Thursday, February 25, 2016

Is mothering a thankless task?

The other day, I had lunch with some old friends, one of whom brought her daughter. G, a remarkably smart, mature and engaging 24 year old, asked us if we thought motherhood was really all that it was cut out to be. Those of us who are mothers nodded sagely while S who's single just smiled. That got me wondering about whether we're the only ones in the animal kingdom who really have a choice about parenthood.

The question was all the more pertinent because in the last couple of weeks, a pair of bulbuls have built a nest in the fiddle fig tree that's on my apartment balcony. Birds have done that in the past, including green pigeons and bulbuls, city birds I'm sure who recce around and determine that my balcony provides a safe haven against the elements and predators.

I don't know if this pair of bulbuls are the same ones who've come in the past. They worked tirelessly for a few days, fetching twigs and ingeniously weaving them (with only their beaks!) into a snug little nest tucked out of sight among the leaves. Then Mrs. Bulbul promptly laid two little eggs and proceeded to sit on them patiently. I have to make adjustments for her, avoiding going out to tend to my plants when she's around. When I see that she's gone, I quickly dart out and water them because in no time at all, she's back again, sitting in her nest. Mr. Bulbul is the ever-supportive expectant father, bringing her a fat worm or insect. If all of this has been programmed into their DNA, then I can only marvel at nature's providence

After two weeks of sitting on the eggs, two little bulbullets are now hatched and constantly chirping out to be fed. My writing desk (my dining table!) is by the balcony, so even now I can spy one of the bulbuls (I can't tell between Mr. or Mrs.) back with a tasty morsel for the baby birds.

At night, it is Mrs. Bulbul (I presume) who snuggles down to sit on the nest, keeping the babies safe and warm through the night. When I came home last night, after a heavy thunderstorm, I was concerned that she wasn't on the nest. It was colder than usual and I was worried that the still featherless baby birds wouldn't have enough insulation to see them through the night. I even turned on the lights and peered closely at the nest. It took me a while to realize that she was indeed sitting there, tucked in out of sight with only her tail feathers showing. She's usually very skittish during the day, but she didn't even budge at my approach, either tired out from all the fetching and feeding, fiercely protecting her young or simply used to my presence.

I am thrilled to be part of the bulbuls' life, and hover excitedly over every phase of the birth. I can only breathe a sigh of relief when the little ones literally find their wings and fly away. Even if my plants suffer from the lack of attention, it's all worth it, simply to help this bulbul family survive and thrive.

I wonder if the bulbuls stay in touch with their babies once they fly off. Do they worry about them having enough to eat, or finding a safe place to build their own nests? From the time my son was born, my job as a parent started and I guess it'll never quite end. I fretted over his tying shoelaces and mastering buttonholes. Then it was concern over his studies and career. Until now, even though I've been a mother for more than 30 years and my son lives in another country, I still worry about him. I've been told that I should stop mothering him, but then again, isn't that what mothers are supposed to do?

Which brings me back to my question. Should we expect undying gratitude from our kids? Our job as parents is to raise our children to be independent enough to do without us. Mothering is really a huge task, quite different from fathering. I'm fortunate that my son has turned out to be kind and respectful, providing support when I need it. But many mothers out there face heartbreak when their children are less than grateful or worse, blame them for their own unfortunate lives. Wouldn't life be simpler if we were like the birds, raising our young and then waving them off to fly away without a backward glance, the only thanks to see them take flight.

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