Sometimes, we need a mother hen

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Thinkers, including the first-century Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch, have mused over the question for centuries. But apparently Plutarch also admired hens for the way they protect their young, “drooping their wings for some to creep under, and receiving with joyous and affectionate clucks others that mount upon their backs or run up to them from every direction.” Hens will even put their chicks behind them and stand their ground to fight off a menacing dog when necessary. It’s no wonder that “mother hen” has become a proverbial image of doting and concerned motherhood.

Unfortunately, in our individualist culture, the phrase can also take on a bit of a disparaging tone, as if to suggest that Mom is being a bit too solicitous, to the point of being interfering. Women sometimes even disparage themselves: “I guess I’m just too much of a mother hen.”

It’s true that our concern for our kids can sometimes overrun our tact and judgment. But I would hope that we would never forget how much we owe to our mother hens.

Proponents of what’s known as attachment theory, a well-researched and highly influential understanding of human development, argue that children need their caretakers to be both a secure base and a safe haven. What that means, in essence, is that parents must establish a kind of dependable and sensitively caring relationship with their kids that allows them to venture outward from Mom and Dad (think of the baby who first learns to crawl and explore) without fear, always knowing that when things go wrong, they have someone to run to for protection and help. Every child should find security in the loving embrace of his or her parents.

And though we might not want to admit it, we don’t stop needing a place of refuge when we’re adults. Sometimes, our actual survival is at stake; other times, it just feels like our survival is at stake. But there’s a little kid inside all of us that craves security.

. . .

For many, many years, the literature on “parenting” was actually more specifically about mothering. I have sometimes joked with my students that as far as the research on parent-child relationships is concerned, fathers weren’t discovered until the 1980s. It’s an exaggeration, of course, but not far from the truth. Many people of my generation or earlier grew up with relatively uninvolved fathers; their job was to make the money, and Mom raised the kids and kept the house in order.

Things are different today, but I still wonder whether the persistent image of God as Father in the Bible sometimes doesn’t connect as well as it could emotionally with people for whom the word “father” has less positive associations than “mother.” That’s why it’s important, I think, to remember that the Bible also uses maternal images for God.

The most poignant of these is Jesus’ famous lament over the beloved city of Jerusalem:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you. How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. Look, your house is left to you deserted. (Matt 23:37-38, CEB)

As the quote from Plutarch suggests, hens were already known as a symbol of devoted, protective motherhood. Jesus’ lament seems less an expression of moral judgment than of brokenhearted longing. I know too many parents who continue to lament the direction of their adolescent and adult children’s lives; they still see the babies and toddlers their children once were, and grieve to watch the unfolding pattern of self-destructive behavior that they feel powerless to stop.

That’s what happens sometimes when people make their own choices.

. . .

Jesus’ lament is the first thing that comes to mind when I read the psalmist’s reference to finding refuge in the shadow of God’s wings (Ps 57:1). As we’ve seen over and over in the Psalms, the psalmists repeatedly come to God with their complaints and laments, with their need for a place of security and refuge from the persecution and threat of enemies. Psalm 57 is no exception.

But as we’ll see, that’s probably not the image the psalmist had in mind.

Still, it’s worth pondering: what does it mean to you to think of God as a hen longing to gather her chicks under her wings?