Published on November 10th, 2022 | by Maria Hanley


Mama Bird

On the second Friday of the new school year, my seventh grader fastened his seatbelt, leaned over the giant backpack in his lap, and sobbed. “I don’t want to go to school.” His emotion was explosive and raw, yet I had failed to sense it bubbling beneath the surface. Instantly unsettled, I reached for him. Like a mama bird, my instinct was to pull him back into the nest, where I could wrap my wings around him and shelter my baby from the perilous world.

With some deep breaths, he revealed a looming quiz for which he felt unprepared, following a missing assignment (he swore he’d turned it in) that had skewed his overall grade to a D. My mind spun with concern, instantly churning out reassurances and possible solutions. But as I dropped off my son at school, his backpack sagged low on his back like a pair of broken wings, and he hung his head. My heart ached each time he plodded forward, away from me and further into the certain ordeals of the day. We’re only as happy as our most miserable child, aren’t we? There is truth in these words, and as the teenage years set upon our household, this truth has never felt more relevant.

While his brothers had a smooth start to the school year, my middle son’s transition to junior high has been rocky on several fronts. He has cried tears of frustration trying to navigate a new digital learning platform, banged his fist attempting to decipher a teacher’s grading system, and fretted over the missing assignment. For a kid who has always enjoyed school along with academic success, the D shook him to the core. And the dreaded quiz? Turns out the teacher was absent, and my son was granted a temporary reprieve.

Throughout the weekend, he checked his grades repeatedly. The D throbbed red and painful, unchanging, surrounded by As in his other classes; the teacher hadn’t located the missing assignment. My son’s face fell each time he logged on. His struggle agitated me, and a protective urge simmered within. Perhaps I should email his teacher directly? Explain the situation? After all, I could confirm that he had done the work. As his mother, I desperately wanted to help him.

On Monday morning, as his brothers flew out the door, my son, not quite thirteen years old, sat silent, barely able to stomach his breakfast. Quiz day. He tipped his face into his palms, covering his eyes. The creak in his voice betrayed his youth when he said, “Mom, I really don’t want to go,” discouragement and fear resounding from his words. His love for school seemed to be slipping into a vortex of confusing educational technology, unclear expectations, and an ever-spinning carousel of assignments.

My heart, edged with panic, sank under the weight of his distress. I urged him to eat a few bites of banana and, with hollow words of support, nudged him out the door. I felt defeated, helpless, as if my maternal powers of comfort had lost their magic. How could this be? As I watched him ride away on his bike, I ducked back inside, clicking the door shut as I slid into a heap on the floor. Overcome with the feeling that I was tossing my baby bird from the nest to whatever lurked below, I hugged my knees and cried, fighting against the temptation to call him back to me, to safety.

On a physical level, our children will always be a part of us; during pregnancy, fetal cells cross the placenta, many of which are embedded in a mother’s organs in a phenomenon known as microchimerism. But what of our hearts? As mothers, biological or not, we bear witness to our children’s struggles from the moment they are born into our lives. In the early years, there was nothing I couldn’t fix with milk, a Star Wars band-aid, or a snuggle. Now we have anxiety and academic stress; bad grades and broken hearts; blood-dripping turf burns and bruised toenails from soccer practice. Tough stuff. All part of growing up, some might say, and they might be right. But there is nothing easy about it, and I’m not sure I am prepared for the heartache of it all.

I have always followed my mother’s intuition and kept my babies close, meeting their needs in the safety of a nest built for them. So, what stopped me from sending that email or running after my son, from tucking him under my wing and shielding him from the world? While my seventh grader is nowhere near fully grown, he is beginning to fluff his wings, and for the first time, the line between helping and enabling dependent behavior has blurred.

The truth is, nothing teaches a baby bird to fly better than practice and its own instinct. And while there is nothing easy about watching her babies fall, it is, incredibly, their own mother that places food just out of reach, thereby coaxing her feathered offspring from the nest and positioning them to learn essential survival skills. From a safe distance, ready to swoop in if necessary, she witnesses their struggle. They tumble over and over, spreading and strengthening their wings bit by bit, so that falling looks more like flying each time.

Photo by James Lee on Unsplash

On Monday afternoon, my son breezed in from school, his chin lifted with an air of confidence. My heart surged with cautious hope. With a sheepish grin, he said, “I got a hundred percent on my quiz.” I gasped. The dreaded quiz! There was more. “Oh, and my teacher found my missing assignment under a stack of papers. Now I have an A.”

I squealed, jumping up and down, nearly falling from my roost. My heart eased, syncing with his, and I knew my joy was rooted not in his mood, but in the fact that he had triumphed without my help. Pulling him into a tight embrace, I realized that my boy had surpassed me in height as I rested my head on his shoulder. He laughed at my antics and hugged me back, wriggling away a moment later.

This is, by no means, the worst or last of my children’s struggles. What felt like a hurricane turned out to be nothing but a few gusts of wind, nothing my boy couldn’t navigate. His wings got a little stronger, his flying skills that much better. While my heart will forever bear the ups and downs of my children’s flight paths, I have learned to have faith in the process. For now, I perch on a nearby branch with a clear view and watchful eye, as they plummet, loop, and eventually soar.

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About the Author

Maria Hanley’s work has appeared in Discretionary Love, Grande Dame Literary Journal, Potato Soup Journal, and placed second in the 2021 Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition for memoir-vignettes. When she’s not actively parenting two teenagers and an eight-year-old, she writes. She lives in Santa Barbara, California, with her husband, three sons, and two cats. Follow Maria on Twitter and Instagram @MHanleyWriter.

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