Momma Mouse and Me

Last night at around 9:30 p.m. my nineteen year old son, who is a new and enthusiastic runner, decided to go out to Central Park for a run. My fingers knitted together and my brow was close behind.

“Running? Now? It’s 9:30.” I said.

My son looked at me with a gently benevolent and only slightly patronizing expression, “Mom, I’m six feet tall, it’ll be fine.”

So he left. And I got ready for bed. And fell asleep the way mothers do – with one ear open waiting for him to come home. Which he did, of course. But it got me thinking about motherhood and the demon of worry that we seem to give birth to at the same time that our children come out of the womb.

I wonder if animals worry about their young? This weekend, I was out in the country with a group of good friends. Two of us went out to the barn to retrieve a barrel we needed. It was covered in insulation which, when removed, revealed a frantic field mouse who promptly jumped out and ran away. We were about to move the container when my friend said, “Oops, there are babies.” Sure enough there were little baby mice mewling quietly and searching blindly for their mother who had run away. We replaced the insulation to ensure that momma could get back if she wanted to. I wondered if she would? Was she simply trying to deflect our attention or was she abandoning her babies to save herself? Although I don’t know much about the nature of small mammals, I suspect she was hoping that if we were predators we would come after her and leave her babies alone.

I saw a bluebird do the same thing as the mouse, although she stayed closer by her chicks. We were trying to get a peek at her newly hatched babies and she flew down to the lawn, fluttering as if she’d hurt her wing, trying to attract our attention away from her babies. I think it was her version of knitting her brow and twisting her fingers in dismay.

Does what the momma mouse and bluebird did constitute worry? Or at least its instinctive counterpart? Maybe worrying is a genetic pre-programming that protects the species.

Some might argue that it’s different for humans – after all, once the baby mice or birds grow up, their respective mothers probably don’t give them another thought -- out of sight, out of mind. That’s kind of true for humans too, though. I know I worry far less about my son when he’s away at college than I do when he’s here.

I’m not sure what any of this teaches us – either about ourselves or about animals – other than the fact that worry, at least, seems to be part of our nature once we become parents.