On Birds, Cats, and Children
The lie I told most often in my twenties during the Reagan era was that I liked other people’s children although I didn’t intend to have my own. I taught at a Catholic college in a small town in Wisconsin and was married to a public school teacher. After my husband, Chuck, and I bought a house, even people we scarcely knew asked us when we were going to “start a family.”
I didn’t like other people’s children at all. I was shocked when my colleagues, in-laws, or neighbors stopped by unannounced with their toddlers in tow and sat drinking coffee, chatting, and making no attempt whatsoever to keep their children from touching everything in sight: my books, the stacks of mail I had just sorted through, my knitting supplies, the ceramic dishware I didn’t get a chance to put away. Standing in the checkout line of grocery stores behind women (it was always women) whose children were screaming, running around, or trying to toss items out of or into their carts, I wondered what kept these beleaguered mothers from abandoning both their provisions and their offspring and driving away. The empty car on an open road would feel like a shot of pure oxygen. I would not stop until I was a few states away, where I could start a new life under an assumed name. When my friends’ children kept interrupting the adult conversation, I excused myself, walked a safe distance away from the house, and pretended to smoke a (nonexistent) cigarette because I was afraid of what I might say or do if I’d stayed.
The obvious truth—that I couldn’t stand other people’s children and that’s why I didn’t want any myself—was a huge taboo. The one time I referred to it obliquely, at a faculty book discussion that had devolved into a recitation of stories about the funny or clever things my colleagues’ children had said while shopping for clothes with their parents, I had been called into the Dean’s Office the following afternoon. I was told that when I said, “But this scene in the novel should work for readers—like me—who have never gone to a shopping mall with a child and in fact would rather do forty hours of community service digging ditches. Appreciating fiction isn’t all about how closely we can identify with the characters,” people were so appalled that the whole room was enveloped in deadly silence.
“Why did you tell us you hated children?” the Dean, a man my father’s age, asked.
“Because it’s true?” I offered. A long lecture ensued about what a selfish and insensitive person I was.
I didn’t dislike children only for the disturbance they caused. I was not drawn to babies even if they were sleeping peacefully in their cribs, looking—to most people—cute or adorable. I had never met a baby I wanted to touch, pick up, feed with a bottle, or change diapers for. An infant’s naked skin and sour milky smell repulsed me. “Why can’t human babies be furry like kittens and puppies?” I said to other childless women, who laughed in guilty sympathy.
My mothering nature was activated, it seemed, only by animals. I often picked up injured or abandoned birds from roadsides and tried to nurse them to health, with water dribbled onto their beaks and worms dangled in front of them. These attempts were only sporadically successful. So I signed up to be officially trained as a songbird rehabilitator at a local wildlife sanctuary and joined the list of volunteers who raised the baby birds other people found on their lawns after summer storms or tree trimmers had knocked down their nests.
I kept the nestlings in berry boxes lined with tissue and fed them every fifteen minutes with the formula made in a blender to mimic the food their parents would regurgitate into their beaks (the main ingredient, ironically, was high-protein cat food soaked in water). The nestlings stretched their necks and opened their mouths at my approach. I shot the formula down their throats with a needle-less syringe and watched them slump down into the nest to sleep, contented for a few minutes before they started clamoring for more. Cedar waxwings, my favorite birds, had a bright red spot inside their throats, like a target saying, “Put food here.” Long before they could stand on their legs, the nestlings knew how to lift up their heads toward my hand. Their rubbery beaks could open wider than an adult’s. Each bird, a mere bundle of hollow bones inside prickly skin, had an amazing will to live. I would not have hesitated to touch, feed, and clean up after human infants if they, too, had shown such pluck.
The extra bedroom in our house became a bird nursery where the nestlings stayed until they doubled or tripled in size and left the artificial nest to perch, hop, and fly. Once they could navigate with ease around the room, I transferred the birds—fledglings now—to the backyard, into the walk-in cage I had set up with tree branches and feeding stations. I still fed the birds a few times a day with the formula at first but used it to lure them to the seeds, berries, and worms that constituted their adult diet—just as their parents would have in the wild, staying with their young for a couple of weeks, feeding them beak to beak while teaching them how to forage. When the birds were consistently eating on their own, I released them back into the wild, in places where others of their kind had been sighted. That had been the whole point of the endeavor: to let them fly away, never to come back.
