Inside Out, Outside In

What we bring to the world, and what it brings to us

Can Guys Really Understand What It's Like to Be a Mother?

Boys and men may only be able to approximate the experience.

Can Guys Really Understand What It’s Like To Be A Mother?

I think we all take our moms for granted in some way, especially men.

Despite how much we love our mothers, how much we have always depended on them, as men we not only take them for granted, we have no clue what it’s like being a mom.

This came to me today oddly enough in an encounter I had with a raccoon.

But before I relate that story, let me give you the backdrop. I didn’t put it together at the time this morning in my rush to get to work, but having thought a lot about it, it makes sense in the context of a relationship I had with a baby robin growing up.

My pet robin:

When I was nine years old, I found a baby robin in my back yard. Apparently it fell out of its nest and was hobbling around the yard. I gently picked it up and called my mother. We assessed that it injured its wing. It was really young and eyes seemingly too big for its small featherless head. It looked more like an alien than a baby bird, and at that stage I didn’t know it was a robin.

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I was a pretty avid animal collector. My mom would roll her eyes as I brought home frogs, snakes, and mostly big box turtles that I kept in boxes outside or in our back porch. Most wildlife eventually died, but I got to play zookeeper, trying fruitlessly to feed them and get them to like me.

Frankly the only animals who really liked me were my dog and my cat. My fish couldn’t care, though I thought they did when they rose to the top of the aquarium, knowing I was going to feed them. And my pet alligator didn’t pay any attention to me, even when I would drop in live prey, like crickets or later when it got bigger, live goldfish.

But this robin was different. Fortunately it fell from the nest in the early spring just as school was letting out so I had the entire summer to care for it. Over a few weeks it started eating the mushed up worms and bugs I would find and later ground beef. I had to use tweezers to place the food in its mouth and an eye dropper to give it water.

Since the robin used to peck at me for food, naturally I called him “Pecky.” I wasn’t very creative in naming animals but which 9-year-old is?

My great triumph was teaching Pecky to fly.

I realized he needed to learn this essential skill and when he was a bit older, I held him on my hand as a kind of launch pad, close to the ground at first, and kind of shook him off. He would plop to the ground, and that really worried me. Eventually as I lifted my hand higher and higher he naturally started his wings flapping, I suppose, to break the fall. And then he started gliding, then flying short distances. It wasn’t too long before Pecky was taking off and going for spins around the yard.

One morning Pecky was not in his box.

I was frantic and ran furiously around the yard, worrying that a cat, maybe God forbid, my cat got him. Then something miraculous happenedat least to a 9-year-old. Pecky flew down right into the box, mouth gaping wide open. He clearly wanted to be fed. This became a pattern and I would then feed him multiple times a day, but the mornings were most important to himand to me.

In the morning around dawn, Pecky would stand at the front door, pecking at it and peeping until I fed him.

He also would come when I called for him. Really.

It is hard to believe, but I would peep some strange kid-like peep with his name embedded in it and he would swoop out of the air and land on my shoulder or head. This became a very cool trick to show my friends and neighbors. It even amazed me. Imagine, a wild bird coming and landing on me when I called. This was a 9-year-old’s fantasy come true.

And I even got him to ride on my Shetland sheep dog’s backmy own circus in the back yard!

Then the inevitable happened. One frosty fall morning Pecky did not show up at the front door.

He was gone.

I was beside myself and missed a few days of school, I thinkcalling for him, crying like I never cried before. I worried that he did not fly off with the other robins. I was sure that a dog or cat got him. I never saw Pecky again.

And now for this morning.

I almost got nailed this morning. A beautiful raccoon was curled up in a Havahart trap I set to catch those nasty woodchucks that destroy my gardens. I only knew she was there, when one of my dogs was circling around the trap barking frenetically.

I have six traps in my yard because those woodchucks are so elusive. I want to cover the territory.

Just my luck she was not in one of the easy ones to open. You can open the easy ones by standing behind the trap and flipping up the lid. But this one was in the kind of trap you have to reach in front of the trap to unlatch the catch, and pull up the doorall from the front! How could anyone be so stupid in designing a trap for wild animals I thought?

When I approached the cage, the raccoon was at first calm and curious, looking up at me with big beautiful brown eyes, seemingly hopeful. But as I tried pulling the steel door up, she panicked and snarled. It was terrifying. I knew that raccoons can be very dangerous. I heard that they are the most ferocious animals in North America when cornered, and I believe it.

And they do carry rabies.

First, I thought that I would simply take the trap with the poor raccoon in it and just leave it in some remote spot in conservation land to die. That would be easy, and I could dump both the stupid trap and the raccoon. But what a horrible thought and terrible way to die. I couldn’t bear to even think about it.

So, I got a pole and wedged it into the front piece, prying it up from the side to open the front door. The door was wide open, and I was sort of safely at the side of the cage, ready to burn rubber when she split. But the raccoon didn’t get it, as she was facing the rear of the cage.

Then I thought I would try to find some way to leave the door open and just get to work and hope she would figure it out. I tried again, wedging the pole in the front latch, opening the front, and propping the pole on a chair next to the cage. I would just leave it alone and if by chance, she got out while I was setting up the escape plan, I would be behind the chair and could high tail it away if she got out and turned on me. The door cranked slowly open and she bolted away.

We then had one of those moments.

I watched her as she scampered up a rise by my compost pile toward the woods. And then she stopped, turned around, got up on her hind legs and just looked at me. We only gazed at each other for just a few seconds but it seemed like a very long time. I swear she turned to look at me and thank me.

I could see it in her eyes.

I thought she must be the mother of a small brood (if that's what you call their babies) and was grateful. So was I, as I had first planned to just take the entire trap and leave it in the woods for her to die.

Driving home from work, I thought about Pecky for the first time in years. I called my mom, who is now almost 98.

“How old was I when I had Pecky,” I asked.

“Oh, I think you were nine. I still have the photos. No one believes me when I tell them the story, but those old photos with Pecky on your head or on the dogand the way you cried and cried when she left. Why do you ask?”

“I was just wondering,” I said. I knew if I told her about the raccoon I would never hear the end of it.

 So, what’s it like to be a mom?

Somehow I must have learned in some small way what it is to be a momto have a baby depend on you. Pecky taught me that.

But I don’t think boys or grown men ever fully appreciate what it’s really like to be a mother. It’s complicated.

Maybe it there really is something about having a child grow in your body; or hormones that we guys just don’t have; or the social roles we learn; or even genetics. We can come close, but there is no substitute for living the life of a mother. Being a dad for men, and having pets for boys comes close. I know I learned a lot from having four kids. But it’s still not the same as the relationship my wife has with my kids.

Pecky helped me feel what it’s like to get incredible pleasure in a child’s dependence on youon taking you for grantedknowing no matter what, you would be there. How you would defend and protect them at any cost. And how wonderful it is to see your babies grow up, yet how deeply sad it is to see them leave. Maybe not really sad, but a kind of melancholy.

Bittersweet.

I think I took the risk todayand a pretty big risk when I think about it, of setting that raccoon free. When I got home, I tossed those traps in my barn basement, and will not use them againjust in case.

I feel that this was a fine Mother's Day present though totally unexpected.

 

Eugene Beresin, M.D., is Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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