There are several milestones in a child’s life that parents celebrate: sleeping through the night, taking those first steps, going to the restroom on their own, making their own breakfast, first day of school, and so on. My husband and I had one of those events this month when our youngest daughter turned 13 – sigh, a teenager.
Not much has changed really, but such events cause us to press the pause button for a bit. Thirteen years ago, she would spend her first 46 days in a hospital NICU. Like her sister two years earlier, she was born nine weeks premature. Weighing under 3 pounds, she was surrounded by big machines and tangled wires. We turned her over with our fingertips.
But I can see now how her personality was already forming. Both of my daughters had to go without feeding for a few days while in the NICU due to some internal bleeding. My first daughter cried hungrily but strategically, only when a nurse was close enough to hear. My second though, took it in stride. No fuss. No stress.
With the pause button still pressed, I remember some of the things going on around us at the time. Just weeks before her birth, a family of barn swallows constructed a nest right above our front door. Every day, I would take a peek at how the family was doing. Once hatched, the baby birds clamored loudly whenever a parent hovered mere inches away with food. They were silent the rest of the time. And when we stepped out onto the porch, one or both parents would swoop down at us doing everything they could to protect their brood and keep us away.
Somehow, I felt a connection – however small – to this little family. Their infants were fully dependent. And the parents were remarkably protective. When we finally were able to bring home our littlest one, still hooked to on a monitor, we were super-protective too. Other than doctor visits, we didn’t take her out of the house until she was several months old. We made visitors wash their hands before they could even look at her. The same had been true with her sister. And the same was true with our friends with newborns, especially those with preemies, even as our children grew.
Fast-forward 13 years. As we prepared to celebrate my latest teenager’s birthday, and for just the second time in my own life, we have a new bird’s nest outside our door. From what we can tell, this is a family of Carolina Wrens. We know something these parents don’t. Two months ago, that flower pot was a hideout for a snake. Last month, some large rodent was hanging out there. Now, it is home to these delicate babies. So we have been watching them in earnest.
We’ve noticed that the parents’ protectiveness looks different than the swallows’. The food deliveries do not lead to loud frantic squeaking. And the parents don’t try to frighten visitors. Oftentimes, when we peer into the nest, we only see the babies. No doubt a parent is nearby, watching, but not imposing, ready to guide their little ones to eat and eventually to take flight once the coast is clear.
New research came out last week revealing that, compared to mammals, bird brains have many more neurons per square inch. This helps explain why they have such complex cognitive abilities in their tiny brains. Various species of birds can store food, make tools, understand cause-and-effect and even plan for the future. So maybe these guys on my porch aren’t as helpless as they appear. I know my 13-year-old isn’t.
I’m learning that the wren’s style of protection is like the role of parents of teenagers. Nearby. Watching. Not imposing. Our babies are no longer completely dependent. Our job is to let them try out their new wings even when they stumble. It is in fact the stumbling that reaps learning and confidence to take the next step.
Perhaps this is what “free will” really means. Maybe it is not just about having the space to believe or not believe, to follow or not follow. Rather, we have ample room to reach, falter, learn and get back up again, stronger. In this space, we are most able to grow to become who he has created us to be – something I have to remember when my teens begin to fluff their own wings.
Christie is manages communication for the Intercultural Development Research Association. With two daughters, she and husband Paul are active with Girl Scouts, March of Dimes and Woodland Baptist Church. https://www.facebook.com/christie.goodman.apr