Birds flock with their own kind, but not with their original families. As soon as the young can feed themselves and join the flock of other juvenile birds, the parents will take off to build another nest. Many songbird species lay two or three clutches of eggs every season. They would not recognize the young from their first nest if they were to encounter them at a common feeding site later in the summer. In some species both males and females care for the young and in others only the females do, but either way, to be a bird parent is to transition from exceptional devotion—feeding the nestlings several times every hour from sunup to sundown—to complete forgetfulness in six to twelve weeks. Our job was to duplicate this process in captivity, so the training sessions emphasized how we shouldn’t treat the wildlife in our care like pets: don’t give them names, don’t use words like “cute” or “adorable” to describe them, don’t touch or fuss over them unnecessarily—in other words, don’t get attached.
The nestlings, of course, didn’t know or care that I’d been cautioned against petting or “babying” them. They beat their bony wings and stretched their necks because they recognized the syringe in my hand as a mother’s beak and by extension, me as their mother. I forgot my training, welled up with affection, and felt that satisfying their hunger was the most important thing I’d ever done. Later, when I walked into the outdoor cage, the fledglings lined up on the branches and followed me to the berries I’d tucked under the leaves or the worms I’d buried in a dish of dirt. I almost cried with pride when the first group of house finches figured out how to perch on the feeder I’d hung inside the cage and insert their beaks into the holes to pick out sunflower seeds. They had finally understood the hint I was giving them by smearing the formula around those holes. As the day for their departure approached, I visited the birds less and less often and tried not to dwell on the truth—most first-year birds don’t live long enough to become breeding adults; that’s why each pair that survived raises multiple broods. Loving birds meant respecting their independence and releasing them to their uncertain fate. I steeled myself and watched them disappear into the grey light of dawn.
My mother had raised me like a bird although her transition from devotion to willed forgetfulness took twelve years instead of weeks. In the last winter of her life, in our new house in Kobe, Japan, Takako cried every night saying that she was a failure as a wife. My father, who had always had several girlfriends, seldom came home anymore though the money he made as a business executive had installed us in a hilltop house in an upscale neighborhood, where my brother and I could attend the best elementary school in town.
“What will I do when you and your brother are grown up and don’t need me anymore?” Takako lamented. “I won’t have any reason to live. You are smart and independent. Promise you won’t grow up to be like me.”
It was no use pointing out that my brother—who was sleeping in his room, utterly oblivious—was only eight and it would be a long time before he and I didn’t need a mother. Takako insisted that the two of us, but especially I, would be better off without her. (As the only son of a well-to-do family, she said, my brother would be fine no matter what happened.)
Her suicide in early spring shocked everyone but me. Her parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, and friends only knew Takako as the cheerful person she used to be before our move, the energetic homemaker whose old house was the gathering place for them. Like most Japanese women of her generation, my mother could only socialize with her family and in-laws or with other stay-at-home mothers who lived nearby. She didn’t drive; anyhow, respectable married women didn’t go traipsing around town alone, or even with friends, amusing themselves when they should be doing housework. So, Takako had the neighbors over regularly to sew and cook together, bringing their children.
“Your mother made your home into the brightest, warmest place,” our former next door neighbor said at her funeral. “Her presence lit up the whole house.”
Takako had been Super-Homemaker, Super-Hostess, and Super-Mother until we moved three miles away and suddenly, she had no one to talk to until my brother and I returned from school. Having settled us into a suitable home, my father felt free to stay away altogether. Takako imagined her solitary and purposeless future and decided that we could already do without her.
When I turned thirty and started admitting that I had no love of or desire for children, I explained that my mother had not been happy as a stay-at-home mother and would have wanted me to choose a different path. I made it sound like I was remaining childless in Takako’s honor. But, really, when she said, “Promise you won’t grow up to be like me,” she wasn’t warning me against motherhood. My father had carried on numerous affairs he didn’t bother to hide from her or anyone. After our move, Takako became despondent about being an abandoned wife. My father’s neglect had finally worn her down and made her believe that no one else cared about or needed her, either.
If she could have divorced my father and lived in a comfortable home with my brother and me, my mother might not have killed herself. She could have made new friends, or found work or an artistic pursuit that gave her a sense of purpose. But back in the 1960s in Japan, women lost everything when they left their husbands: their house, their children, their income, their reputation. When my mother said I shouldn’t grow up to be like her, she was telling me not to get trapped in a marriage to someone who lied and cheated, a promise I had already fulfilled. Unlike my father, Chuck wasn’t a womanizer or a narcissist. Even though he was good with children—he taught first and second grades—he accepted the veto power I exercised on the matter. We completely agreed that couples should have children only if both parties were committed.
