During the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, my family and I visited the Knoxville Zoo. On Saturday, my kids were lounging all over my in-laws’ living room furniture like there was a gas leak in the house, full of turkey and a bit grouchy, but they perked up when their grandmother mentioned there were two baby gorillas recently born at the zoo. I mean, who can turn down a chance to see baby gorillas?
In my experience with zoos, there are many times when the animal doesn’t live up to the hype: the bear just lies there like a rug or the monkeys are quiet and standoffish. This visit exceeded my expectations.
When we reached the glass enclosure for the gorillas, both mom gorillas cradled their babies. One mother-baby duo sat in a hammock, suspended from the ceiling high in the air. The other pair sat inside a long tunnel, also hanging from the ceiling.
The baby in the hammock peeked over the edge several times, tiny fingers then precious face peering meekly at us. Each time the baby looked like he would climb out of the hammock, the mother would pull him back in, safely nestled on her stomach.
When she finally decided to climb down, the baby wrapped his arms and legs around her arm to ride along. Now on the floor, the baby picked up a stick. The mother took it and placed it back on the floor. When a male gorilla got close to them, the mother gorilla picked up the baby and moved a safe distance away.
Everything the mother gorilla did for her baby seemed intentional but it was done so slowly, like she was moving through water. The expression on her face was one of complete confidence. I expected her at any minute to look at me and say, “Kids…am I right?” without any exasperation, only commiseration and acceptance.
As I watched in awe of her maternal skills, I thought that if that mother gorilla was on Facebook (which I don’t think she is), her pictures would be of elaborately decorated birthday cakes and links to her homeschool blog and posts about her kids’ achievements, like their innate ability to memorize Scriptures while simultaneously feeding the homeless and solving complex math problems.
I wondered if the other gorilla mom, the one who had barely moved from her hanging tunnel while we stood watching, felt inferior to this super mom. Did she constantly compare herself and her baby to them?
But then I saw the reason momma gorilla had climbed down from her comfy hammock. She needed to pee. She turned her back to all of us at the window, and let loose a stream of urine while her baby played with a plastic bowl nearby. She was not a superhuman (or super-ape) after all. She did her best to make decisions for her baby to keep him healthy and safe, but there comes a time when every mom has to take care of a few things for herself.
Because, in the end, we’re all just imperfect humans (or in her case, gorilla) doing the best we can with what we know and until we know better or differently. Comparing our parenting only creates distance when what we need most is the closeness of community.