Meet Dubai couples who chose pet parenthood over having kids

Is pet care-giving the new age parenting?

By Karishma Nandkeolyar

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Photo: Priscilla Selhorst
Photo: Priscilla Selhorst

Published: Thu 16 Nov 2023, 7:49 PM

Last updated: Sat 18 Nov 2023, 8:06 PM

I never knew that I had a four-legged, dog-shaped hole in my heart until I met Zeus. The tiny Westie was quick to plug the vacuum and then, he took over my life. I’d put the lights off when it was time for him to sleep, wake up every time he coughed and be nervous the day he decided the food wasn’t to his liking. I am a dog mom. When I look around, I realise I’m not alone in treating my dog like a child. It is a sentiment that has added a furry flavour to many lives, in different sizes and breeds.

Like me, Charlotte Louisa Leake is a paranoid pet parent. “I didn’t take a vacation for five years because I was super anxious and super worried about people looking after my animals, because they are my children and I worry about them the way I would worry about a child. I think the reason I actually took a vacation was because my brother moved to the UAE a year ago and he was able to come and house sit and look after them for me,” says the 37-year-old British expat, who’s also the founder of pet safety app ‘Where My Paws At’.

With changing times, the places people are looking for love and commitment are changing too. There’s a growing number of people now deciding to divert their nurturing instincts towards a pet instead of a child. For some, it’s an accidental choice, for others it’s more calculated — either way, they no longer know what they’d do without their four-legged buddies.

Pets as offspring

In Leake’s case, she fell into pet parenthood. “There was a stage in my life when we first got married that we were trying [to get pregnant]. I wasn’t disappointed in the first 12 months [when it didn’t happen]. I then decided I didn’t really want to go down the route of why it didn’t happen. I’d already got my two dogs and two cats at that point, so I felt that I was getting what I needed from a maternal point of view. Since then, we aren’t actively trying, if it happens, it happens. [Besides] the cost of living is going up. There’s so much turmoil in the world now that I think to myself ‘would I really want to bring another human being into this world when there’s so much that’s going on?’”

This perpetual anxiety about the state of the world and its finite resources is prompting more and more couples to take decisions that until now would have been frowned upon, but now seem legitimate. Take for example, Aditi Bhargava and her husband, Mayank Bhargava, who consciously chose a child-free life. At first, says Aditi, she wanted a baby but as she mentally, physically and emotionally prepared for pregnancy, she realised she couldn’t take the decision of bringing a new life into the world so easily. “We are not in that age when you can take it lightly — because resources are depleting, there is an economical and ecological strain that we are facing, and within our lifetimes we’ll come to a place where food, water and clean air will become an issue. So in our minds and in our conversations, a lot of these points were taken up…and every possible negative and positive was explored.”

The candid conversations they had were important. It made Aditi realise that while she was drawn to the idea of pregnancy, she wasn’t quite as keen on parenthood. By a happy coincidence, she and her husband decided to get a dog. It was something they had both grown up with and wanted back in their lives. “When Mia entered the house, it became very clear that this is what was meant to be,” she says.

Alluding to the undue societal pressure on people about how they must lead their personal lives, she says that we are conditioned by others. It’s believed that if a woman has maternal instincts, she’ll make a good mother, so she should have children. “But I read somewhere that maternal instincts are not just limited to children. You are maternal because you are nurturing and caring of the people around you. [You get to a point where] you want to expand yourself as a human being caring for another life, [but] that life doesn’t necessarily have to be human. I’m perfectly happy being a dog mother,” she laughs.

A conscious lifestyle decision

Egyptian couple Reem Elkadi and Zee Elzayat have been in the UAE for three years and they brought their dog, who is also named Mia, with them. Reem says she’s always deferred having children because of one reason or another. But two years into being married — she already had a dog by then – she had to face facts. “I realised I don’t want to have kids and I just want to keep dogs… She [Mia] fills our lives – you don’t find anyone who loves you like she does; she loves us more than we love each other. She loves us unconditionally. We decided to have more kids from Mia. So Mia got pregnant, she had eight babies, we gave away five and kept three. It was very difficult [giving them up]. Mia chose one, I chose one and my husband chose one. It seemed only fair.” Today, Reem is the proud parent and grandparent of three golden retrievers: Sina, Sultan and Gameela. While she doesn’t want to have children, she says if they ever decide to start a family of their own, they would adopt. “It would be better to adopt than to bring our own child into this world…[you don’t have to be related by blood to love someone].”

For some, the way to furry babies comes from a moment of epiphany, something that unexpectedly comes and takes over their lives. When 28-year-old British expat Hannah Warman came to Dubai, she thought getting a dog was a preposterous idea. “We said to ourselves, we’ll never have a dog in Dubai; it’s not fair to keep them in a one-bedroom apartment. And then, we dog-sat for one of our friends while he went travelling,” she says sheepishly. “When we had to hand the dog over to the next family [that was slated to dog-sit], honestly, it broke our hearts. And it just sort of showcased to us how much love we have to give a dog. And I think there are so many dogs and cats in the UAE that need a loving home; it was exactly what we felt we needed at that point in our lives.”

For many, having children is not merely an emotional choice. It is also a lifestyle decision. “She [their dog Lola] just completely fits our lifestyle — we have a very active lifestyle; we’re in the desert dune bashing and exploring the mountains and going on hikes. Having a dog — that fits with our lifestyle whereas doing those kind of activities is not really possible with a baby,” she says.

The joys of being a pet mama

British expat Kate Meagh hasn’t yet decided whether she’ll have babies, but she has certainly discovered the joys of being a pet mama in the past year. “She [her dog Molly] gets treated like a child, so on Christmas day she’ll have her own stocking and presents wrapped up, even though she has no idea what day it is. When we go out to dinner she’ll have her own doggy dinner or get her ice cream if we are getting a little treat. And we refer to ourselves as mum and dad when she comes out. I think she thinks she’s a little human herself and she’s treated like a princess.”

Meanwhile, Abigail Smith, who is 25 years old, has decided to take her dog, Lotus, to the UK for six weeks come summer. “My partner takes her for breakfast every morning to the dog-friendly cafes. Sometimes he takes her to the beach. We take her on drives, we take her anywhere that allows dogs really. We do a lot of socialising with her.”

Every so often, the structure of what a family looks like and what it encompasses changes. But even as the crust shifts, the core remain steady. A family is complete when it is filled with unconditional love, no matter from which quarter it comes. The unshakable bond shared between pets and people testifies this enduring familial truth.

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