A week and a half ago my husband and children discovered a robin’s nest in a tree on our street. Built relatively low and easily accesible, they have enjoyed checking on it every day except during tornado warnings (which have been way more frequent than you might imagine.)
I thought it was odd that the nest had FIVE eggs in it. It seemed like the size of family that either doesn’t all survive or gets you a reality show. Then they all hatched and I silently chided myself for being a pessimist.
A few days ago SAG admitted that on more than one occassion they have found a chick under the nest, and he has gently placed the discarded baby back in with its breatheren. My response to his confession, “That’s mean.” To me this felt like prolonging the inevitable. To SAG it felt like the only humane thing to do.
Today when SAG arrived home from work, they all headed out on their nightly gator-ride and visit to the nest. A few minutes later they all came back in the house. PJ had a look on her face that I have NEVER seen before. SAG explained that one of the chicks was lying under the nest and had not made it. PJ climbed into my lap.
We cuddled and talked. I explained that five babies was an awful lot for one mother bird to try to take care of especially with all the bad weather we have been having. PJ said that the mother could build a bigger nest. I said that even with a bigger nest it was hard to find worms to feed that many babies and again talked about the nasty weather. PJ didn’t say anything else. I tried to support and confirm her emotions. (This is not neccessarily the type of thing that comes naturally for me. I could distinctly hear a voice in my head coaching myself through it.)
When I was growing up and we found fledglings my dad would say things like, “you can put it in that box, but it isn’t going to live.” My sister and I would build the bird a nest, it would die. During my career in animal welfare, when I frequently devoted 60 or more hours a week to saving animals, I would think about my father and how his style of straight-forward realism mixed with his respect for nature and general compassion shaped me.
PJ maturing to the stage where she feels empathy is something that I have been waiting for (as have our pets and Little Dude.) PJ is not a particularly cruel toddler, but the lack of empathy has been painfully (literally) obvious at times. Just last week she laughed at her brother while he was crying and it was all I could do to keep myself from calling a child psychologist. As a logical, educated adult I KNOW that a child’s brain has to reach a certain stage before empathy develops. As a paranoid mother, I worry every time my young toddlers display what feels like pyschopathic behaviors. Logic, emotion, logic, emotion, I ride this parenting teeter-totter all day long.
It is amazing that this incident happened tonight. Just in the last couple of days when PJ said, “Sorry” to me following some inadvertant transgression, I noticed it felt different. It seemed like she actually felt sorry instead of just saying the word because she knows it is the “right” thing to do in certain circumstances or because SAG and I insisted upon it. I noted the change and wondered if she reached the developmental stage where she was beginning to feel empathy.
Tonight I got my answer. Tonight I saw a look on her face I have never seen before. Tonight I saw what empathy looks like on my three-year-old. And I remembered what I had forgotten. Empathy, understanding another’s pain, means feeling pain. Damn.