What a Cardinal Mother-to-Be is Teaching Me About Purpose and Mothering

Last week, I spotted a cardinal sitting on a nest of twigs and branches on a tall shrub right outside my living room window. My son and I have been mesmerized by her as she makes her journey into motherhood. Cardi Bee, as we call her, has been teaching me a lot about maintaining a sense of purpose. She is very clear about hers. She’s single-mindedly focused on making sure that her eggs hatch, that they are protected, that they survive. She doesn’t seem deterred or distracted, not by spring storms or her own hunger, and not by the other birds, squirrels and occasional bunnies that criss-cross the yard. She doesn’t seem to receive support either; no other creature has come by, at least not during our waking hours.

In spite of everything, Cardi Bee looks content. She is in a meditative space, staring straight ahead, her body still. She seems as though she has transcended the present moment in order to be one with her current purpose.

Can you spot Cardi Bee and her nest?

I am awed by her, both as a person and as a mother. I sit in the green rocking chair that used to be the nest for my own son when he was a newborn, and observe her with great interest. How is she so calm and centered? How does she do it all by herself? What does she need?

Even though I recognize my purpose and feel aligned with it, I haven’t surrendered to it as she has. I often feel like I have several calls to action in the various ecosystems of my life: family, friendships, community, social change efforts. I struggle to be in right relationship with these multiple purposes in my life, to identify the different roles I play, and to meet them with equal drive, rigor, enthusiasm, and commitment. And when it all gets to be too much, as it inevitably does, I react in all sorts of ways — I become exhausted, I have outbursts, I retreat, I lose confidence, I feel like I’ve failed.

What I’m learning from observing Cardi Bee is that it is important to ask ourselves what the present time calls upon us to do, even as we hold multiple purposes in our lives. And then, to approach that present purpose with reverence and surrender. To note that other commitments are present as well, but to let them know, “you’ll have your turn soon.” To understand that circumstances will keep changing to distract us from purpose. And to keep trying anyway to stay focused and aligned.

What I’m learning also is that meeting one’s purpose can’t be a solo act, that it requires an ecosystem of support and care. Cardi Bee might be alone but she has her eggs, she has the nest she built and the shrub that holds it, she has the sounds of the breeze. All give her strength and support.

And, what I’m learning is that purpose requires maintenance: a consistent practice of interrogation, evaluation and realignment that is centered in self-awareness and transformative growth.

In a world that values multitasking, hyper-productivity and urgency, it is challenging to do just one thing, as Cardi Bee is doing, or to feel satisfied if we aren’t managing multiple commitments at full speed (hello, FOMO). And yet, isn’t it true that what we give attention to becomes our reality, and that the more we multitask and tend to, the more frazzled, weakened, and confused our days (and we) become? This is the exhilaration and the weight of living a multi-purpose life.

If you’re a mother, you might feel this extra, especially during the pandemic. It’s abundantly clear that mothers are struggling to manage the commitments that meet us every day. Whether it is the disorienting feeling of moving from a Zoom presentation to prepping snacks and holding space for a child that’s tired of remote learning within the span of an hour, the fogginess of being a new mother and supervising staff, the difficulty of finding a job with equitable pay and leave policies, the ability to rest and take time for ourselves — most mothers aren’t meeting our purpose in any aspect of our lives.

For mothers to feel aligned with the multiple purposes in our lives, we have to do our own work, yes, but so do our ecosystems — our workplaces, families, society and government. We need to change the destructive narrative of the “supermom”, this belief that motherhood is somehow a solo act to prove the mettle and determination of a woman. We need to recognize that not every mother has a partner or family members available to help, and stop assuming that each mother and family unit has the same experiences and needs. We need to put systems in place to provide universal care for babies & young children, to support working moms with generous leave and health policies, to free incarcerated and detained mothers. We need to think of mothering through an ecosystem lens where all of us play a role to support the mothers in our lives.

(On Mother’s Day and everyday, please generously support Mothering Justice, Moms Rising, National Bailout #FreeBlackMamas, and mothers like my friend, Jo Kaur, seeking urgent medical care for their children).

As Cardi Bee’s gestation period continues, I realize that my son and I too are part of her ecosystem. And perhaps, in those moments where she is staring right at me and locking eyes with me, she’s aware of the healing and supportive energy I’m sending in her direction. I’m inspired by Cardi Bee, my own mother, and all the mothers, aunties, and caregivers out there, meeting purpose with full and open hearts.

As you think about your own purpose, here are a few reflection prompts:

What is your overarching purpose during this season of your life? What roles are you playing to meet that purpose? How can you meet it with reverence and surrender?

During the inevitable moments of misalignment with purpose, how do you take care of yourself during the confusion, the fog and the dissonance?

If you’re part of an ecosystem that includes mothers, how can you provide additional care and support?

Author of We Too Sing America; Host of Solidarity is This podcast; Senior Advisor at Building Movement Project; South Asian American activist/lawyer. @dviyer