In P.D. Eastman’s seminal work on motherhood and abandonment, “Are You My Mother?” the reader follows the journey of an infant bird, suddenly abandoned by its mother. Forced to seek food beyond the confines of the nest, the baby bird is confused, disoriented, and alone. Like many single parents in the today’s economy, the need to feed her offspring forced the mother to make a difficult decision. Do I leave the nest to work and obtain food, leaving my child beyond the care of a relative or friend or do we starve? Without a community to rely upon, the mother left and her child was alone.
The bird has never seen its mother. Born in darkness and reared in a silent oval of matriarchal darkness, the bird has no concept of itself or the world it inhabits. The bird’s entry into the animal kingdom was one of ignorance. The bird lacked access to the basic skills and education held by others animals it would soon encounter. Fueled only by a desire to connect with its mother, the bird left the relative safety of the nest for a world it did not know or understand. Unable to fully read, write, or express itself, the bird was severely disadvantaged. Predators (both financial and physical) were irrelevant to bird’s narrow world view. Without basic knowledge and relationship awareness with the other animals, the market driven economy would devour the bird.
In quick succession, the bird meets three local animals: a kitten, a chicken, and a dog. The “kitten just looked and looked. It did not say a thing.” The cat is a natural predator of the bird. Mute kittens, while harmless enough to humans, provoke fear in the minds of small birds. This cat represents the sum of all fears; that which the bird address and is to frighten to name. Clearly, this evil is not his mother. Similarly the chicken and the dog are also like the bird but different. The chicken is a bird, they share similar qualities, but they are not the same.
On the other hand, the cow, who speaks, is large and benevolent. The cow might be her mother. In Hinduism, the role of the Mother is raised to the level of a Goddess. Mothers are highly venerated. This is why the cow is considered a sacred animal. Cows give us sacred, life giving milk. Cows are maternal, sacred, and life-giving animals. Is Eastman telling us, despite the bovine protestations, that the cow is indeed the mother of the bird and mother goddess of us all? I believe so.
Not to take rejection lightly, the bird asks, “Did he have a mother?” This is the ultimate existential question. Where did I come from? Do I exist?
“I did have a mother,” said the baby bird. “I know I did. I have to find her. I will. I will!”
The bird realizes we all come from somewhere. The bird has stumbled on to one of the greatest Mathematical paradoxes of the modern era. First described by Kurt Gödel in the early 20th century, it’s often referred to as the “incompleteness theorem”. In 1931, Gödel began work on idea which said; whatever is the biggest idea humanity can figure out, we can always go one bigger. That thing one bigger may be God or in this case, the bird’s mother. The little bird is on to find the unmoved mover.
However, instead of moving onward toward the cosmos or inward toward the soul, the bird goes outward into the junkyards of late 20th century capitalism. There is the beat up old car, the steam ship traveling through a canal, a jet, and finally a backhoe. In each of these confrontations, the bird honestly believes he’s found his mother. To the reader, a sense of sadness should be palpable. How did an innocent, abandoned bird, a victim of the modern capitalist economy come to confuse his mother with the byproducts of capitalism (tools which are used to destroy his home, his family, his food supply)?
Isn’t this the socio-economic horror story of our time? Yes.
The backhoe takes him home. A happy ending. Yeah, right. How long before the wealthy landowner orders the backhoes to take the tree down? Eastman doesn’t tell you that story.
I send my thoughts and prayers to the bird and his mother, preemptively.
Richard Lowell Bryant