Sarah's First Thoughts on Motherhood
Rarely ever does one project, idea, challenge, or relationship stand in isolation at Windward, and raising Charlie-pup this past spring and summer was no exception. My reflections on the experience have sent me tracking through the snow in great arcs and intersecting circles, chasing after trains of thought with unknown destinations. This past April I brought Charlie into our family as my personal charge, with the intention of training him to be a sheep-herding dog, but what Charlie turned out to be for me, largely, was an experience in motherhood and a window into the delicately intertwined processes of life, death, and loss.
I'd had some latent questions about "maternal instinct" rattling in my head, about what it is exactly, about whether I have it, about how large a role it plays in good mothering. As a child I did not care for baby dolls, I liked stuffed animals and the "older" dolls that my grandmother and I sewed costumes for. And as a teenager I had no interest in babysitting. Babies have always, in fact, made me quite nervous. I also did not witness much childrearing beyond my own and my brother's, at least not in an intimate way. I come from a small family; I grew up knowing adult relatives and I do not remember my brother's infancy.
But truly settling in at Windward this past year and a half, making it my home and contributing to the growth of the social and infrastructure resources necessary to sustain ourselves as a family, has made me think more than ever before about having children. Early in the spring I started to wonder, "What is all this for, if we're not interested in passing it on to a new generation?" Walt makes a good point that children often grow up and want something or somewhere else other than the life they have known with their parents. This is one reason that the internship and apprenticeship programs are functioning, in part, as a means to bring in Windward's next generation. But when young adults leave their parents, they leave‒for better or worse‒with a consciousness that is largely the product of their home life through childhood. When I think about the possibility of raising children at Windward, I am not necessarily thinking of raising someone who would want to inherit this place and this life, though that would be gratifying. I am thinking more of the art of growing another life out of my own, of the most personal act of teaching and guiding a spirit that will flourish wherever it lands and enrich the lives of whoever it chooses for company.
Charlie-pup entered our lives black and shiny and small, just after a tussle with his littermates, from which he boasted a sore on his upper hind leg. That school-boy sore, however, quickly became a raging infection. I remember leaving him at the vet's office on a sunny, late-April afternoon and then driving to the library to sit in the car, sobbing in anxious anticipation of a phone call. The vet was to explore the wound and determine if it was something we could afford to fix‒a simple abscess or something worse. Something we could afford to fix?! The thought that I had taken this baby on as my own and his life might come down to a matter of money was devastating and felt so wrong, even though we had discussed our financial limits with Charlie, who was to be classified as a working animal. Though I had known him for only ten days or so, the acts of caring for Charlie and cradling him in his infancy and sickness had already solidified an intimate connection.
Fast-forward to the day I started this essay, months later in October, the harvest season. At school, after an early anatomy and physiology lecture I could barely pay attention to, I sat down in the library and started writing about Charlie for the first time in months. I wrote these words, too: "Last night we ushered Whitey, the sheep, to her death. This morning while I am at school, the others will cut and package the meat. Lindsay will begin the process of tanning the hide; Andrew will be rendering the fat. When I return home tired and hungry, I will likely bring some part of Whitey into my body for nourishment. And what does this have to do with motherhood? What does standing beside the hanging carcass of a still-warm sheep you've lived with for over a year have to do with a happy little puppy you fostered for a few months?"
I have had a growing feeling in my gut over this past year that the acts of giving and taking life are inextricably intertwined. In March, I walked into the chicken coop in the morning to find a dead hen bleeding from her cloaca when I was in the throes of menstruation myself. In the spring, too, our new generation of young hens lay their first bloody eggs, Dolly the sheep was forced to reject one of her lambs because of the mastitis that claimed half of her utter last year, and Becca and Alison, first-time goat mothers, struggled mightily with the idea of letting their kids nurse. And even just before this cascade of new babies entered our lives, Pia, our lead ewe, died during an old-age pregnancy. In the work truck, we drove her body out to a far-off forest, and before we left her to rest, Opalyn performed a postmortem c-section for learning purposes‒the fetal lamb was black with a white star on her forehead. I left a crown on the two bodies that Oana had woven from flaxen grasses the previous summer, and prayed to no one in particular that the other impending births would happen smoothly.
