Empathy Arrives On A Wing With No Prayer

31 05 2011

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.




7 responses

31 05 2011

Wow, seems like we were thinking of the same thing tonight. But uh…our kids are definitely not on the same track.

Poor PJ. I can understand how upset she must have been about that poor baby bird. You did a good job, SF. Not bad for a cookie eating, beer guzzling mama.

31 05 2011

Oooo. First Dead Animal. That’s a big parenting milestone. We haven’t crossed that bridge yet, and I’m not too anxious about it. I just keep wondering what’s the right age for carving up our first fresh road kill. (for dissecting, not eating)

1 06 2011

while reading this, my first reaction was to say something sarcastic. cause that’s the norm when talking to you. but by the end of the post, i just couldn’t. i remember putting a dead fly in a sunflower seed shell and burying it. and i remember how hard you worked to save animals during those 60 hour work weeks. and i remember in third grade i took a stray kitten home from school only to have my mom tell me i couldn’t keep it. she gave it to a friend and a few weeks later it climbed behind the tv, bit a cord and died. and now i’m remembering sophie. ah geez.

1 06 2011

Oh wow, that was so beautiful. I seriously have a huge lump in my throat and feel like bawling.


I keep waiting for Oa to get there… Everytime he sticks his little fingers in my eyes, it feels sort of brutal and with all the eye surgeries I’ve had I am hyperhyper-sensitive and I freak out, and all I can say is “Do not put your fingers in my eyes…because Mama doesn’t like it.” And he doesn’t get it.

1 06 2011
Meg B

Lovely post, beautifully written. Bittersweet moment. After reading this I realize how everyday occurrences are so ‘loaded’ -for lack of a better word, when raising little ones.

2 06 2011

I keep trying to comment and then scrolling back up to look in her sad little eyes and all my words have gone away and i just have a big lump in my throat. Dead animals. They shouldn’t be allowed. I wish it was possible to stop her heart hurting. But wow, the ability to hurt for *someone else* is such an incredible milestone. Put that one in the baby book! (Oh hang on, I guess you just kind of did).

2 06 2011
il panettiere...

Empathy. Such an beautiful thing to have, but damn. It hurts.

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