“Self-partnered”, “doggie moms”, and “doggie dads”

A look at three new linguistic contortions

The 29 year-old Emma Watson is best known for her roles in those Harry Potter films. (I have thus far managed to avoid seeing any of them—along with the Twilight movies.) 

Watson has given us yet another unnecessary neologism—just what we needed.  According to various media outlets, Watson, who is both unmarried and romantically unpaired, prefers to refer to her status as “self-partnered”. 

Watson recently told Vogue:

“If you have not built a home, if you do not have a husband, if you do not have a baby, and you are turning 30, and you’re not in some incredibly secure, stable place in your career, or you’re still figuring things out… There’s just this incredible amount of anxiety….It took me a long time, but I’m very happy [being single]. I call it being self-partnered.”

This is no mere off-the-cuff whimsey. Watson is serious about this, apparently. According to People, she “rejects” the word “single”.

But the word “single” is a far more accurate description of the unpaired than “self-partnered”. The notion of being partnered with oneself is meaningless, really, because there is no way to de-partner from oneself, save through death. We’re all “self-partnered”… even if we happen to be married and have five kids. 

One of the conceits of the “self-esteem” craze of recent decades is that we must never be told we are lacking. Each of us must be validated in every way. “Inclusion” must be perfect, too, such that everyone is included in all things. We see here the logic of the participation trophy taken to the nth degree.

Last Mother’s Day and Father’s Day two new terms came to my attention: Doggie Mom and Doggie Dad. These neologisms are especially popular with married or cohabiting couples who don’t have children.

Co-opting the language of self-esteemism, a writer at The Bark put the matter as follows:

 “Inclusivity is important. It’s a lesson that many parents put at the top of the list when it comes to teaching their children to be good, kind citizens of the planet. Mother’s Day is a perfect opportunity to put this lesson into practice by celebrating all forms of motherhood.

As dogs are increasingly viewed as members of the family and many people refer to them as ‘fur kids’ or as ‘my babies’, it makes sense for there to be room in this holiday for the mothering of dogs to be celebrated.”

Hallmark has even introduced a line of Mother’s Day cards specifically for “dog moms”. But never fear: A quasi-official Canine Mother’s Day was declared in 2018, though they are still working on promoting it. 

Dog owners certainly make sacrifices to keep their pooches healthy and happy. On frosty mornings here in Cincinnati, I don’t envy all those canine enthusiasts walking around behind their mutts with their plastic poop bags. I also don’t doubt that many pet owners feel genuine affection for their animals.

But maintaining an animal simply can’t compare with the sacrifices, commitment, and social contribution of being a parent. Nor can it compare with the reward of successfully completing the twenty-year task of raising another human being.

For fifty years, the Western world has experienced a decline in what might be called “family culture”. More people are marrying later, or remaining single (or “self-partnered”, if you prefer). This means that many of us are also skipping parenthood. 

There are many factors behind this: careerism, the sexual revolution, and a culture of birth control and abortion. 

Trends like this have results, at multiple levels. At the macro level, the decline of family culture has led to shrinking, aging populations. This is the root cause of the migrant crisis in Europe. For decades now, the Europeans have been forced to import people from the nearby Muslim Middle East. They do this partly for ideological reasons, but also because Italians, Germans, and native-born Britons no longer have the gumption to reproduce themselves.

At the individual level, a personal absence of family culture leads to a sense that one has not completed a key element of human experience. We are the descendants of generations of humans who cared about reproducing and raising children, after all. It is no exaggeration to say that that desire is in our genes.

You could counter with the quite legitimate argument that marrying and raising kids isn’t necessarily the sine qua non of a happy and productive life. And as duly acknowledged above, it requires sacrifice. We’ve all known people who married and had children because that was what they thought they should do—while they were actually more devoted to their careers, or their academic pursuits, or hedonism.

In the context of the “self-partnered” neologism, the issue is less the forgoing of marriage and children, than avoiding the realization that one is making a choice to forgo something of value. (This is the root of my objection to “doggie mom” and “doggie dad”, too.) There are valid reasons for passing on marriage and family. But one should not delude oneself about the nature of that choice. 

As for me: I’m fifty-one years old, single (not “self-partnered”), and childless (not “child-free”). I have no intention of purchasing a dog, a cat, or a hermit crab, and pretending that I’m the creature’s father. I don’t actively envy my friends who are married with children, but I do acknowledge that they have an entire dimension to their lives that mine lacks. 

Of course, my life has its perks, too. It’s all about tradeoffs. It always is. 

Back to Emma Watson. Why the mental gymnastics, the attempts to convince herself that being “single” is really “self-partnered”? Watson is an international star, after all, a twentysomething who has earned $80 million. She isn’t exactly a slacker. 

My guess: She feels that at the age of twenty-nine, she should be getting serious about settling down—if she ever intends to do so. She senses that time is no longer on her side. 

And perhaps that assessment is on-target. Even Hermione Granger is subject to the constraints of a biological clock, and simple time itself. All of us are.