When we give life, whether in breeding domesticated animals or carrying human children into the world, we are also asked to take responsibility for that life. With animals on a farm, this often means both caring for the animal and then carefully choosing when to end its life. End-of-life decisions at Windward incorporate many factors including illness, old age, flock size, and the desire to honor the animal by nourishing our own bodies with it. Whitey, for example, was invited to a new utility in part because she seemed unable to get pregnant, unable to further the flock in motherhood. Though I cannot yet imagine the full weight of responsibility that human mothers feel for their children, living on the Windward "farm" has given me a taste of that deep, bodily understanding that in life‒and perhaps especially as mothers‒we are constantly standing at the edges of death.
Charlie did survive that day at the vet, coming home with a drained abscess and antibiotics, but the rest of his puppyhood did not look much different. Charlie was constantly eating something that could kill him, or getting away and chasing the sheep around at full speed, putting anyone in the vicinity in danger. I did not understand his little body, and was constantly plagued with questions about what to do for the latest Swallowing Situation, or change in fecal matter, or rebellion during training. As a young driver, I used to hate green lights on big roads, because they meant flying through an intersection at forty miles an hour and holding my breath in hopes that nothing unexpected would be coming from the cross street. In life with Charlie, the lights at big intersections were always green.
More recently I find myself wondering if this intertwining of new life with death is somehow more tangible for mothers raising children outside the industrial world and without modern medicine. I don't think the nearness of death is any less real for us Westerners, only that many of us have had the privilege of forgetting that such tragedies are commonplace for the rest of the natural world. Even a hundred years ago the loss of human infants, mothers, and sisters in childbirth was not uncommon‒not to mention the diseases and accidents of childhood‒and all this still holds true today in many parts of the world. While I cannot quite say that I would trade the past twenty-five years of my life for a "wild" life where death was a more constant, more overt threat, something about the sadness of it all does feel quite natural to me. Perhaps it is the heartbreak and dice-throwing chance of nature that make life so worth celebrating.
Before I met with the group to usher Whitey into death that autumn evening three months ago, I took some moments in the woods to imagine her spirit traveling. I no longer had any theories, beliefs, or convictions about what happens to the spirit upon bodily death, but I hoped for her to find some delicious, rolling green hills, and I imagined her smiling, the jovial sheep that she was with us in life. I knew that wherever she ended up, Whitey would make friends easily.
In late August, Charlie's time with us came to an end when we realized that he had mountains more energy than we needed for herding our small flock, and would probably be happier in cattle country. After a few weeks of tearful and agonizing consideration on my part, he went back to his breeder-cowboy for some training, and we hear that he is now working on a ranch in Bickleton.
As for me, I am settling in for this winter feeling like more of woman. I don't fully understand my own body yet, but I am much more aware of my own physical intricacies, of my life-giving capabilities, my ups and downs, the various kinds of nourishment I need. And while I am certainly not ready to have a baby, I have decided to expand my care-giving skills and financial security by going to nursing school and working, in the future, as a nurse here, locally.
Just a few weeks ago, in late November's heavy snow, I visited my rabbit charges to find that some young females who were not even supposed to be pregnant had given birth to a great pile of pink babies in freezing-cold temperatures. I put the lost babes in a bucket and carried them uphill to the trees, buried them under the snow and then used the same bucket to carry the mamas' water bottles inside for thawing. The thing about the physical world is that it just keeps going, whether or not we want to participate. Whether or not we want to be mothers, fathers, or undertakers, we often are. The best we can do, I'm beginning to realize, is to perform these duties gently.
Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 70