One Man’s Brush With Being A Mother


Posted in: Hot Topics, You & Your Family

Topics: Relationships

I think we all take our moms for granted in some way, especially us 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 also have no clue what it’s like to be a mom.

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

But before I relay that story, let me first set for you the backdrop. I didn’t put it together at the time of the event (it happened during my typical morning rush to work), but having thought a lot about it since, it makes sense in the context of a relationship I had with a baby robin when I was growing up.

My pet robin.

When I was 9 years old, I found a baby robin in my backyard; he had apparently fallen out of his nest, and was hobbling around on the ground. I gently picked him up, calling out to my mother. Together we assessed that he had injured his wing. He was really young, with eyes seemingly too big for his small, featherless head. In fact, he looked more like an alien than a baby bird, and at that stage, I didn’t even realize he was a robin.

I was a pretty avid animal collector. My mom would roll her eyes as I brought home frogs, snakes and turtles that I kept in boxes outside or on our back porch. Most wildlife eventually died, but even so 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 cat. My fish couldn’t care less, though I felt they did as they’d rise to the top of the aquarium, expectantly waiting for me to feed them. My pet alligator didn’t pay any attention to me either, even when I would drop in live prey like crickets, and later, goldfish.

But this robin was different. Fortunately, he fell from the nest in the early spring, just as school was letting out. I therefore had the entire summer to care for him. Over the course of a few weeks he started to eat the mushed up worms and bugs I’d find, and later moved on to ground beef. I had to use tweezers to place the food in his mouth, as well as an eye dropper to give him 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 then again, which 9-year-old is?

My great triumph was teaching Pecky to fly.

I realized he needed to learn this essential skill, so when he was a bit older, I’d hold him in my hand, setting up a sort of launch pad. I’d start off close to the ground, and just kind of shake him off. At first he would plop to the ground, but eventually, as I lifted my hand higher and higher, he started to flap his wings—I suppose to break the impending fall. Soon he started gliding, and 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, running furiously around the yard, and worrying that a cat—God forbid, my cat—had gotten to him. Then, something miraculous happened (at least it seemed miraculous to a 9-year-old): Pecky flew down right into his box, mouth gaping wide open. He clearly wanted to be fed. This became a pattern, with him coming to me to feed him multiple times a day. But the mornings were most important to him—and to me.

He also came when I called for him. Really.

It’s hard to believe, but I would make some strange kid-like “peep” with his name embedded in it, and he would swoop out of the air and land on my shoulder. 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 back—my very own circus right in the backyard.

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

He was gone.

I was beside myself, even missing a few days of school. I’d call for him, crying like I had never cried before. I worried that he hadn’t flown off with the other robins, that a dog or cat had gotten to him. I never saw Pecky again.

And that brings us to this morning.

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

I have six traps throughout my yard because those woodchucks are so elusive; I want to be sure I cover their territory.

As luck would have it, she was not in one of the easy-to-open ones, which you can open by standing behind the trap and flipping up the lid. With this one you have to reach in front of the trap to unlatch the catch, which then pulls up the door. Why on earth would anyone design a trap for wild animals in this way?

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

And they often carry rabies.

First I thought that I might simply take the entrapped raccoon to some remote spot for her to die. That would be easy, and would allow me to be rid of both the stupid trap and the raccoon. But what a terrible way for the animal 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 budge, as she was facing the rear of the cage.

Then I thought I’d try to find some way to leave the door open and hope that she would eventually figure it out. I tried again, wedging the pole in the front latch, opening the door, 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 where I could high tail it away if she got out and turned on me. As the door slowly cranked open, 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 and turned around, rising on her hind legs to look at me. We only gazed at each other for a few seconds, but it seemed like a very long time. I swear she had turned to look at me to thank me. I could see it in her eyes.

I thought that she was perhaps a mother of a small brood (if that’s what you call their babies), and was grateful to be set free. I was too.

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 9. 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 dog…and the way you cried and cried when he 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?

I must have learned in some small way what it might be like to be a mom, to have another being depend on you for its livelihood. Pecky taught me that.

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

There’s just something about having a child grow in your body. Or maybe it’s the hormones we guys don’t have, the social roles we all learn. Or heck, maybe it’s just genetics. We can come close, but there is no substitute for living the life of a mother. For men, being a dad, and for boys, having a pet, can come 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 from a child’s dependence on you—in other words, to take you for granted, to have the understanding that no matter what, you will be there to defend and protect. And, how wonderful it is to see your babies grow up, yet so very sad to see them leave. Maybe not sad per se, but a kind of melancholy nonetheless.

I think I took a risk today—and a pretty big risk, when I think about it—in setting that raccoon free. I’ve since tossed those traps in my barn basement, and don’t plan to use them again. Just in case.

I feel this was a fine, albeit unexpected, Mother’s Day present.

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Gene Beresin

Gene Beresin, Executive Director

Gene Beresin, MD, MA is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also...

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