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Why millennials call their pets — and plants — babies

Cute puppy peeking out from under warm blanket. Selective focus
Millennials have begun to treat their plants and pets as children - 123RF Stock Photo

What the jokesters don’t realize is that the linguistic shift from 'owning' pets and plants to 'parenting' them is a sign of much deeper societal change

The celebrity divorce of the decade could be about to get ugly as actor Liam Hemsworth and singer Miley Cyrus sort out how to split up their reported eight dogs, four cats and one pig.

A representative for the couple released a statement saying they “remain dedicated parents to all their animals,” setting off a series of snide remarks online about millennials — defined as the generation of young adults born between 1981 and 1996 — using the term “parents” for any relationship with a living thing that is important to them.

It’s a real phenomenon. Millennials are keeping the houseplant industry afloat with their drive to be the best possible “parents” to their leafy “babies.” In 2016, a woman took her ex-husband to court in Saskatchewan hoping to have the couple’s disagreement over their dog treated as a child custody dispute. The judge threw out the case, chastised the couple for wasting the court’s time, and ruled definitively that pets are property with no “familial rights.”

Older generations have seized this low-hanging comedy fruit. Millennials are too irresponsible, shiftless and debt-ridden to take care of real babies. Ha ha. We get it. But what the jokesters don’t realize is that the linguistic shift from “owning” pets and plants to “parenting” them is a sign of much deeper — even spiritual — societal change.

Galen Watts, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University who has studied millennials and spirituality, says part of it — but just part — is that many young adults, for economic or personal reasons, are delaying the “traditional markers of adulthood” like home ownership and marriage. Others reject these goals entirely.

“I would see the raising up of pets and plants to the status of children as a reflection of this generation’s widespread rejection of that traditionalist view,” Watts said in an email.

“Many millennials would say that what makes any kind of caring relationship special is not the fact that it meets some objective criteria … but because of the level of emotional commitment or depth the carer feels inside,” Watts added. “Meaning-making for young people today has to do fundamentally with relationship — cultivating, protecting and nurturing relationships with other living beings.”

These ideas are in line with the research of Elizabeth Drescher, a professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University and author of Choosing our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones. Millennials are more likely than any other group to identify as religious “nones” — people with no affiliation with a formal religion.

Drescher draws on a large sociological survey of American adults that asked people to identify the most spiritually significant activities in their lives — without defining “spiritual” or “significant” for them. She called the themes that emerged “the four Fs of contemporary spirituality”: spending time with friends and family, preparing and sharing food, and being with “Fido” — the animals we love. This was true of religious and nonreligious people, although the religious tended to prioritize family more.

Drescher said this is part of a long-term shift away from understanding spirituality as a set of beliefs and doctrines, and toward an “ethic of care.”

This very millennial spiritual outlook, “takes the relationship between parents and children and family members as a model of how we’re meant to care for each other,” Drescher said in an interview. “I think when we see people, whether they’re millennials or not, thinking of themselves as having a parental relationship with pets or plants, they’re applying that ethic of care to a cultivation of the spirit.”

In some ways, this care ethic has supplanted organized religion as a source of meaning-making for millennials, Drescher said. This generation grew up hearing an awful lot about hateful language from religious extremists of all stripes, from the Taliban to the Westboro Baptist Church. They’ve come to believe those religions, and maybe religion in general, is antithetical to the principles of caring they hold dear. So instead, they direct their “moral energy” toward what they have at hand, Drescher said — even if that’s a cactus.

Conversations with millennials about their furry and leafy children revealed that they hold these things as deeply meaningful and sacred in their lives.

Some people said they know that if their plants are dying they’re not taking care of themselves: plants and people need water, love and natural light.

Erika Doner, who spends anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours caring for about 30 houseplants every day, said she thinks of them as babies because they need her intervention to survive.

Being a “plant mom” is prioritizing the care of your plants and making a commitment to keep them happy, she said: “It’s like an act of stewardship that becomes very personal.”

Doner’s not in a life situation that allows her to have kids, or even pets, right now.

“I have resorted to putting my maternal instincts into caring for plants. I can see myself having children and pets in the future, but it is not a reality for me right now.…  I find it is very rewarding to nurture my green friends and to watch them grow, change, recover and exist,” she said.

Yaby Aklilu, 28, said in our disconnected technological world, pets and plants “end up being your most immediate family.”

Sarah Ahmad, 38, an HR professional, lives with her partner and two-year-old yellow Labrador retriever Marlowe, whom she loves like a child. She calls her just that, and only got Marlowe once she felt she was settled and could give the dog the best possible life.

She said “it’s a completely different relationship” than she had with her pets growing up on a farm with four kids, dogs, horses and guinea pigs.

“We loved our pets … but Marlowe sleeps in our bed,” Ahmad said. She said before getting the dog, she always felt she should want children, even though she didn’t, really.

“After I got Marlowe, and her filling that need for me to take care of something, she changed my life. And I felt that I didn’t need to have kids because I had so much love for her.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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