Next Sunday is Mother's Day, and already I am in fine feather. This morning, my daughter called to consult on the menu for a bridal shower she is hosting and then again to ask about a random pain in her hip. My son wanted to discuss his toddler's potty training. My husband asked if I could buy more coffee and file his insurance claim. My friend needed to defuse her worries by talking them through. Each of them. In detail.
I love all these people, I take their concerns seriously and I am honored that they turn to me for the words and deeds -- mostly small but apparently urgent -- that make their own lives better. To the best of my ability, I solace, I nourish, I instruct, I protect, I reassure. I'm not just a mother; I'm a mother hen.
This is a good thing to be. I've spent a lot of time studying chickens and reading what brighter lights than I have had to say on the subject, and, really, there's no question: A mother hen is who you want guarding your back. And front. Also warming your nest, finding your dinner and pecking through the grit of daily life to find the emotional support every creature needs to get through the day.
But don't take my word for it. Listen to Plutarch, writing in the first century:
" We daily behold hens, how they cherish their chickens, taking some of them under their spread wings, suffering others of them to run upon their backs, and taking them in again, with a voice expressing kindness and joy."
Thomas Bewick, the great artist/ornithologist of the generation before Audubon, described the mother hen as "a lively emblem of the most affectionate solicitude; she covers her eggs with her wings and body, fosters them with a genial warmth, and changes them gently, that all parts may be properly heated... she omits no care, overlooks no precaution, to complete the existence of the little incipient beings, and to guard against the dangers that threaten them."
Charles Darwin, fascinated by the slow evolution of natural advantages, praised a particular mother hen as evidence that a quick-minded mom will not wait generations to improve the diet of her young. Finding a superior feeding ground on the other side of a wide stream, "she adopted the habit of flying across with her chickens upon her back, taking one chicken on each journey. She thus transferred her whole brood every morning, and brought them back in a similar way to their nest every evening. The habit of carrying young in this way is not natural to Gallinaceae, and therefore this particular instance of its display can only be set down as an intelligent adjustment by a particular bird."
Mark Twain, usually eager to satirize all things sentimental, had a soft spot for mother hens, defending them as the opposite of dumb clucks. "We know that a hen has speech," Train wrote. "We cannot understand everything she says, but we easily learn two or three of her phrases. We know when she is saying 'I have laid an egg', we know when she is saying to the chicks, 'Run here, dears, I've found a worm'; we know what she is saying when she voices a warning: 'Quick! Hurry! Gather yourselves under mama, there's a hawk coming!'"
Even the staid and dispassionate Larousse Encyclopedia of Domestic Management gets dewy-eyed over this poultry paragon of selfless love, a creature who "fulfills her duties as 'mother hen' with an incomparable devotion and tenderness."
Yes, I am flattered to think I am a mother hen. The next step, by the way, is to become an old biddy, a name that isn't an insult when attached to a senior hen who helps instruct the flightier spring chickens on the mysteries of rearing baby chicks. I look forward to that -- especially if the potty training thing works out before my next visit.
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