Takako had loved the company of children, her own and others’, even though that wasn’t enough to keep her alive. She was happiest when surrounded by several women and their children. Although she had no formal training or opportunity for a public life, my mother was drawn to community. I had choices she did not. The real way for me to honor her would have been to become a mother and to do something else I cared about—to raise children while cultivating a life outside the home. But the truth is: even at six or seven, long before my mother started crying every night, I hated taking care of babies and toddlers. The oldest of our large clan on my mother’s side, I was expected to watch my cousins at family reunions at my grandparents’ house while the adults enjoyed dinner by themselves. Invariably, some commotion would erupt in the room where we were supposed to be quietly amusing ourselves; one of my aunts would come running to investigate and find my little cousins in tears or with bloody noses or once, with a broken arm. I would be long gone, having climbed out the window to loiter in my grandmother’s garden in the dark, taking in the intoxicating scent of the peonies, eating the tomatoes off the vine, and star-gazing to my heart’s content. The only thing I could say in my defense was that I hadn’t, personally, caused the tears, the blood or, most definitely, the broken arm.
The majority of the birds I cared for were common visitors to residential gardens, so I could open the walk-in cage to let them go. Robins, house finches, waxwings, chipping sparrows, and mourning doves dispersed into the flocks summering in our neighborhood. Some must have returned daily to the feeders Chuck and I had on our patio, but I couldn’t distinguish them from the other birds. The Eastern Kingbird, a black-and-white bird that sits upright in trees, waiting to catch flies and moths on the wing, was an exception. Its common habitat was woods, groves, or orchards. I had taught my bird to hunt by first tossing mealworms into the air for him to swoop down and grab with his beak, and then collecting the moths that gathered under our porch light into a shoebox and releasing them one by one inside the cage for the bird to practice with live prey, but I wasn’t sure if he would recognize an insect that didn’t come out of a shoebox. Meanwhile, a birdwatcher friend had found a family of kingbirds in the woods at the wildlife sanctuary, with two fledglings about the same age as mine.
“Birds don’t know how to count,” my friend assured me. “The parents are still staying with the young. They’ll think your bird was one of theirs and take him in.” He drew me a map.
I drove to the sanctuary with the kingbird perched on a branch inside a pet carrier, staring straight ahead as if watching the road. A part of me wanted to pretend that we were going on a road trip, but once inside the sanctuary gate, I parked my car and walked into the woods. In the clearing where my friend had seen the kingbirds, I set down the pet carrier, and my bird began to chirp. Almost immediately, an adult kingbird appeared overhead on a branch, flashing its white tail feathers like a handkerchief. When I opened the pet carrier, the fledgling flew out without hesitation and disappeared into the branches. For a few minutes I could hear the two birds rustling around in the thick foliage overhead and calling to each other. I waited until all was quiet except for the buzzing of the grasshoppers flying in low arcs in and out of the undergrowth. As I picked up the empty pet carrier and walked away, I thought of Takako releasing me into the world she was leaving. I had done everything to prepare that bird and now, I could only hope for the best. I wanted to believe I was reenacting how Takako had mothered me.
I could let all those birds go because there was one animal I could possess completely, with impunity. My cat, Dorian, had been eight weeks old when we met at his breeder’s house. Being a young Siamese, he resembled a rat with his pink stomach and long naked tail. The moment this very ugly kitten left his sleeping siblings, sauntered over to me, and started rubbing his mouth back and forth on my fingers, I stopped being able to imagine a life without him. I was twenty-two, in my first year of graduate school, sharing an apartment with two men who grew pot on our balcony. I had no business getting a cat, but Dorian proceeded to circle me and bump into me. When I picked him up, he plastered himself into my neck and purred, as if transferring the noise from his throat to mine. I was his larger self, an amplifier for his being.
For the next eighteen years, Dorian followed me around every apartment and house we shared, loudly demanding my attention. He was an indoor-only cat so, except when I went out, we were seldom out of each other’s sight. We moved in with Chuck when Dorian was three. Although Dorian eventually accepted Chuck, there was no question whose cat he was. Dorian ran to the door to greet no one but me, slept in my arms every night, and tried to feed me mice—toy, real, live, dead, or at some stage on the continuum. He terrorized friends, in-laws, neighbors, and service people alike, biting and drawing blood. Our veterinarian, not a young man, told my mother-in-law that mine was the worst cat he’d ever met. The night before my first job interview, Dorian ate a half-moon shape out of the cuff of the expensive sweater I had set aside to wear. Another night, for no apparent reason, he batted down and broke the hand-thrown ceramic cups I hated to see in the grubby hands of children. Nothing he did upset me because I adored the force of his personality.
