Empty Nest Lessons from a Squatter Bird
Empty Nest Lessons from a Squatter Bird
by Monique Franz
Every year mourning doves take up residence in a Mother’s Day flower basket my kids gave me in 2020. I did not know what a priceless gift it would be for my newest stage of motherhood—parenting young adults. This stage of parenting, in general, needs more conversation. What to Expect When You’re Expecting did nothing to prepare me for having three adult kids in the house, so I thought I’d jumpstart the conversation from what I’ve been learning from the mama birds squatting on my front porch.
Mama Bird goes AWOL
Firstly, the mama bird lays two to three eggs, and fiercely watches over them for two weeks before they hatch. She even has a beau around to bring her takeout while she maintains the watch. This reminds me of those early parenting years, from infanthood to kindergarten, when we’re trying to keep our kids safe and alive. After the eggs hatch, the mourning dove tends to her fledglings through fair and stormy weather, sheltering them from random crow attacks and from our window-sneering cat. This stage, likened to parenting school-aged children and adolescents. Then, the mother dove picks up and leaves the nest! She simply takes up residence in the nearby oak. Now, this speaks to me, people. I mean, I feel this mama bird. She is finished raising babies, and is ready to get her groove back.
Every day of her nest service is comparable to a human year. So, she spends what is like 24 years taking care of her chicks, being bound to that nest. To finally spread her wings, while getting her kids to do the same, the mourning dove ceases to bring food to the nest. This forces the fledglings out. One by one, I watch her young teeter on the edge of the nest until they have the guts to fall to the ground where they learn how to fly on their own. As I understand it, the mother feeds them there on the ground for a season, but she stretches her young into a space to strengthen their own wings. This is something that we—as modern-day parents—can learn from. We overprotect our kids, because we don’t want our kids to make any irreversible mistakes that will drive the rest of their lives, but the mama bird removes her overprotective wings for her young to flex their own.
Watching from my window, I see this mama bird’s reckless faith, because her fledglings are not killing it out there on their own at first. They’re fluttering around the ground, clumsily scattering like rodents whenever the front door opens. And they have plenty to fear. I’ve seen the neighborhood hawks zip in, looking for drive-thru supper, but the once overprotective mama bird lets her dovelets scatter to the nearby bush for safety. She doesn’t interfere when they are running for their lives. She stays close, but she does not revert to the nest experience.
So, I’ve been taking notes from the mourning mamas, while navigating the awkward stage of parenting in-house adults. My four kids display a range of get-up-and-go, which grants me a variety of parenting trials to learn (and share) from. Each of my baby birds is a species of their own, needing a whole different parenting angle. So, I thought I’d share my experiences along with a few tips to help other parents.
THE EAGLE CHILD
You may have an eagle child who, like my oldest daughter, can’t wait to leave the nest. They (and maybe you) are itching for their eighteenth birthday, because this child is so strong-willed and independent. This baby bird will be free by any means necessary. Their exit may be a positive transition into an Ivy League university or a negative split where your child winds up shacking up with a boyfriend (as I did). However, this child successfully leaves the nest! You want this. Even if the move takes an emotional toll and you don’t agree with your child’s timeframe or decisions, their ability to leave is a win. The eagle child gains independence, and although you might not see this child as much as you want to when he/she takes flight, they do well making a life for themselves.
THE HIDEAWAY BIRD
Your child may be more like my second daughter, who reminds me of the Inaccessible Island Rail, a flightless Goth bird, who pretty much stays out of sight. Similarly, you rarely see your kid although they’re still at home, because they nest in the hollows of their room. You classify the kid as endangered because you have no idea what they're up to or where their head is.
This baby bird lingers and lingers in the nest. They don’t go out with friends. They don’t date. Maybe they have a cyberspace community, but you’re pretty sure they will live with you forever. This child moves at their own pace. All nagging becomes counterproductive and causes the child to retreat into the nest. Give this bird plenty of responsibilities as we did my second daughter. We required her to support cleaning, cooking, errands, and bills, and gradually she gained the confidence that she could adult on her own.
THE ODD BIRD
And then there are odd birds like my third who are much like the kakapo, a bird species resembling a parrot, owl, and turkey. Like the kakapo, this child can’t decide on who it wants to be or what it wants to do. They are flightless, nocturnal, and vegetarian, so you may find yourself cooking two meals every night.
This young adult needs room to explore interests until they find their way. However, they should not remain comfortable feeding from your crop milk. Before leaving the nest, the mama bird spends her energy stores nursing her fledglings with this nutritional substance. Make it clear to your child that you can’t continue to spend your energy providing for them while they find their way. You need their practical help with bills and/or chores around the house.
When my son turned nineteen, I told him we could not afford for him to be inactive as an adult. We would not work ten-hour days (as a couple in our fifties with limited years ahead) and allow him to veg-out on his smartphone while we worked days off our lives. We gave him four hours of household chores a day to make up for the part-time job he did not have. It was only a few weeks before my son found his own job outside of the home. Although he does not like to do chores, he understood the arrangement as fair. Today, my son still rises at eight in the morning to support us in whatever household chores we need while attending his own college courses.
THE TALKATIVE BIRD
Then there’s the talkative, loud kid who, like the cockatoo, is playful and affectionate. They have a charm that makes them hard to resist, but these are needy birds who crave attention and are a bit high-maintenance. These baby birds are often the youngest of the family, and no matter if it is early morning, noon, or night, they are pushy enough to get the worm.
These kids may become overly comfortable in the nest, because parents keep them cozy—mainly out of exhaustion. Boundaries are ideal for these kids, because they don’t seem to realize how much they require in household resources; time, funds, energy. Yet, these children will surprise you with their initiative and industriousness. Celebrate this child’s wins, and they will continue to accomplish towards their own self-sufficiency.
BRING ON THE EMPTY NEST
As parents, we should push our adult children to be independent and self-sufficient, and it’s okay if it doesn’t happen overnight. We want them to spread their wings and soar, so we sometimes have to brave the discomfort of making them less comfortable in the nest. Like dove fledglings, our kids will eventually take flight and find their way in the world. And we can take comfort in knowing that we did everything we could to help them achieve success. But once our children leave home for good, a new phase of our lives begins. It’s a time to relax and focus on ourselves for a change. Sure, it’s bittersweet to see our kids go, but it’s also exciting to think about all the possibilities that await us now that we’re free! So bring on the empty nest—we’re ready for whatever comes next!