When my son is three months old, a robin builds her nest on the windowsill outside our second floor bathroom. It begins as a tuft of debris I think was blown onto the brick ledge by happenstance, but after enough furtive deliveries from its determined maker, I understand. The nest takes shape until it is propped into the corner as a well-formed bowl spun from mud, grass, and sticks.
When the robin nests, her body absorbs her neck, and she’s shaped like a feathered teapot, her back shaded like bark for camouflage, and her breast a swatch of marmalade for style. Her eyes are beady, almost accusatory, as she spots me spying from the other side of the glass and flits away.
She’s already put so much effort into her home; I don’t want her to think she must relocate, especially with busy ovaries. Mothering is hard enough. I know. For the past three months, I’ve answered the call of my baby’s mewls by putting aside whatever life I was trying to live, lifting my shirt, and unfurling a swollen breast every two hours. They say newborns feed less frequently as they grow. Talk is cheap. This has not proven to be the case for my voracious eater. While he is physically attached to me, I find myself longing for a different sort of relationship, one of want rather than need, and personal attachment rather than circumstance.
In order not to add a giant invader to the robin’s burden, I observe her from then on in stealth mode, approaching the window the way I sometimes tiptoe to the crib when the baby is too quiet and I want to make sure he is still alive. One afternoon, I peek from around the toilet and find a drop of baby blue, like a single mini Cadbury egg left in a twiggy dish.
I don’t know if reproduction is a painful process for birds, but since there isn’t an egg-sized hole in their bottoms, I can guess. But the robin doesn’t make a spectacle of birthing, as I did. She doesn’t call attention to her agonizing work. She isn’t out for glory. She lays her eggs in private, one by one by one they appear, day after day, until there are four.
At this point, I should mention the other robin I sometimes see standing guard on the power line hanging over our street, twenty feet away but still in view of his nest, because robin parenting is a two-bird gig. Females are the primary nest builders and perform the majority of the feeding, but the males protect the nest from afar. And, if a dad bird is killed, the mama might just abandon her young and start anew elsewhere, knowing it would be almost impossible to provide enough on her own.
Phil is more involved than the sentinel I see on the wires. He’s a full-on co-parent, no doubt about it. He diapers, dresses, burps, and bounces. He’s the only one to trim the baby’s nails, what we call visiting Papa’s Nail Salon. He can swaddle using an ordinary sheet, while I require the Velcro handicaps. He woke for all the feedings to keep me company and arrange the baby with pillows, until he returned to work and I assured him those hours weren’t sustainable. He contributes equal care, but I am the primary feeder. Phil just doesn’t have the anatomy. Still, by ten weeks I’d pumped enough to accumulate stores of milk, so Phil began to bottle-feed a morning meal, which meant I got an extra four-hour block of sleep. With this added dose of REM, the world was still hazy, but the edges began to crystallize.
After her full clutch is laid, the mama robin takes residence in her finely constructed dwelling. She spends fifty minutes of every hour incubating her babies-to-be, leaving only to hunt for her own meals, and never for more than five minutes. Since feathers are too self-insulating, a section of the mama’s tummy balds to create a brood patch. She parts her outer feathers and presses her bare belly against the eggs. In this way, she shares her body heat. I miss the stunning, almost tropical-looking eggs, so unlike their drab layer, but I’m glad to know the eggs are keeping warm. It’s May, but nights are still chilly.
The robin looks so content, so self-assured, in her perch. She knows where she’s meant to be and what she’s meant to do. I’m jealous. She’s on course, pursuing her purpose, following built-in instincts, and appears comfortable in her role while, on the other side of the wall, I am pretending at motherhood, going through the motions, and hoping that all this pretend will eventually turn into something real.
The eggs could take two weeks to hatch. The timing is perfect, really. My family is going on vacation, but will be back in plenty of time for the first crack.
Phil and I usually use the summer months for a grand adventure: hiking the Canadian Rockies, trekking along the Dingle Peninsula, or kayaking the Amalfi Coast. But since parenting is a grand enough adventure all on its own, we are plopping down at a riverfront house only two hours north. There won’t be a town for twenty-five minutes, and no neighbors to be bothered by nighttime cries. The closest food is a woman who sells pie out of her kitchen.
This trip marks a milestone of some kind. Veteran parents told us that the first three months of infancy are the hardest. The general public paints a picture of new motherhood as a period of tenderness, and there’s that, but there’s also exhaustion and frustration that can drive parents to desperation, and even clinical insanity. My baby had all the dreamy hallmarks of a newborn—sweet breath, soft skin, and fat feet I couldn’t resist squeezing—but he also had the less desirable qualities: erratic sleep patterns, an unquenchable hunger, and no means or care to recognize my commitment to appeasing him. I’d heard talk of thankless jobs, but being the mother of a newborn was the only truly unappreciated role I’d ever experienced. I didn’t consider myself to be someone in need of recognition. I’d been an aspiring writer for ten years. I could eddy unending waves of submissions and rejections. But being expected to dote on and love someone who showed no signs of loving me back was terrifying in its strain. It certainly didn’t come naturally.
