What Being a Chicken Mama Taught Me About Motherhood

This weekend is Mother’s Day. I think this year, more than ever, I am thinking deeply about motherhood. I am constantly assessing my failures as a mother and trying to figure out ways to do better. I have learned over the years that coming from trauma like I did impacts the way you mother your children–and not usually in a good way.

But I keep learning. I feel an enormous amount of guilt that I am a much better mama for my youngest child than I was for my oldest child. I was 21 when my oldest was born, and the only things I knew for sure were that I wouldn’t hit or spank, as I had been as a child, and that I would treasure her. It turns out that being a mother is far more complicated than that, though those two things are truly really good starts.

When you have one adult child who has been at least moderately forthcoming about where you went wrong (and the wildest thing to me is that it’s in ways I didn’t expect and don’t even remember sometimes), it helps you grow and learn as a mother.

However, I have also learned a lot from mothers in the animal world.

Before we got chickens, I had learned a bit about how elephants mother. I remember watching a nature documentary about a herd of elephants. A young mother had her baby fall into a muddy hole, and the baby couldn’t get out. The baby struggled. The young mother struggled to help her baby but couldn’t get it figured out. The narrator explained that the grandmother was there, looking on but trying not to interfere. She wanted her daughter to be independent and handle this difficult situation with her baby on her own.

But, after a little while, it was like the grandmother had had enough watching that baby struggle and charged over there, got the baby out of the hole, and the mother and baby were reunited. Thanks to wiser, older mom, who was trying very hard to not interfere but ended up having to.

The narrator explained that elephants are very nurturing mothers, but once their children are grown, they are more “hands off” so to speak. This seemed wise to me, but at the time, I had a baby and a teenager and didn’t yet have to practice the “hands off” part.

Later, we got chickens, and I had a chance to study motherhood in nature very close up.

When we have a hen go broody, if we want them to raise chicks, we separate them and put them in a dog crate in the garage. This ensures safety and privacy for the mama and her chicks, though I think our flock is chill enough that we could probably let a mama hatch eggs in the coop. Still, this plan also gives me a chance for deep study.

Over the years, I have watched about 15 chicken mamas in action. There are some commonalities among all of them: They are extremely nurturing and loving. Contact is constant, and when there is space between mama and baby, there is vocal contact.

Chicken mothers also teach with every moment and breath they have. It’s constant. Everything is teaching or nurturing or both. This is how we eat. This is how we drink. This is how we scratch. This is when we hide. This is the safe place to go. This is not the safe place to go. This human can be trusted. These other humans are strangers. I have even had the awesome experience of seeing a chicken mother hide her babies under leaves when a hawk was present. For real, those babies stayed there for at least a half an hour. I couldn’t believe it.

They are also infinitely patient. One night, I watched as our hen, Pumpkin, who was one of the best chicken mothers I have ever seen, sat patiently as her little boy climbed way up high on junk in our garage while everyone else was in bed under mama. He just kept climbing. I heard Pumpkin call for him several times, but he didn’t listen. Of course, you know what happened. He got up so high and then started crying–and crying and crying and crying.

Pumpkin got up, out of the dog crate, and tried to talk him down. Thankfully, Pumpkin had a human assistant, which is an important reminder that it does take a village to raise children. It’s just too hard to raise children without some kind of support system.

When that little boy was back safe and sound with his mama, he sang the sweetest songs to her. “I’ll never leave you again, mama,” he seemed to say. Of course, he did because that’s what they do.

Watching the way chicken mamas raised their babies helped me deeply understand the importance of my role as mother/teacher. It’s a mad world out there, and I can see that there is much to teach, probably more than I can even imagine, though I do try. So I try to teach about everything, and this requires being honest with my kids. I was not honest enough with my oldest when she was young, and I think that was a mistake. I think teaching requires some honesty, though honesty can be really, really hard. I surely don’t have all of the answers either.

But one of the most important lessons I learned was learning how to let go. After a mama hen has worked and worked to teach everything she can, when her babies grow up, she’s done. It’s such a hard job for her. She’s so exhausted, her comb is a little shriveled, and he has lost many of her feathers. The whole motherhood thing is so hard on her body that she molts. It’s time for her to take care of herself some, to heal from all of that work. It’s time for her to let her babies go, let them be grown ups.

It’s really hard. The mamas feel torn about it. The babies will sometimes cry for her, and when they cry, it sometimes confuses the mama hen. She’ll go back and forth between trying to cut the strings and caring for her babies just a little bit longer, but in a few days, she lets go.

As a human mom, I don’t think you ever let go, but I have learned to let go more. Last year, my grown daughter told me she needed some space from me. I had been trying to help her through a difficult situation, but I am sure I was really being bossy. It’s hard when you have the wisdom of age, when you have some answers, but your kiddos are not in a place where they want to hear them.

Even though it stung, like a lot, when my daughter told me I needed to step back, I remembered my mama hens, and I remembered that it’s okay to let them grow up.

I also remembered that there will come a time when I am finished losing my feathers, when both of my children are grown, when I have done my best to teach them everything I can. I will be sad. I will be so sad when my babies are all grown up.

But maybe I will also get my feathers back.

3 thoughts on “What Being a Chicken Mama Taught Me About Motherhood

  1. This made me cry, Crystal. I’ve struggled with “stepping back” and giving my grown son more space, at his request. Yes, it stings. A lot, as you say. But now when he calls or suggests time together it’s sweet and unburdened by that icky feeling that I’ve been overbearing. I work to trust that the foundation of love I know is there will carry us through the difficulties and conflicts that come our way.
    And BTW it has been so wonderful to witness your commitment to writing every day for 365 days! Congratulations and thank you for that hard work and inspiring example!


    1. Rochelle, this is so good to read, and thank you so much for telling me this. I am seeing some progress and am so hopeful that the foundation of love will carry us through the conflicts, as you say. This is lovely to read. Just thank you!


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