersedes what the cats need. Do I do everything my cat wants? Do I drop everything every time my cat wants attention? No, to both. But I make sure I carve out as much time as possible to give him what he needs. Since it is only me, I'm his only source of love and affection and I take that job very seriously. I could not be the cat parent I expect of myself if I had more than a few cats. Some people take care of feral cat colonies or take in cats on a temporary basis because they are starving, homeless, or about to give birth - they do a great service to this world and their love of and commitment to cats is not only admirable but inspiring. These are NOT the people I am referring to; the people I am referring to are the people who are found to have a large number (60, 100, 200) of cats, where many of the cats are malnourished, sick (because of not being looked after or given adequate medical attention) or dead. That is not loving cats - that's loving cats because of a need they fill in you. To love cats, you have to see them as individuals, and just like children, respond appropriately. Of course, this also doesn't apply to "farm cats" or cats that have adequate space for their numbers. There are also "lifetime care facilities" for cats whose owners have died or no longer can care for them - but they are equipped for that number and take their duty to their residents seriously - and for the benefit of the cats. Again, it's not so much the number of cats even, than whether the person is thinking of themselves (and their needs) instead of the well-being of their cats. All the exceptions I noted, put the well-being of the cats first, even though they might care for a large number of them. Am I the perfect cat parent? No! But I do the best I can and keep in mind to whose benefit I am focused on. People who have a large number of cats for their own benefit, disregarding what is best for their cats, are not "cat ladies" because the cats are just an object or possession to them and not "cats." Do I get a lot out of providing for a cat? Absolutely! But with it comes a responsibility to make sure he is adequately fed, loved, and looked after medically. His well-being depends on me - and me only - he doesn't have access to anyone else and I take that seriously. Maybe THAT is what makes me a "cat lady." In that case, I am not ashamed in the least - I took on the responsibility for my cat and I owe it to him to follow through even when it's inconvenient or not "fun."

Originally, this was going to be my second blog post (back in March). I had a good idea of what I was going to say (started by the paragraphs above - which are still true). I researched perceived characteristics of a cat lady and I was going to address whether I fit each one. But then, Bear's tumor happened and I was faced with his mortality and the fact that my life would not be the same without him. As much as I wanted to "hide" from reality, Bear needed even more reassurance and attention - and it was a pleasure to be able to give it to him. And to see that it actually comforted him - he felt safe. So maybe I am a cat lady after all. And with Bear seeming to be back to normal, I care a lot less if other people think I'm crazy for loving my cat. So, out with the characteristics, and in with the reasons I am proud that I love my cat.

After a lot of thought, I found one of the most meaningful reasons (for me) to not be ashamed of loving and/or treating my cat well: the ability to love and respect animals is related to one's view of one's place within humanity and the value one places on life other than one's own. In earning my psychology degree, I spent a lot of time researching and studying child abuse and familial violence - and one thing I read has stayed with me for the intervening years: child abusers tend to abuse animals as well. And this makes perfect sense - I didn't need to read the studies or to have my own experiences where an abusive person to other people was also abusive to animals. Animals and children are very similar - they have needs that adults are responsible for (and dependent on), they have little choice in the matter (a five year old can't walk out and provide for himself - if he is not fed by his guardians, he starves), and they lack the cognitive abilities of an adult. Someone who hits his child for wetting the bed, might also kick a dog for having an accident inside. The abuser sees this as some kind of insult to his psyche - he or she is a narcissist who sees other people (and animals) as an accessory instead of a separate being in his or her own right. They are hostile to everyone outside of themselves that requires them to do something they feel they shouldn't have to do - no matter if it's a child with special needs or a pet who knocks the mail off the arm of a chair without meaning to. Abusers are hostile and resentful and do not respect others in their own right. Another thing that people who study child abuse recognize, is that fearing the abuser is not the same as respecting or obeying the abuser. You can yell at your cat all day - but is the cat learning anything other than to be scared of you? And if it takes terrifying your pet (or child) repeatedly - is it worth them finally making no "mistakes?"

For a long time, I wasn't sure how much animals knew about "right" and "wrong." But Bear has taught me that he knows what he's not supposed to do - and wants to make sure that I see him doing it (seemingly to get attention - it's hard to ignore a cat chewing on an electrical cord or sticking his paw in the toaster). I don't have the answer on the discipline front. Spray bottles, loud noises, plentiful alternatives, etc. have not worked with him - the only things that have worked are taping my cords to the wall and unplugging the toaster when I'm not using it. Ideal? No. But is my yelling really going to make him stop? And does it make me a better mom if he's scared of me? I'm talking about all of this because my love of animals reflects my view of humanity and my feeling of responsibility to the people around me. When I first adopted Bear, what he needed was something that I struggled to give him. He wanted to be ON me or ATTACHED to me ALL the time - which made me anxious and feel claustrophobic. I'd like to think that my adjustments to his needs (as now I need that same connectedness) - would translate into having the same capability to adjust to a child's (or anyone's) needs: the personal flexibility that allows a child or other person to be who he or she is and not feel ashamed of his or her needs within our relationship. So by loving and taking proper responsibility for a cat, I'm demonstrating my own capacity for love and connectedness with people as well.

Does this sound personal? It is. I grew up not wanting to repeat the behavior of my parents - and it gives me comfort that at least in this little way, I seem to be succeeding. A few years ago I was driving home from the vet and I was overcome with a feeling of contentment - satisfaction - and gratitude. I thought to myself that even if I never got married again or had children, THIS was enough. Does that mean I gave up on the rest? NO. It just means that I realized my life is pretty wonderful as it is. Is Bear my entire life? No. Additions are always welcome, and I have a capacity to love that could accommodate another 1,000 people. But instead of dwelling on what I don't have or might not ever have, I choose to appreciate and be thankful for what I do have. This makes me more present and mindful in my life - instead of being caught on what I "could" have, I can relax in knowing my present is just as important and fulfilling, albeit in a different way. And for me, it's impossible not to appreciate the animals and people in my life when I am of this mindset. Bear knows I love him - and tuning into and living in the present means I'm constantly showing him this. Even if I had children and a husband, I'm sure there'd be other things I'd want to accomplish - there's always SOMETHING just beyond our reach. Many people spend their lives in perpetual modes of: "when I get/accomplish/have . . . I will be happy" or similarly, "my life will 'really' begin when I get/accomplish/have . . ." It took me years to figure this out for myself: if we can't find the happiness in what we have - we will die and have NEVER been happy. 

So am I a cat lady? I hate labels - so few people fit in the extremes of life. Some times I hate that my life has turned out so differently from what I'd ever imagined. But am I embarrassed to share my life with a cat that quite frankly has a capacity for love that outstrips the majority of people I've met? No. So make fun of me - shame me - for loving and appreciating and having patience and seeing my cat for everything he is - good and bad - and then adjusting myself to meet his needs. If you know me - you know this mirrors my relationships with people. And it is connected, just like a child abuser tends to be abusive to animals, a good fur-baby Momma is a good human friend. And there's no shame in that. I think there's more shame in putting down other people for their love of living things - for their passions - for their needs - for who they are. You don't have to understand. Cats aren't for everyone. I don't bring Bear as my "plus one" to weddings nor does he come with me to celebrate holidays at other people's houses. I can have a relationship with my cat and a relationship with people. Neither is necessarily better, but I believe both to be necessary for me. And if you are a person in my life and don't want to have a relationship with my cat - eh. I think it's your loss, but I'm not going to judge you for it. All I ask is the same courtesy in return.


Momma's beautiful boy.


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