I got called on the carpet—very politely and graciously—but called on the carpet nonetheless. The challenge came from a viewer of our Ancient Jewish Wisdom TV show. I’m not sure when the particular episode aired so I haven’t found it yet, but I must have spoken critically about substituting pets for people. I imagine that I might have mentioned a pet food ad that irks me which shows a cat saying, “Mom, please get me….”
In her letter, our viewer said, “Susan, my animals are my family. They’re all I have. I think the old “walk a mile in my shoes” before you are so critical. My pets are there when I go to bed and when I get up in the morning. I know I’m not their Mother but they are probably the closest living thing to me.” She is making a perfectly valid point and I imagine that my words cut her, for which I am sorry. Yet, I don’t think I can leave it with just an apology.
One of the dilemmas for society is how to deal with unique individuals and their specific circumstances while at the same time maintaining public policies and social norms. At one and the same time, we want to be accepting and helpful to all, but in doing so we run the risk of normalizing things that we don’t want to encourage.
Let’s look at the example of teen pregnancy. I think we can all agree that if a fifteen-year-old girl gets pregnant and opts to keep the baby, she, her baby and society will be better off if she finishes high school. However, when the school sets up a nursery on-site and provides extra support for this mom, it sends a message to other girls that this is a viable and perhaps even a positive scenario. There is a mismatch between caring for the individual and protecting the larger entity.
Even when there is no element of mistaken behavior, there can be a conflict between a person and the group. When I was a youngster, my friends and I spent most of our summer afternoons riding bikes, splashing in backyard plastic pools and, if enough of us were around, playing punch ball in the street. For some reason, we didn’t get together in the morning. Instead, I would park myself in front of the TV and watch I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons and the rest of the morning line-up. Some of the episodes stick in my mind through today, including one from the show Family Affair. Unlike what the title brings to mind in today’s environment, Family Affair was an innocent depiction of a bachelor who unexpectedly found himself, with the help of his British valet, raising his orphaned nieces and nephew.
An episode that I distinctly remember concerned the teenage niece, Cissy, suffering as her school prepared for its annual mother-daughter evening. Understandably, the evening loomed as a painful one for the motherless girl. Granted, the school administration could have been more proactive and discussed the evening with her uncle, but it was completely unimaginable that an annual get-together would be canceled because of an orphan in the class.
I think that if the show was taped today, current sensitivities might have her school friends thoughtfully scrap the event. That did not happen in 1966. What we have seen happen in real life in the ensuing years is schools erasing Mother’s Day and Father’s Day from their calendars in order not to make children from broken homes feel bad. That became a step on the road towards insisting that all family compositions are equally positive. By not wanting to make anyone feel bad (an impossible goal – one can be sure that the fictional Cissy deeply missed her parents and that the pain would more strongly surface at major life events) we inadvertently sent a message that led to more heartache for more people.
Our society continues to send mistaken messages, among them that career is more important than marriage and family. As part of that message, we are told that animals are interchangeable with children. I have a daughter and you have a cat so we are both mothers. In parts of Europe today one can barely find a baby aisle with diapers and bottles, but one can find shelves filled with delicacies for dogs. Don’t worry about missing out on children—your pets will love you.
Naturally, there are those who are alone, sometimes even housebound, and who derive comfort, affection and a loving relationship from their pets. That is wonderful. I’m sure that I could have made it clearer that I wasn’t directing my words at those individuals. But I do think it important, as a society, that we not send a false message that at the point when people are making decisions about their future, they come to believe that a pet and a child are equivalent. So, I cringe at the idea that words of mine might have hurt someone, but I also cringe at the idea of going along with a trend towards replacing people with animals that will lead to heartache and sorrow down the road. I thank our viewer for writing and hope she understands.