On Friday, the talk show posted a photo on Instagram featuring her and a friend, whose dogs were sitting in a baby stroller. Oprah captioned the image, which received almost 60K likes, “Jill and her fur children. Happy Mother’s Day to mothers of all varieties of children!”
The sentiment was clearly sincere; however, that didn’t stop commentators from exploding into debate over its meaning. “…Just don’t,” wrote one person. “All women mother in one way or another along the way, but only some carry that responsibility 24/7 for every day of their life.” Another chimed in, “Animals are animals. You’re a pet owner. Great! Not a mother. And that’s ok.”
Meanwhile, others appreciated the inclusion. “Aww, thanks Oprah!” wrote one woman. “There ’aint no childless woman’s day so this is the first time I ever felt included. Thank you!” And: “Who really gets to define who a mom is? This is 2017 and there are many ways that women mother.”
Oprah, who gave birth to a son who died when she was only 14 years old, has never hidden her unique perspective on parenthood. In February, she told Good Housekeeping U.K., “When people were pressuring me to get married and have children, I knew I was not going to be a person that ever regretted not having them, because I feel like I am a mother to the world’s children. Love knows no boundaries. It doesn’t matter if a child came from your womb or if you found that person at age 2, 10 or 20. If the love is real, the caring is pure and it comes from a good space, it works.”
She continued, “For me it was perfect, because I didn’t want babies. I wouldn’t have been a good mom for babies. I don’t have the patience. I have the patience for puppies, but that’s a quick stage! But this is so rewarding.”
Other celebrities hold an equally fluid definition of parenthood: In 2015, Kim Cattrall told the BBC, “I am not a biological parent, but I am a parent. I have young actors and actresses that I mentor, I have nieces and nephews that I am very close to.” And back in 2009, Bradley Cooper, who now has a little girl with model Irina Shayk, told People of his two dogs Samson and Charlotte, “They’re my kids.”
Families have evolved a lot over the past 50 years. According to research conducted by the Pew Research Center, mothers have increased the amount of paid work they do outside the house and fathers have upped their efforts in childcare and housework.
The meaning of parenthood has also expanded: 62 percent of cat owners and 64 percent of dog owners view their pets as family members, per research conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based group Market Research. “The term ‘pet parent’ has increasingly replaced ‘pet owner,'” research director David Sprinkle told the New York Times in February. And per the New York Post, there’s even a lucrative demand for luxury pet services: live-in nannies, swim lessons, therapists, and meal delivery. Still, the notion of pet owners as parents is hard for some to embrace.
“In many ways, caring for a pet and a child is similar,” Jonathan Alpert, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist and author of Be Fearless, tells Yahoo Beauty. “You’re responsible for meeting the logistical and emotional needs of a living being, and both parties develop a mutual attachment.”
Indeed, a study conducted in the journal Plus One found that the bond between a dog and its owner is similar to the one between a baby and its parent, due to “secure base effect,” the idea that babies regard their parents as a consistent base amid the chaos of the environment.
Despite her obvious good intentions, Oprah might be criticized for her remarks because some feel she hasn’t “earned” the title of parenthood, along with its emotional and life-altering costs to one’s identity, career, and bank account. Or perhaps the backlash is just another way society judges women who unapologetically choose not to have children.
Ultimately, says Alpert, parenthood is not a black-and-white experience. “There are far worse crimes to commit than expressing unconditional love for a living being,” he says.
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