Raising Edvard Munch: Our Foray Into Pet Parenthood

Much ado has been made in the press comparing those who opt in to parenthood to those who opt out. In particular, differences in rates of happiness between parents and non-parents are a subject of some fascination. The strain that raising children together can put on a relationship is well documented. Many new parents grow apart after having kids. One analysis of multiple studies on the subject found that marital satisfaction decreases after parenthood commences.  Another study found a negative correlation between marital quality and the presence of children.

One bonus of not having kids is avoiding the negative impact they can have on intimate relationships. Indeed, wishing to keep their relationship with their partner a priority is one of the most common reasons childfree people give for their choice not to have kids. But this doesn’t mean that the desire for companionship and interest in nurturing others that some parents cite as reasons for having kids are unimportant to the childfree. Nor does it mean that childfree couples are immune from the stresses that others from outside the couple dyad might introduce.

Edvard Munch

Welcome to the world, Edvard Munch

Parenthood for the Childfree?

For those of us without kids, interest in companionship and nurturing might be met by bringing non-human members into the family. Shortly after Lance and I got married, I felt compelled to add to our household, wanting something to snuggle but knowing that that something should not be a human baby (it just didn’t feel like the right time; later, we realized the right time was never).

Edvard Munch's The Scream (via Wikimedia Commons)

Edvard Munch’s The Scream (via Wikimedia Commons)

So, we added to our family by welcoming our cat, Edvard Munch, into our lives. We called him Munch for short, intentionally mispronouncing his name as Mun-ch rather than the proper pronunciation, Moonk. Why? Who can say. We were young. We thought it was funny.

Munch was named for the artist behind The Scream, a painting I’d spent much of my time admiring at the National Gallery in Oslo during a study abroad stint in Norway a couple of years before our wedding.

In retrospect, we probably doomed poor Munch from the start. His namesake, after all, was known to have suffered severe anxiety and feelings of persecution. Our own Munch was a bit of a terror himself, bullying guests into submission, playing coy and then lashing out, even screaming (literally) at anyone who didn’t sit right with him (which turned out to be pretty much everyone).

Once, Munch trapped an overnight guest in the bathroom for several hours in the middle of the night by stretching out in front of the bathroom door after she went in. When she emerged, Munch hissed and swatted at her as she tried to gingerly step over him to exit. After several unsuccessful attempts to cross the threshold, she opted to stay stationed in the bathroom until Munch decided to move on of his own accord.

That’s right. Despite all appearances of cuddliness to the contrary, our {fur}kid was a bully.

Munch, sporting his Maine lobster hat

Munch, sporting his Maine lobster hat

The {Fur}Kid is Not All Right

Munch’s emotional problems took a toll, on us individually and as a couple. Though we loved to entertain, it was stressful having people over. Munch’s behavior was embarrassing. We felt badly for the stress that visitors placed on him and the stress he placed on visitors.

One cat sitter, after having experienced his wrath while we were away, even went so far as to suggest that we might have abused our poor cranky four legged furry friend. I was humiliated. And pissed. We loved Munch and had never harmed him. We had our theories about the reasons for his bad behavior but without the benefit of cat counseling or being able to speak his language (considering Munch’s namesake, I tried Norwegian but it didn’t work), we were mostly stumped.

We did the best we could to care for Munch and took solace in the moments when it was just the three of us at home. It was then that Munch would relax enough to become a cozy, cuddly purr machine (at the time, an era before easy access to video camera via cell phone, it was hard to convince anyone else that he actually had this sweet side to himself).

Munch’s behavioral problems were a source of stress but even more straining was the conflict over his care. You see, I made a lot of promises in order to get Lance to agree to bringing Munch into our home. Lance liked cats but he was allergic. The biggest promise I made – and very quickly broke – was to bathe Munch weekly using a shampoo that helped control allergens.

A few weeks into our 15 years with dear old Munch, I got lazy. Munch hated the baths and they were torture on us both. Weekly baths turned into monthly baths which turned into annual baths and, eventually, no baths.

In a turn of the ultimate karmic justice, we also learned that I was far more allergic to cats than Lance. Though this fact no doubt gave Lance some moments of justified glee, ultimately we both lost out as a result. My severe allergy meant that my immune system was incredibly compromised – all the time – and I walked around with constant sniffles, susceptible to every germ that crossed my path.

In those years, I’d say that Munch – whom we both loved and were committed to keeping (we brought him into our home as a member of the family; we weren’t about to kick him out simply because he presented challenges for us) – fell into our top two or three argument topics. We were both stressed by his behavior “in public” and, pretty quickly, my sneezes turned into something that could easily trigger annoyance in Lance. With each sniffle, I reminded him of that big promise I had abandoned as quickly I’d made it.

From You and Me to Three

While I would never argue that cat-rearing and kid-rearing are exactly the same, our experience with our beloved Munch does help me understand the impact that bringing another being into one’s life and family can have. (Also, there’s some excellent research that explores how childfree people parent their pets.) Of course, as a social scientist I recognize that my personal experience may not represent everyone’s experience.

Some studies do note that pets can be a source of stress in households but the more popular belief, substantiated by some research but not to the extent that media coverage might have us believe, is that pets have a positive impact on families and relationships.

One study found that far from being a source of stress in relationships, “pet owners were just as close to key people in their lives as to their animals, indicating no evidence that relationships with pets came at the expense of relationships with other people.” But the National Center for Health Research suggests that the jury may still be out on how exactly pets impact human health and relationships.

We’ve (ok, maybe I’ve) talked about adding a (hypoallergenic) pet to the family again. We’ve got a pretty good reputation as dog sitters, if I do say so myself, and some days I think having another {fur}kid would be the cat’s meow.

Then I’m reminded (ok, Lance reminds me) of how much healthier I’ve been without pet dander sprinkled everywhere. And then we head off for a month on Roatan or in Italy or for a spur of the moment trip to NOLA or California wine country and I think maybe {fur}aunt is the best role for me.

We decided – happily – long ago that Lance plus me would never make three (at least as far as humans are concerned). It’s possible that we’re simply better as a family of two, as much as we both love to shower affection on visiting furry friends of all types.

Munch died in 2010, 15 years after our adventure with him began. This creature who we loved dearly brought us as much joy as he did grief. And, to borrow from the conclusions of most parents who lament the difficulties of rearing children, I wouldn’t take back the experience of having him in my life for anything.

So long, dear sweet crazy friend

Lance bids farewell to our dear sweet adorable hot mess of a {fur}kid

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2 Responses to Raising Edvard Munch: Our Foray Into Pet Parenthood

  1. Liz February 17, 2017 at 7:16 am #

    Thanks for sharing your story, I can totally relate! I was devoted to our handsome tabby for almost 16 years but he was a lemon, chronicly ill & not that cuddly for most of his life. I knew, seeing how he stressed us out, how much money he cost us, even though we loved him fiercely, that we made the right choice to be childfree. And now, like you, pet free for at least a while. I will miss that little bastard forever but we’re going to be traumatized for a long time.

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