A Neurobiological Reflection on ARE YOU MY MOTHER? or A Wandering Grownup

With snot crusted eyebrows and a diaper full of poop puree creamier than the whipped sweet potatoes that he devoured, my 10-month-old son leaps out of my arms and eagerly points toward his bookshelves. Developmentally preferences such as which foods to eat and what hand to dominantly use are still a mystery but when it comes to books, Benton already knows exactly what he wants.

I am convinced that there are only two types of children’s books 1) those that speak to the deepest truths of the human condition and 2) those that were written while the author was on a peyote bender. While my son enjoys a peyote inspired text from time to time (what the hell is going on in Goodnight Moon?) his favorite book is Are You My Mother? For this I am grateful.

Are You My Mother? is the story of a young bird’s search for someone or something to take care of it. One look into that birdie’s desperate eyes and I could identify. I now wonder if this book is about our 20s and maybe our 30s or maybe all of life. Aren’t we all looking for the partner, job, amount of money, sedan, city, attire, or community that will provide us with comfort, safety, and a sense of belonging? Aren’t we all looking for our preverbal bird mother? Just say yes and stay with me.

I recently read a book for adults (a neurobiology text called A General Theory of Love, which I highly recommend) that told the story of an infant’s brain’s response to its mother. Good chemicals (oxytocin) flood the brain when any sense (smell, touch, glimpse) of mother and bad chemicals (cortisol) increase up to six times with just 30 minutes of separation from a mother. Most people believe that this attachment theory (as its referred to in psychological circles) is only relevant for infants, but the authors say strongly, “adults cannot be stable on their own – not should or shouldn’t be, but can’t be.” They go on to describe that in the absence of oxytocin and our brain’s other chemical needs, we cling to just about anyone or anything – as happens with our baby bird character.

Are You My Mother? begins with the mother bird leaving. Page 1 and my heart rate is up (and so is the cortisol). I don’t care what Mother Bird had to do, you don’t leave a baby bird in a nest in a tall tree! Good thing there is not CPS in Are You My Mother?

So the bird, all alone and looking for anything to provide it security, falls out of the nest to begin its search. He cannot fly, but he can walk. I liken this to college. Do you remember the first night when you realized you didn’t have a curfew? FREEDOM! I stayed in the Taco Bell parking lot so long that night. And like the bird, as we take our first steps into our freedom we search for things to attach to. The bird wanders, confronts a cat and then a hen and asks “are you my mother?” Are you the thing that will make me feel secure?

Then, my favorite part of the search is when the baby bird approaches the Dog. The book reads “I’m not your mother,’ said the Dog, ‘I’m a Dog.’” I wish that money would say that. I wish that professional success would say that. Can you imagine if that fourth gin and tonic could talk to you? “I’m not going to take care of you,” said the cocktail, “I’m a cocktail.”

Finally the baby bird meets a SNORT – a large crane device that makes loud farting sounds (or at least that’s what I do when I am narrating). Oddly this giant, red, noisy, SNORT picks up the baby and returns it to its nest atop the tall tree where it is reunited with its mother. The only object that the wandering baby bird was scared of was the very thing that delivered the bird to where it needed to be.


Who or what do we believe takes care of us? Is it our spouses? Is it our charisma? Is it the 10k in our bank accounts? Is it busyness and a full iCal? Is it our titles? Is it our 401ks? Is it our reputation? Is it our freedom?

And is there something that seems as dangerous as the SNORT? A new job? A move? Breaking up with your boyfriend? An honest conversation at work or with a family member? Have you avoided the SNORT? Is it possible that these seemingly dangerous things could actually return you to your nest and the real source of your security?

Perhaps I am making too much of a children’s book. Perhaps I’ve got a second hand peyote high. But I am challenged by this book. Aware of how I have left the nest and wandered. Inspired to engage the scary and large. And most of all reminded that real attachment is found by returning to The Always Loving.


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