While the hockey mom has carved out a place in the culture as a tireless, minivan-driving enabler of youthful aspirations, the birding mom remains—to borrow from field parlance—an “accidental.” As a pioneer in the role (and no-brainer subject for a future Portlandia sketch), Lynn Thomson traded up frozen arenas for sodden marshlands, lung-shredding screams of encouragement for hours of monastic silence. Instead of playoffs, her season revolved around migratory patterns; success wasn’t a pennant, but a sighting of the elusive prothonotary warbler.
From the start, Thomson’s son Yeats was an unusually reflective child who loved poetry and nature. When he was born, she quit her job running an East End Toronto bookstore to parent him full time. In a reversal of typical roles, Yeats often urged his mother, literally, to slow down and smell the flowers. As a toddler, one of Yeats’ favourite books was a field guide to birds that he eventually memorized in its entirety.
Despite his obvious intelligence, Yeats hated school, which he felt got in the way of his true interests, and Thomson often found herself engaged in battles about why he needed to be there, or to do homework.
Thomson’s husband opened his eponymous downtown Toronto bookstore, Ben McNally Books, in 2007, the same year Yeats started high school. To offset the stress of these changes, Thomson arranged to take Yeats birding with a guide in Tofino, British Columbia, who saw in him a kindred spirit. Afterward, Yeats began taking disciplined inventory of the birds he saw around his Riverdale neighbourhood. When he wanted to go further afield, Thomson happily drove him.
Contrary to what one might infer from its title, Birding with Yeats isn’t so much a memoir about parenting a child with highly specialized interests as it is a diaristic account of a mother easing herself out of parenting’s most intensive years. For Thomson, that process—which she calls “dipping my toe back into the wider culture”—involved part-time work at the bookstore, attending a weekly writing group, summers at the family cottage in Muskoka as well as meditation, yoga and birding trips with Yeats. When Thomson’s sister invited them to Galapagos Islands, Thomson seized the opportunity to take her son to that birding mecca. Though continual reference is made to Ben’s struggles at the bookstore—the long hours, endless events—money is never directly cited as an issue. Twice she uses the phrase “We had nothing but time.” Despite occasional tears and soul-searching, Thomson’s is, in other words, a good life, and many readers will envy her for it.
One of three crises occurs during the Galapagos trip, when the boat the family hires founders on a reef, forcing everyone to abandon ship in high waves. Though no one is injured, the incident unsettles Thomson profoundly and for a year or so she finds herself unable to enjoy travel, especially when it involves water or boats. (Yeats and Ben apparently didn’t dwell on it, however.) Later, a nasty fall in Muskoka leaves her with a painful, chronic case of frozen shoulder. Though she writes of her frustration with her inability to perform her usual tasks, her struggle to give “myself permission to do ‘nothing’,” she obviously takes pleasure in Ben and Yeats’ newfound appreciation of her domestic role.
The book has a pleasant if somewhat prosaic style, like that of a competently written travel journal. Thomson’s account of her and Yeats’ trip to Point Pelee during spring migration is a highlight, though more for its descriptions of the event’s unique atmosphere and human element than of the birds themselves, which tend to read as if they’re paraphrased from guides.
Though Birding with Yeats is not, as previously mentioned, a parenting guide per se, its most poignant, unspoken lesson might be that “connecting” with your teen is less about earnest discussions and “being cool with stuff” than enabling his interests and getting out of the way; that “quality time” is sometimes just time.
Yeats’ quiet dedication to his passion is indeed inspiring and intriguing, as is the profound lack of competitiveness that puts him on the other end of the spectrum from Owen Wilson’s character in the 2011 birding comedy (a rarefied genre if ever there was one) The Big Year. This is a teen who can spend an entire day birding in the pouring rain in a hoodie and runners (his loathing for homework is apparently rivaled only by that for raingear) while making mental field notes of up to 40 birds that he can jot down in perfect chronological order after returning home. Taking Yeats birding when he should have been studying for final high school exams might, Thomson acknowledges, seem “reckless.” After getting to know Yeats though, most readers will see it as reasonable, if not inevitable.
Though she takes a couple of stabs at it, Thomson doesn’t quite capture what it is that drives birders like Yeats, tending to fall back on platitudes about “capturing the moment” or birdwatching being a “place.” Some insight into Yeats and Ben’s relationship would also have been welcome to round out the family dynamic. Instead, Ben tends to lurk on the periphery, a solitary figure obsessed with keeping his business afloat. Thomson is disarmingly frank about the strain this puts on their marriage; at one point I was certain the book would end in divorce (spoiler alert: it survives).
The question of whether Yeats will attend university hovers over the book’s second half (whether he might parlay his interests into a related field like ornithology or biology is never mentioned). Insofar that he decides to go, it’s a happy ending. And his plan to live at home while doing so means that Thomson at least doesn’t have to confront the sadness—and irony—of empty nest syndrome.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor