The poet refers to her children as birds that she has hatched in her nest – four boys and four girls. She labored to care for them and give them everything she could. Her firstborn son took flight to a region far away, and Bradstreet writes him letters, but she desires his return very much. Her second child, a daughter, married and moved southward with her husband. They return when the seasons change. Bradstreet's third child, another daughter, has no equal for her beauty, and is also married. She lives far away as well.
Another son went to the Academy to slake his thirst for learning and to excel above all others. The fifth has "scarce gone" and lives amongst the "shrubs and bushes" until his wings are strong enough for him to alight on higher branches. The last three are with the poet in her nest until they can also take flight.
She hopes that her brood will never experience any harm, like being surprised while pecking for corn, falling into a fowler's grasp, being hit by a boy, falling into a net, or being snared by hawks. She knows that they remember being at her breast, feeling her love, which is stronger than ever. She worries that her children do not yet fully know the ways of the world and hopes that they will see any perils coming.
Now that the poet is nearing the end of her life, she will spend her last days singing. When she is called, she will alight from her bough and fly away into a different country where "spring lasts to eternity." Her children will start their own nests with their own children and tell them about their loving grandmother who did everything she could for her young and nursed them until they were strong. She showed her children "joy and misery" and taught them right from wrong. Even though she will be gone, she hopes her counsel will live on, for "I happy am, if well with you."
"In Reference to Her Children" (1659) is one of Bradstreet's last and most personal poems. She is older and reflecting on her children – Samuel, Dorothy, Sarah, Simon, Hannah, Mercy, Dudley and John – and how many of them have grown up and moved away. She uses an extended metaphor of herself as a mother bird and her children as chicks, some of whom have flown away, dwelling less on the personal details of her children's lives as much as her own sense of loss.
The reader might wonder about Bradstreet's choice to associate her children with "lower" animals such as fowls, but, as scholar Kenneth A. Requa notes, her contemporary readers would have been aware of the fact that in the Bible, "God and Christ, incomparable protectors and parents, are portrayed though ornithic metaphors" and "to be a protective mother was to be not only bird-like but godly."
Bradstreet begins by describing her eldest son, Simon, explaining how he "took his flight" across the sea to London and left her. She sends out her "chirps" (letters, perhaps) and hopes that her son will return to the nest one day. Dorothy, Bradstreet's beautiful daughter, also moved away to the Southern colonies after getting married; although she and her husband return north occasionally. Sarah, who has a pure and white complexion, also married a "loving and true" man and moved away. Bradstreet's fourth child, Simon, went off to Harvard to "chant above the rest" and stoke his ambitious nature. The fifth child, Dudley, is just about ready to leave the nest. The last three children are younger and she writes they "still with me nest," although Bradstreet is quite aware that the time will eventually come when they will depart as well.
After explaining what all of her children have done or are doing, she speaks more frankly of her grief at the idea of being separated from them. She steps slightly outside her role as mother bird, saying if birds could cry then her tears would reveal her fears for her children to the world. She speaks of these fears in light of the metaphor – hoping they will not get caught in a net, hit with a stone, or be caught by a hawk – but Bradstreet, being human, probably worried about the many things that might harm her children in colonial New England, such as the panoply of diseases, Indian attacks, death in childbirth, shipwrecks, blizzards, etc. Bradstreet knows that she is lucky that all her children lived to adulthood (see "On my dear Grand-Child") and she certainly is not taking that for granted.
Bradstreet, like many mothers, believes her children cannot see the perils they will undoubtedly encounter. However, as she gets older, she will sing (as a bird is wont to do) about her joys. She will also prepare to take her flight to a new region, meaning Heaven. This new spring for the mother bird will be the eternal spring of the redeemed. She hopes that her children will remember her well and recall that she loved them dearly and gave them good counsel.
The family was the center of Puritan life, and familial relationships were extremely strong, so it was common for parents to want their children to return home, even after marriage. Bradstreet wants her children to always be aware of how much they mean to her and how assiduously she cared for them, even after she's gone. Modern parents can relate to this sentiment as well, making Bradstreet a much more accessible and relevant poet than readers might initially assume.