One of the most majestic moments of my life was witnessing a black bear and her cubs in the wild. I observed in awe as the mama bear allowed her children to climb through trees and wrestle playfully, but was acutely aware that she was ready to fiercely defend them should any predators threaten. I have always identified as a mama bear.
My goal, though, is to emulate the mother elephant: nurturing and protective-powerful and gentle- she rocks her calf to sleep and promotes their curiosity while steering them away from danger. Female herds support each other and participate in the upbringing of new arrivals, forming strong bonds that cause them to visibly grieve.
I abhor Canada geese, but can grudgingly admire how aggressively they protect their goslings. They are foul creatures; they shit all over everything, are obnoxiously stupid, and reproduce to the point of invasion. However, even in my abject disgust, I can appreciate, and relate to, their motherly instincts.
An email appeared in my inbox last month and my reaction to it caused me pause. While I identify with mama bears, strive to be like the mother elephant, and grudgingly relate to the stupid goose, I can’t shake this nagging feeling that I may actually be an orca.
A recent study found that orca moms invest entire lifetimes in caring for their sons. They share food and often avoid additional reproduction, instead opting to focus on supporting their single male offspring. These moms often develop strong bonds with their sons as a result. “[They’re] just this pair of whales that are basically each other’s best friend,” remarked Michael Weiss, the research director at the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington.
This long-term investment has its perks: orca sons develop into strong, healthy adults. Orca mothers enjoy stability and a lifetime relationship with their offspring. However, researchers found negative repercussions for both mother and son: mothers miss out on opportunities to bear more children and sons become so dependent on their mothers’ support that they often die shortly after their mother does.
And this is where the warning bells sounded for me. The email was about Mateo’s high school schedule. While I may have shed a few, “My baby is growing up tears,” that’s not the reaction that prompted my self-reflection. My immediate reaction after those initial tears of nostalgia was to schedule his classes-for the next four years.
In fact, I sent a very long and detailed email to his future guidance counselor asking pointed questions about honors classes, AP vs CCP, four year plans with contingencies, and everything else I needed to know to plan his schedule for him.
I do this a lot. Mateo is shy; he’s always struggled to communicate and watching him answer questions, especially from adults, can be awkwardly painful. To alleviate the stress, I’ve developed a habit of speaking for him. I talk to his teachers, coaches, counselors, even his friends. I’m his advocate, his voice. I cannot help myself sometimes because, well, he needs me.
I’m also ambitious. Yes, for myself, but even more so for my children. In my unbiased view, they are gorgeous, brilliant, talented, empathetic, and well, just crazily awesome human beings. They can do anything and should accomplish everything they can.
Mateo is not always so ambitious, though. No big plans for the future just yet. No lofty goals for world domination. He needs a little encouragement, so I do that too.
And this is what I fear makes me an orca most of all.
The analogy is not perfect. In no way shape or form, do I want to produce any more offspring. In fact, 2 years after he was born, I brought my beautiful Lucia into this world and only then did I decide 2 children were all I could handle.
While I hope he will miss me when I’m gone, I’m confident Mateo will live a long wonderful life after I die. The child most definitely can feed himself. In fact, he makes a mean grilled cheese and can even roll his own sushi.
Mateo is not helpless without me, of course, but I do see how my habit of speaking for him, planning for him, advocating for him, has had ramifications and that will continue to hinder him should I continue to act like a mama orca.
Mateo, my introverted, sweet boy will be a high school freshman next year. If the next four years are like what many of my friends describe, they will be gone in an instant. Next comes college, then a career, then a family. Here I go planning for him again.
I cannot be his voice forever. I should not insert myself into every decision he needs to make. I need to choose when to advocate for Mateo, but more importantly insist that he speak for himself.
Last summer, we found the most adorable surprise lying next to a tree less than a yard from our deck: A doe had left her tiny fawn there, partially hidden by the wild flowers I had planted in the spring. The sweet baby looked up at me and I immediately needed to protect him. I kept watch into the night, far enough away to avoid disturbing the fawn and mother, who I knew would return, but close enough to hear the approach of any possible predators.
When I awoke the next morning, the fawn was gone. He was back with his mama after she had spent time nourishing herself so that she could be strong and replenished enough to nurse her baby.
When Pete and I built our home, one nonnegotiable wishlist item was a front large enough for long evenings rocking in our chairs and looking out over the park. We feel like we’re in the trees, so it’s not surprising that a barn swallow couple decided to share our space as they made a nest and hatched a brood of four.
I watched the little ones grow as both mom and dad swooped in to feed them. I walked onto the porch one morning to hear loud squawking. One by one, the now almost full grown birds were walking to the ledge and leaving the nest. 1,2,3 birds fluttered away until just one little guy was left.
I watched as mom would chirp insistently and he would teeter timidly to the edge and then turn and jump right back into the nest. This went on for over a day, but what seemed like an eternity. Pete and I feared the bird would never make the leap and be left in the nest all alone to perish.
I kept checking the nest, as did mama. She’d chirp and squawk and insist. She was persistently annoying to both her offspring and her porch mates, but in the end it worked. That bird did it-he finally left the comfort of the nest with just a little extra encouragement. I know it’s super cheesy, or as Lucy would say, cringy, but dammit, I was proud of that little guy.
While I’m an avid reader and sometimes obsessive researcher, I’ve learned a lot of parenting is instinctual. We can learn so much from observing the natural world and sometimes need to stop looking for the perfect approach to raising our babies.
Mateo is growing into an impressive young man. He’s still quiet, but slowly learning to find his voice when he needs it. He’s been training 7 days a week for 3 different sports, but still manages to earn straight A’s, even while taking high school courses. The kid makes me proud.
Of course, he can be a bit of an A-hole at times, especially when playing Fortnite or fighting with his sister. I recently learned he told a girl who flirts with him that she’s “annoying.” That’s not exactly what I had in mind when I envisioned him finding his voice…We’ll need to work on that…
I think I am probably an orca mom. I’m also a mama bear, an elephant, a doe, a barn swallow, and, yes, even a disgustingly foul goose. Most importantly, I am human. We all are human. We make mistakes, we overthink, we don’t think enough…we are imperfect with our mixture of animal instincts, human intellect, and a good dose of finger crossing, hoping for the best.
As I enter this new stage in parenting, I’ll need to make adjustments as I go, let Mateo speak for himself and trust the world enough to let him navigate it, while persistently encouraging him to branch out. I don’t think I’ll ever lose the instinct to fight like hell to protect him from danger, but in the end, I need to believe in him and know he’s tough enough to take on challenges himself.
I’m not sure if I’m ready, but just as Pete reminded me when I went into labor almost 14 years ago, “Nicole, you don’t have a choice.” Cross your fingers and toes for me friends, this orca mom is going to need it.