For the last two years, a bird has made its nest under our front stoop. A cardinal, I think. The male flaps about the yard in his bright red plumage. The female, quiet and dull brown, sits upon her nest. Opening the front door is enough to scare her off the stoop and onto the upper branches of a tree. I’ve gotten used to the frantic fluttering of wings whenever I leave the house. At first, this bothered me. Some mother, I thought, who leaves her little chicks behind at the first sign of danger. That sounded like the simple logic of an animal. Survival at any cost. Better them than me. But the more I’ve thought about it—which is every time I leave or return home—the more I believe that bird knows what she is doing.
There is a case where putting our children above everything is dangerous, for us and for them. I’ve never tried to touch the nest or do anything to it beyond snapping a quick picture. For all I know, the birds might come peck me if I snatched their eggs. It wouldn’t matter. No defense they could mount, whether anyone was sitting on them or not, would stop me from taking those eggs. If I were a fox, I may be happy to find the mother waiting there too. She can only find a good spot to make the nest and hope nothing happens to them. She can’t protect the eggs from me or whatever else might come out of our house. But she can try to protect herself, because she knows that her eggs are hopeless without her. The chicks don’t need her selfless sacrifice. They need her to keep them warm and bring them food. Ensuring her own health and survival first may be the best thing she can do for them. It may mean she is exposing them in danger. It may be taking a risk. Having children always is.
I’m thinking of Christine, who had severe postpartum anxiety after the birth of our first child. She was paralyzed to the point of having panic attacks by worry that she or something else would harm Virginia. The fear often left her unable to get out of bed, unable to work, unable to enjoy time with her new daughter. Her overbearing concern for Virginia’s well-being interfered with her ability to care and provide for her. What she had to do was stop worrying about Virginia and take care of herself first, to trust that Virginia would be okay. She went to a counselor and a doctor. Once she got her thoughts and hormones settled, she was a happier and better mother, the person you know today, who has such a sweet and deep relationship with Virginia.
One thing Christine had to overcome was her guilt over working some days instead of staying home full-time. She had to learn that she was someone who needed to work for her own good. She enjoyed what she did and the purpose it provided. She felt frustrated and lost of what to do when at home. As a consequence, she was a better mother and wife when she worked. She could come home and spend quality time with us. On days she spent at home, she was exhausted and frazzled by the end of the day, irritable with both me and Virginia. That’s not true of everyone—some mothers (or fathers) are happier being at home—but it is true that wholly devoting yourself to what you think your children need or to the parent you think you are supposed to be at the expense of your own personality and desires will probably end up with everyone getting less of what they need.
Our children don’t need a compromised Christine; they need a mother who is a full person. Parenting involves a lot of sacrifice, of time and money, possessions and sleep, convenience and television choices, but not of our selves. Who we are is a gift we bring to our children, to inspire and guide and delight and connect with them. Cultivate it. Protect yourself. Fly away for a moment if you must. Your children need you. That’s the thing about the mama bird. She may have left, but only so she could come back.