KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Birth rates are down, pet adoptions are up and women who feel called to be mothers don't necessarily want to be mothers to children.
That's evident at the PetSafe dog park in downtown Knoxville, where it's hard to visit without finding a young person and their dog.
"He's almost 10 years old, but still acts like a puppy," Ashley Bulszewicz, 32, said of her dog, Gus.
The pair has been to almost every state in the U.S. together. Gus even has his own Instagram account.
"He's the reason, you know, on tough days why I got out of bed sometimes over the last 10 years," Ashley said. "He gets me up, he keeps me moving. He's a real source of joy in my life."
Kelly Billig, 23, said the same about her dog, Doug. "He's my best friend. He's hilarious, he cracks me up," she said.
Damaris Macon, 25, is also his dog Koda's number one fan. "My teammate had him. And I saw him in my dorm and like he brought him in, and I just fell in love with him," he said.
Ashley, Kelly and Damaris all have a few things in common: they're young, not married and childless—but each has a dog.
"He's my baby," Ashley said. "Instead of human babies, I have him right now."
This is not unique to these three dog owners.
Birth rates are down, pet adoptions are up and more people than ever are opting to be pet parents instead of human parents.
"We see an increasing acceptance around not having kids," Dr. Tricia Bruce, a sociologist for the University of Notre Dame but based in Knoxville, said. "And so it might be that previously, a woman felt like that was really what she had to do and what society told her to do. Whereas now we might think, well, it's an option, but it's not a requirement."
Dr. Bruce said when it comes to education, career advancement and the definition of motherhood—things are changing.
"There are the qualities of motherhood that overlap with things like self-sacrifice, drive, being a good role model and love. These are things that can play out in all sorts of forms, not just in parenting a young child," Bruce said.
That's evident with the popular title of "dog mom."
"I 100% support the dog mom and dog parent lifestyle," Ashley said. "I think that's the right choice for a lot of people long term. Dogs bring just as much love into your life as kids can."
For many like Ashley and Kelly, their dogs are their kids.
"It's pretty much the same amount of attention," Kelly said. "When he screams I have to get up and quiet him down. We're on a feeding schedule and stuff, so there are a lot of similarities and it is a big sense of responsibility."
Though that's not the way every pet parent feels.
"To each his own, but I don't know, obviously kids are different," Damaris said. "It's preparation, but at the same time, it's a kid and an animal."
Damaris is a dog dad who someday wants kids. "Why do I want kids? I don't know. In my head, who doesn't want kids?" he said.
Kelly said she'll decide later. "Maybe down the road? Yeah, but Doug is definitely enough for me right now," she said.
Ashley is in no rush. "I have nothing against children," she said. "I want children one day, but I think in the interim [having a dog] is a great middle stepping stone to get you there."
"The other group of women that we can't forget about are those who simply don't want to have children," Bruce said.
A survey by the group Honest Paws asked 400 millennial women who don't want kids—why?
Stress, the state of the world, access to childcare, and sacrificing freedom and [their] career were the top reasons.
"Think about the massive changes of young women today, compared to their, their mothers, and their grandmothers," Bruce said. "Women have gone through an extraordinary change across a relatively short period of time."
A change that for many, no longer makes motherhood a top priority in the traditional sense, but something that can come later—if at all.
"My parents settled down very early in life. They were done having kids by my age now. I have all of that still ahead of me if I choose to do so," Ashley said. "So, I think just kind of seeing the past and knowing how much more we can do with our lives before we settle down and have kids."
While some are starting to feel this way, the acceptance of altering or forgoing motherhood will change more slowly.
"There might also be some stigma, and some hesitancy to share that someone doesn't want kids or is waiting to have kids because it is still oftentimes a surprise or just something that feels different than what it was before," Bruce said.
But different can be good—especially if you're a dog with a dog mom wholly dedicated to you.
"I'll forever be grateful to him for everything he's taught me," Ashley said of her best friend Gus.