But as predicted by other sapped parent soldiers, the negative feedback loop eventually opened. As Rowen developed, so did his personality, attachment, and responses. He smiled at familiar sources of joy: his music box, The Little Yellow Bee book, and when we called him a “cool dude.” His eyes fluttered closed when I caressed his hairline. I howled like wolf pup, and he stared at my mouth before yipping back. I knew just how to position him in my elbow so we could nap together in the evening. And, in the morning, I woke to the sound of him laughing at the stuffed stars of his mobile. Essentially, as I learned him, I loved him.
This is something worth honoring. So, at three months, Phil and I land on a river in Maine as wearied travelers newly arrived, a baby and dog in tow.
While we are away, I calendar the progress the birds back home will make. Upon our return, there will still be another week before a chick uses its egg tooth as a hatchet to break through its shell. Since there are four eggs, this struggle will span half a week. They’ll spill out as bony sacks of limp pink skin, eyes sealed closed, and, at the sound of their mama returning with food, they’ll transform into giant open beaks. During daylight hours, the robin parents will experience a new frenzy. The hatchlings will need to eat every half hour, and since their nutrition does not come from a breast, they will have to source the food, hunting for insects, fruit, and worms nonstop. No recreational soaring. No visiting bird friends. This will be their new normal.
My family spends the week eating baked berries, watching the dog swim, and feeding, feeding, feeding, which is essentially what we do at home, but without any other distractions or obligations. By the trip’s end, I don’t want to leave Maine, where we are cocooned, not struggling to accommodate nap schedules, diaper changes, or feedings into our normal lives, but operating only under our own rhythms, with no other agenda but enjoying one another’s company, and the view of the tidal river, and sometimes middle aged wormers bent at work. But I do look forward to returning to the nest, and watching the hatchlings sprout feathers, open their eyes, and then, finally, hop out and fly. A lifetime lived in weeks.
Back home, I go straight the window. The nest is gone.
I tear down the stairs and out the front door, where I find what I already know will be there. The sculpted nest has reverted to the detritus of its parts—clumps of dirt, hay, and sprigs plucked from our neighborhood, now speckled with shards of baby blue.
I can’t know the culprit, but I’d wager it’s the cat who prowls outdoors, taunts my dog, and startles drivers. It could also have been a blue jay. But it doesn’t matter. What’s done is done. When I see the mess, I groan like I’ve learned about the death of a loved one.
I grieve the next few days, which is especially long considering I’ve always had a prejudice against birds. I’m sorry for the mama robin who worked so hard and lost so much. She was a natural. She got motherhood from the start, or seemed to, anyway. What a shame to waste those good instincts. She is a parent, through and through, just without her hatchlings, while I am a woman in the dark, clutching my child in one hand and groping the wall with the other.
Rowen slept in a different room from us in Maine—the lighting in the master was too bright. We figure this is as good a time as any to move him to his nursery. Without him snoozing two feet from me, I feel like I finally have room to take a full breath, but also like part of my body has been removed and placed on the other side of the wall. I shiver to think how that mama robin felt the night her nest was destroyed. Without a home, where did she wait out the darkness, the feeling of four lumps beneath her suddenly gone?
I’m woken by phantom Rowen sounds all night. I’m sure he’s crying, but when I go to him, he’s lying still in his crib. I don’t mind the interruption so much as I worry that imagining those sounds will act as such a comfort, I won’t realize he isn’t making any sounds at all.
I don’t know what makes a mother. Some women feel connected to their baby from the moment of conception. Some from birth. Others only after a year. For some, breast-feeding is a struggle, while for others it’s a pleasure. Some co-sleep. Some don’t sleep. Some work full-time, some part-time, and some not at all. We all exist under the same umbrella title, but are so varied in our approaches, insecurities, confidences, concerns, hopes, experiences, and feelings.
Perhaps then, the only universal that looks the same across the board, like a hard pit at our centers, is the dread of losing our babies. This is the fear that our titles will be ripped from us, but only externally. Internally, the coding is permanent. At a mother’s death, the foreign cells of her children can be found floating in her blood and her bones, whether they hatched or not.
Alena Dillon is the author of Mercy House, called a “stirring and fiery” debut by Publishers Weekly and voted a LibraryReads and Amazon book of February 2020. Her work has appeared in RiverTeeth, LitHub, Slice Magazine, and Bustle. Her next novel is due out by HarperCollins in April 2021. She lives on the north shore of Boston with her husband, son, and dog.