by Arbor Lee
I thought I was early enough to witness the robins fledge. The day before, I peeked in on them and could see their fully feathered bodies were sturdy enough to leave the nest. It had been two weeks, long enough for them to gain enough size and strength to begin their flight practice. After a month of tracking their nest, I knew this would be the day and I wanted to be there to celebrate their first leap. With camera in hand, I went out to the corner of my backyard and peeked in on the nest that I had come to know and love. Perfectly formed at the base of two branches, this nest had been tightly woven from earth and twigs. It withstood the sporadic spring weather and for the past two weeks, had held two precious nestlings now ready to fledge. I expected to see the fledglings, silent and still with their beaks pointed up. Instead, I peered into an empty nest.
I have observed other birds and nests but never with such deliberate attention and care. Having a nest at my fingertips made it possible to witness the day-to-day magic of this robin family. It began one afternoon while sitting in the corner of my backyard. I noticed a robin gathering earthen material from my lawn. Soon after, I discovered her nest tucked into the private nook of my lilac bush. It was only three feet up from the ground and exquisitely constructed from the inside out. The center was lined with soft grass and ready to safely cradle a clutch of eggs. A few days later the first speckled egg arrived – perfectly shaped and blue. Two more eggs followed and the anticipation of hatchlings. Fourteen days later, I caught the first glimpse of the helpless newborns and their translucent skin. I could see blood pumping life with each breath of survival. I looked on with reverence, their presence so vulnerable and tender. All energy shifted to feedings as the parents alternated turns gathering worms for their precious brood. Each feeding came with the sweet chime of peeps, their beaks open wide and pointing up. Pins of new feathers sprouted from their soft pink skin and jet black eyes stayed wide with wonder. They patiently grew into fledglings that I hoped to send off with goodwill. For a month, I took on the daily work of watching out for and championing these precious babes, sheltered in the safety of my backyard.
I thought I was early enough, but I missed the moment of instinctual courage. My heart sank with a sense of loss. The daily event of watching this nest was over. I searched the sky and trees, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the fledglings— hoping to see evidence that they were still alive and thriving. Up on the lowest wire traversing my yard was a small robin preening her disheveled feathers. I noticed her red breast was a bit mottled, still gaining its true color. It was one of my young robins, alone and testing her independence, alive and finding her way. I felt like a proud mama watching her little one and I understood the sorrow pulsing through my heart.
Standing at the edge of another mother’s nest was a role that I knew well. I have always stood on the fringes of motherhood— a protector and nurturer of other women’s children. In my roles as a nanny, an elementary school teacher, an adoptive pet parent, a stepparent, an aunt, and now as a champion of backyard birds, I have been a nurturing caregiver and advocate for hundreds of children and numerous animals.
But I was never a mother in the traditional sense. I have never been pregnant or given birth. The circumstances of my young adult life made the option of motherhood non-negotiable. I spent most of my twenties and thirties in a relationship with an abusive spouse. Though it took over a decade to leave him, I understood from the beginning that our relationship and home life were not conducive to raising a child. Had I been with a healthier partner during my prime reproductive years, I don’t know if I would have chosen motherhood. But the awareness that I didn’t have a true choice still enkindles old layers of grief. It isn’t always a conscious thought, but more of an emotional tug that surfaces with the news of pivotal life events: Pregnancies, births, miscarriages, parenting milestones. Even Mother’s Day can trigger sweet sorrow.
Standing at the periphery of these events leaves me with a bittersweet emptiness, much like the now-empty nest that I harbored with love.
But when I reflect on the lives that I’ve touched, I realize how the periphery has advantages.
Being a teacher, nanny, or aunt are roles that engage my sensitive, nurturing nature within a framework that has a clear set of boundaries and expectations. I am an outsider with an inside view, allowing me to observe and connect from a perspective that has some emotional distance. In these roles, I am an advocate for young voices and for those who don’t have a way to speak for themselves.
I don’t have to be a mother to know the depth and span of my influence and connection. My influence is witnessed in the parents who ask me for guidance and support with their children, trusting in my insight and clarity from working with hundreds of young learners during my years as a teacher. The reach of my connection is experienced in the warm greetings I receive when I run into past students and families of children that I’ve cared for— in the way they want to share about their growth and progress so many years later.
The span of my influence and connection are felt in my relationships with nieces, nephews and step children who seek time with me and willingly share their heartfelt wonderings. It is evident in the way young people ask me for advice and trust in my ability to listen and understand. The reach of my connection is equally evident in the way my pets thrive and seek out my company and in the profound grief I experience when a pet becomes sick or dies.
The world needs all our offerings, whether we stand at the center or at the perimeter. It needs our collective sensitivity, our ongoing advocacy, and our collaborative care. It needs the kind of care that doesn’t require a binding genetic code to be meaningful or true. It needs the kind of care that comes from a place of deep respect and grace for life in all its forms. It needs the kind of care that shelters unconditional love.
I can now peer into the empty nest with a sense of sweet regret while also honoring my unique witness to the beauty and miracle of life. Standing at the edge of another’s experience, I know that I have gained more than I have lost. My protective arms, my open heart, my unique view of the world are in many ways a nest— an available and nurturing refuge in the cycle of life. And the nest is far from empty. It holds evidence of courage, connection and care with an equally capacious future. Indeed, the nest of my heart is expansive and whole. I am a shelter of love.