First of all, I must say this: a cat is not a baby.
It is true that I fed her with a bottle, like a baby. And it is true that she thinks I am her mother, that when she kneads the blanket that covers me, she is mimicking the “milk-treading” of a feeding kitten. It is also true that, when everyone else I knew seemed to be pregnant and I was not, I used to fantasize about responding to their baby photos with pictures of Mackerel (my cat is called Mackerel, because I think it is funny to name a cat after a fish), just to see what people said.
But the truth remains that a cat is not a baby.
The baby photo thing is perhaps an illustration of how I was mean, then. I certainly felt mean, or at least, jealous. I left WhatsApp groups, I skived baby showers. I was very happy for people in public, and then went home and cried.
At the same time, I wasn’t sure if I should become a mother. It was a very confusing time. You could call it a personal crisis, but that makes it sound unique. I think lots of women go through it: the push-pull of wanting and fearing. I was all fear.
I was certainly aware that there were different levels of love. To feel love for a baby was normal. To feel love, or at least a kind of mother-love, for a cat was inappropriate, somehow.
But as Mary Gaitskill writes, in her essay Lost Cat: “Who decides which relationships are appropriate and which are not?” I loved – love – Mackerel. She makes me laugh every single day, with her deadpan face, her slapstick antics. Some days, I think she might even love me, but like most cat owners, I am probably deluded in this.
What she did do, though, is teach me how to care again.
I spent most of my late teens and 20s trying to avoid looking after anyone. This didn’t always go to plan. Again and again, I seemed to end up in situations with people who required looking after, some of which I engineered myself.
I moved to Paris to become an au pair, and, unable to cope with the behavioural challenges of one child, left one family and fell in love with another. I spent my year off caring for six amazing children but when I returned to London with a French boyfriend in tow – who also needed looking after – I craved independence.
I had grown up with a severely disabled brother – he has autism and epilepsy – and I was well versed in the routines and self-sacrifices, the exhaustion and the shit, and most of all, the love that caring for a more vulnerable person entails. I wanted none of that, wasn’t sure even that I would ever, or could ever, be a mother. I felt I had done enough bottom wiping. I craved glamour, adventure: freedom!
I also knew that the love I felt for my brother was gigantic and, at times, terrifying. I wasn’t sure that I had room for anything more. Not when I wanted to write.
Besides, my life felt unstable. I had a freelance career, lived in rented accommodation. We had roommates. Episodes of PTSD bookended that decade. Even a cat seemed unfeasible.
The cat from upstairs used to come into our place, and we used to feed him, despite the fact that he was supposed to be a vegetarian. I liked the feeling of domesticity that the neighbour’s cat brought with him – I had grown up with cats, and a house never felt like a home without them. Once, I even went to see some kittens with a view to adopting one, but backed out at the last minute.
I was determined not to take on more responsibility, but my heart had other ideas.
The kitten was tiny when my husband and I brought her home, in the warm, hallucinatory spring of 2020: the first lockdown, a time which I believe most of us are yet to fully process. Her mother had stopped feeding her, and so at just six weeks old, she required more looking after than I had perhaps anticipated. She also seemed so small, so vulnerable.
Several times, she disappeared. She climbed and jumped from a bookcase, injuring herself. When I took her to the vet to be neutered, they couldn’t find her womb and had to slice her vertically, like they would a dog. She was determined to disembowel herself, so I slept next to her on the kitchen floor that night. I didn’t mind this. In fact, I liked looking after her. It gave me a sense of purpose and fulfilment. Looking after a kitten made me happy at a very difficult time, and on the worst days of the pandemic, feeding her was the only thing that got me out of bed in the morning. It felt good to be needed. As in the case of a friend who adopted a cat shortly after a miscarriage, caring for an animal helped me understand my complicated longing for a baby.
At the same time, I was aware of the historical stereotypes about women and cats: that women who love cats too much are mentally unstable loners who live on the margins, acting out their thwarted desire to be mothers. Just look at the persecution of witches. These were often women who lived alone, and who either did not have children or possessed the herbal wisdom to terminate a pregnancy. A woman without children was suspicious, even devilish.
Perhaps if we had not been in a lockdown, I’d have received more barbed comments; people would have assumed that I was using the cat as a sort of starter baby. However, confined as we were to the domestic sphere, I managed to escape those remarks. But the gendered assumptions about cat ownership interested me. The threat posed by childless and childfree women to the “natural order” seemed to me to be inherent to this idea of the “crazy cat lady”. And though I had always felt at some level that I wanted children, and if anything loving this cat only increased that desire, the more I read about cat women, the more I felt acutely aware of the dichotomy that is drawn between the lives of women who have children and those who do not.
Mackerel turned out to be a Trojan cat for all the things I didn’t want to confront: my fear that I couldn’t give a child the life they deserved, that my mental health history meant I was unworthy of being a mother. My determination not to be needed, even though being needed is a part of what makes us human.
Around the time that I finished writing a book about it, the pope criticised people of my generation for their tendency to have pets instead of children – that it is a form of selfishness, a dereliction of duty (I thought again of witches, and how their persecution coincided with anxieties about the birth rate). Yet to love and care for an animal is as valid an endeavour as any other form of care. I truly believe that.
I am lucky. In large part thanks to Mackerel, I was able to get past my fear, and began to believe that I could be a mother. And I got to have my baby: my lovely, smiley, blue-eyed boy. Though at times it has been a challenge, and though I have feared for him just as I thought I would, I am happy with my choice while holding immense respect for those who choose the other path. There is no one way to live a happy, fulfilled life. There are so many kinds of love in the world.
Mackerel has adjusted well to the presence of my son. And he loves her too, is desperate to stroke her, though she hasn’t yet afforded him this privilege. She behaves like she is our firstborn. Insists upon it, even. I have to remove her from his crib to put him down.
I wrote this essay in a nearby pub, having left them both at home with my mother, and while taking a break I got chatting to a man about his puppy, how some people say they can be harder work than human newborns. But he didn’t seem to regret it. It’s another heartbeat in the house, he said. I liked that. I thought it was beautiful.
• The Year of the Cat is published by Tinder Press on 19 January