Tending Our Nest

Dear Will:

Every March or April for the past I-don’t-know-how-many, birds have taken up residence in the eaves above our front door. They have treated the nest there like a vacation home, abandoning it as summer approaches and then returning the following year in early spring. Their return always involves some basic home improvement and busy-ness, signaled by random twigs discarded on the welcome mat outside our front door. A couple of years ago we even saw a second nest appear maybe three feet from the original, transforming our porch into a bustling housing tract. We were delighted.

Then last summer we felt compelled to repaint the exterior of our home. In preparing for their work, the painters cleaned the eaves around the full perimeter of the house, discarding (I’m sad to say) the abandoned nests in the process. We wondered if we would ever see our birds again.

So you can imagine our delight a few weeks ago when twigs began appearing outside our front door once again. In no time the vacation home had been reconstructed, and before long we began hearing the familiar sound of hungry baby birds.

To satisfy our curiosity without agitating the mother and her babies, we sometimes stand inside our home and sneak a peek through the window at the young family that lives in “our nest.” Although we do not have the well-placed camera you get on a National Geographic Special, if you’re patient you can stand just a few feet away and see the tiny heads poking out and calling for supper. You’ll also see the mother, coming and going, coming and going, tending to the needs of the tiny birds in her care.

All too soon the little brood will be gone.  Somewhere nearby, our baby birds may stand chirping in a tree or may bounce along the grass foraging for food. Perhaps they will join many others at the birdfeeder in our backyard, or perhaps they will depart, never to return. I suppose it’s even possible that one of them will find a mate and return to the nest beneath the eaves. I don’t really know how it is with birds. But this I do know: For now those fragile lives are almost entirely dependent on the vigilant care of their mother. She will nurse them and feed them, guard them and teach them, prepare them as best she can and then step aside and watch—I imagine with some anxiousness— as they head off to find their way in the world beyond the protection of our eaves.

Inside our home, it has ever been thus. My wife has nursed and fed and guarded and taught, worrying and praying and willing our children from infancy to adulthood. Now she stands aside, watching from afar, as two of our three have left the nest and are trying mightily to take flight in the perilous world beyond our doors. There is little more that she can do at this point, but it does not keep her from worrying night and day about their welfare. It would not surprise me if, even as I write these lines, she is kneeling again at her bedside, beseeching her Heavenly Father to watch over her precious little ones.

I know this also: The love poured out by that kneeling woman is unwavering, heartfelt, as powerful as any emotional force in the universe.  As Dana watches her children take those first tentative steps of adulthood, she feels every misstep, shares every heartache, celebrates every success, and thrills at every opportunity to watch her children rise and answer the challenges of real life. This does not make her unique; it makes her a mother.

Thank God for her, and for those like her, and for the children they continue to bless with their unrelenting love.


The Benevolent Monarch Reigns

Dear Will:

With Independence Day fast approaching, I find myself pondering the significance of personal freedom. A couple of hundred years ago, self-determination was an idea worth committing treason for—worth fighting and dying for—and you and I and millions of others are now the beneficiaries of that fight, citizens of history’s most influential republic.

Of course, my children are filled with consternation over the fact that our home is less republic than benevolent dictatorship (their noun) or monarchy (my noun). They get frustrated by the fact that they are not always free to choose because their parents sometimes impose choice upon them. As we speak, my 12-year-old Seth is upset that his mother has filled his summer with productive, worthwhile activities rather than leaving him to his own devices. Given the choice, he would spend the next two months watching TV and playing computer games. Having had the choice made for him, however, he looks over the next eight or nine weeks to discover his days cluttered with basketball camp, art classes, tennis and golf lessons, and something or other to do with horses. (Outrageous, I know.) “My summer is ruined,” he declares. “You haven’t left me any time for fun!”

I know as well as you do that the central issue here is not whether basketball camp will be fun but rather that he is being forced to attend. Sometimes we do that as parents, constraining our kids to do things “for their own good.” It is part of our divine responsibility, in fact, to nurture and teach our children and, yes, from time to time compel them to stretch. The Church has declared: “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, to teach them to love and serve one another, to observe the commandments of God and to be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.” I realize that it doesn’t say anything in there about tennis lessons, but it does give me some assurance that I am duty-bound to teach my kids to do things they might not otherwise do.

It gets a little trickier as our children get older though, doesn’t it? My eldest child is now 21, which pretty much means that his choices are his and his alone. Inasmuch as he’s still getting some financial support as he finishes college, he is still not completely independent, but I can assure you that these days he makes plenty of choices with which I wholeheartedly disagree. It is painful, I confess, to stand by and watch him make mistakes, but mistakes are part of the Divine Plan too.

Central to that Plan is the idea of individual choice. The scripture tell us: “Men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil” (2 Nephi 2:27). Freedom to choose for our­selves allows us the privilege to do as we please with the time we are given in mortality. Metaphori­cally speaking, God will not impose basketball camp on any of us; rather we’re free to spend our time watching all of the sitcoms and playing all of the video games we can stomach. But when the great summer of life comes to an end, we will be held accountable for the choices we have made. Whether our lives lead to liberty and eternal life or something significantly worse is pretty much up to us.

You probably guessed without my telling you that Seth is quick to cite this same scripture in a futile attempt to rescue his summer from his mother and father, but we are unyielding. At this point in life, our choice trumps his. The day of his complete independence will come soon enough. Until then, the Benevolent Monarch will continue to reign.


The Sort of Thing Good Parents Do

Dear Will:

My daughter is standing beside me—right over there—waiting for me to make a difficult decision so that she doesn’t have to. It’s the sort of thing I do too often: I tell my kids what to do instead of letting them figure it out on their own. It’s one of the things that makes me an ineffective dad.

But tonight—ever so briefly—I actually exercised some restraint. It was an imperfect effort at best inasmuch as I started to tell her what to do before catching myself, but at least this time I showed a little more forbearance than usual. For once it occurred to me (as no doubt it occurs to most parents on a regular basis) to ask her to lay out for me her various options, even while knowing that none of them was any good. Then I asked her which solution sounded like the best one to her.

I know what you’re thinking: Duh. This is the sort of thing that good parents do. They guide their children and help them learn to make decisions for themselves. But what I too often do is swoop in to solve the problem for them, depriving them in the process of an opportunity to grow and learn. I read somewhere that we males have a strong tendency to do that in relationships. We’re always trying to fix things, even when no one has asked us for a fix. We come up with solutions at times when maybe we should just shut up and listen.

It occurs to me that this little family vignette—of absolutely no consequence in the eternal scheme of things—is really not all that different from the way God oversees the activities of his children in this world of ours. The cynic or the agnostic wonders why He doesn’t simply intervene in the affairs of men and women on earth, eliminating the suffering, counteracting evil, solving our problems for us. “If He’s all powerful,” the thinking goes, “then why does He allow so much bad stuff to happen?” The flaw to that reasoning, of course, is that it fails to recognize that life has much more purpose than to get us from birth to death without too much misery. In fact, we are here upon this earth to learn for ourselves, to grow and become, to face tests and challenges and (one hopes) come out the other side better people for the experience. Were God always to intervene—to solve our problems for us in the same way I tend to for my children—there wouldn’t be much point to our earthly existence at all.

Meanwhile, my daughter has picked up on some subtle behavioral clues (namely, that I’m typing and not talking to her any more) and she’s headed off down the hall, perhaps to mull over her options (or more likely to see if she can get my wife to make the decision for her instead). I think ultimately I know which way this is going to go—as God pretty much knows ahead of time what our next move will be as well. Hmmm. Perhaps there’s food for thought in that as well.