In spite of my admitted dislike of children, I was polite in public. I didn’t yell at people in anger or slam the door to walk out of an argument. Dorian gave expression to my hidden dark side when he bit people and broke things. I wondered if some of the mothers I’d pitied were secretly thrilled when their children threw tantrums in a grocery line that got slowed down by an obnoxious customer or at a backyard party where the conversation was particularly vacuous. Besides, Dorian only attacked other people. He let me carry him around the house, bury my face in his stomach and tug at his tail, brush his teeth, trim his nails, and—the afternoon he got stung by a wasp—press an ice cube to his forehead for ten minutes without complaint. As much as he hated the rest of the known universe, that cat loved me.
As I approached forty, my continued childlessness provoked unsolicited advice. People insisted I would feel differently about children if I just “went ahead” and had my own. Or I would regret my decision when it was too late. Or I wasn’t being fair to Chuck—even after he explained he spent eight hours every day with other people’s children and was happy to take refuge in a child-free environment. Friends and near-strangers alike badgered me as though remaining childless was an offense against humanity.
Finally in my frustration, I blurted out, “I would have a kid tomorrow if it could be just like Dorian.” I didn’t know what, exactly, I meant by it: the child, my relationship with the child, the experience of motherhood, or all of the above?
Actually, my total obsession with Dorian was a terrible model for motherhood. I didn’t let him into the bird nursery, and I locked him in our bedroom when people stopped by with children so he wouldn’t hurt the kids and cause the parents to report us to animal control. Otherwise, I let him misbehave egregiously, but ultimately, I was in charge. I made him into a neutered indoor cat, chose where we lived and with whom, even decided what he ate every day and how much. I constantly violated his personal (feline?) space by swooping down on him, lifting him up into “the long arm of the human,” and toting him around the house, or holding him upright and making him walk on his hind legs in a trick I called “the bipedal cat,” or spinning him (like a Vegas roulette) on the smooth hardwood floor where he liked to lie stretched. I allowed him no boundaries or dignity, and he responded by refusing, also, to leave me alone. He was the one being I could love in a selfish, possessive way without worrying about the consequences.
Dorian and the songbird nestlings were both completely dependent on me for their survival, as a newborn infant would be. The overbearing affection I poured onto Dorian would have drowned or smothered a child, while the stoicism I cultivated with the birds was only appropriate for a mother who planned to die young, leaving her children to fend for themselves. Motherhood, not marriage, was the one “till death do us part” relationship among humans. A mother would have to navigate between the urge to protect and the need to respect her child’s autonomy even after the child had left home to study, work, or marry. I knew how to hold on and how to let go, but I couldn’t imagine having to do a little of both, in the right mixture for each occasion, day after day for the many decades that make up the average span of a mother-child relationship. And in order to love my own child in spite of my general dislike of children, I would have to think of him or her as an entirely different category of being: for example, a cat. That’s what I was trying to say when people refused to accept my decision not to have children. I could only become a mother if Dorian could be my child—that is to say, never.
Chuck and I separated at forty when I moved east and he stayed in Wisconsin. Twenty years later, we still talk on the phone and visit each other occasionally. He didn’t become a parent, either, though he was remarried for a few years to a woman with two children. Like me, he prefers the work of a teacher—a nurture-to-release operation similar to wildlife rehabilitation, with the added benefit that former students can choose to return if they need help and stay in touch to become life-long friends.
Living in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, DC with two cats, I no longer work with birds directly. I take the birds I find on the roadside—like the baby woodpecker I crawled under a parked car to grab last year—to a wildlife center across town. Miles and Jackson, my feline companions, follow me around the apartment the way Dorian did. Thankfully, they have never bitten anyone. Siamese and Burmese, they are extremely vocal and affectionate. I used to take umbrage when people referred to my cats as my children or me as their mother. My devotion to the cats was not an imitation of human motherhood. To confuse the two, I thought, was an insult to both.
Still, what I can surmise about motherhood comes through the cats. Before they were eight weeks old, Miles and Jackson were constantly with their mothers, who fed them, played with them, picked them up, and carried them around as I do now. Now they crawl every night under the covers to sleep pressed up against me. I am their mother not because I believe so but because they do.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Friedlander.