The author with Sebastian (left) and Juliet
A.C. Shilton
The author with Sebastian (left) and Juliet
The author with Sebastian (left) and Juliet (Photo: A.C. Shilton)

My Chances of Being a Mom Were Fading. Then Two Beautiful Lambs Came into My Life.

People say farmers aren’t supposed to get emotionally attached to livestock. Uh-huh. When fate sent our writer two newborn sheep with life-threatening birth defects, that kind of thinking was banished from the barn.

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I don’t know how else to say this, so I’ll start with the hardest part: when you’re a woman who wants children, but you waited too long and now the odds are getting worse every year, it’s hard to find anything sweet about your birthday cake.

Most of the time, watching your fertile years drip away feels like watching a leak in a bathroom faucet. Maybe tomorrow you’ll deal with it. Birthdays, however, are like being thrown face-first into a swimming pool. Another year gone, and you’re just dog-paddling through all that wasted time.

“Body, why can’t you do this one thing?” you ask yourself over and over.

For my 37th birthday, I tried easing my splash into the deep end with something soft. Like, literally soft. I begged my husband, Chris Derman, to let me add a few sheep to the herd of cattle we keep on our 45-acre farm in Middle Tennessee, near the Kentucky border. I’m a city kid whose childhood dreams always included a farm—and sheep. He’s also a city kid, but his dreams never included endless manure shoveling and animal feeding. His soft spot for my whims started getting a serious test two years ago, when we bought a dilapidated old farm. Now, despite his absolutely correct insistence that we were already spread too thin, his indulgence had to grow to include a flock of sheep.

There were five in all, bought from a lady over the mountain. Two ewes—girl sheep—plus several babies they’d raised during the winter, along with a ram, so I could breed them to produce fall lambs. Their baas, and their soft lips nibbling grain off my palms, were the perfect distraction for being two years into what doctors call “advanced maternal age.”

And then, less than a week later, things went sideways. After working inside all day, I walked out to the pasture and found two bonus sheep. Both were slimy with amniotic fluid as they wiggled around in the grass, trying to this-side-up themselves in their brand-new world. Beatrice, the mom, began pushing out a third lamb as I stood there thinking what has more or less become my farming mantra: Well, this wasn’t the plan.

The third lamb hit the ground and didn’t move. Beatrice moved away, preoccupied with her two healthy babies.

I may have been a city kid just two years into farming, but instinct told me this lamb was in trouble. She was tiny—small enough to scoop up with just the palm of my hand. I scraped birth fluids from her nose and mouth with my fingers, then ripped my shirt off and began rubbing it across her limp body, as if, through osmosis, my vigor could seep into her. Finally, a weak breath wheezed out and her eyes opened a sliver.

While Beatrice’s first two lambs were already standing and slurping milk, this one seemed too overwhelmed by gravity to rise. I picked her up and guided her toward Beatrice’s udder, hoping that all she needed was a little help. Beatrice turned and butted both of us away. We repeated this cycle—me propping up the newborn, Beatrice knocking her down—until I realized: I’d gotten my birthday wish. This was my baby now.

In case you’ve ever wondered, a 2001 Ford F-250 with 200,000 miles on it has a maximum speed of 57. I went 58, the steering column vibrating as I rumbled along for 45 minutes to reach the only nearby farm supply store that stays open late. I needed powdered colostrum—the antibody-rich milk that ruminants require in the first hours of life if they’re going to survive. “It’s in aisle three,” the clerk said.

If she dies before I get home, I have to be OK with it, I thought as I grabbed stuff off the shelf. In the past two years, I had been told no fewer than a dozen times that I was too tenderhearted to ever be a “real” farmer. I didn’t agree, but it’s true that my heart will never harden to animals, no matter what happens. And so, under my breath, I added: “If she’s still alive, I will do everything I can to save her.”

She was alive when I got home. That first night, I woke up every two hours to give her milk and coax her to her feet. Finally, right after dawn, she took her first wobbly steps. This gal was going to be OK. I, however, was entering a whole new world of trouble.

Juliet, about a week after she was born, in March 2021
Juliet, about a week after she was born, in March 2021 (A.C. Shilton)

Two days later, my other ewe, Nurse, birthed twins. My five sheep were now ten sheep. My husband, whose preferred number of sheep was zero, was not amused.

This time both lambs were good-sized, but when I got them tucked in to the safety of the barn, I noticed that one couldn’t stand. “We all do things at our own pace,” I told him as I lifted him to suckle. “It’s OK if you need to take your time.” Holding his little body up to the teat, I noticed a wound running down his back. A quick email exchange with a vet suggested this could be something that had happened during his trip down the birth canal. She recommended I take him in for stitches.

For the second time that week, I raced my truck down country roads, trying to get to the vet’s office before it closed.

I had prepared my heart for a lamb who needed stitches or a lamb too weak to live. I had not considered a third option: that I might have a lamb who would need lifelong care.

Jack Upchurch, the only vet in our county who treats sheep, has seen just about everything in his four decades of practice. But he’d never seen this. What I thought was a wound was instead exposed soft tissue surrounding the lamb’s spinal cord. Upchurch immediately knew what he was looking at when he tried to set the lamb on its feet and its back legs went limp. “This is spina bifida,” he said, adding, “It’s rare, but it does happen in sheep.”

I had prepared my heart for a lamb who needed stitches or a lamb too weak to live. I had not considered a third option: that I might have a lamb who would need lifelong care. “So, he might never walk?” I asked.

“Hard to know,” Upchurch said.

I’d chosen to buy unbred sheep for a reason—so I could ease into my shepherdess role on my own timetable. I hadn’t wanted lambs this spring. My husband had been right: we were stretched too thin. This little guy was going to make the situation infinitely worse.

“Is euthanasia the kindest thing? Or is there a chance he’ll survive?” I asked, somewhat hoping that Upchurch would tell me it was OK to give up.

“That’s between him and God,” he replied.

I exited the office, climbed back into my truck, and sat in the parking lot, the lamb wrapped in a towel on my lap. And then I cried. For myself, because my attempts at filling the hole in my life with farm critters had taken a bad turn. And for this poor little guy, who had such an impossible road ahead.

Sheep, four deep. Front to back: Nurse, Puck, Titania, and Beatrice.
Sheep, four deep. Front to back: Nurse, Puck, Titania, and Beatrice. (A.C. Shilton)

We named him Sebastian, after the character in The Tempest who gets shipwrecked in a storm created by Prospero’s dark magic. The name seemed fitting, given his rough tumble into the world.

All Sebastian wanted was for his body to do the one thing it wouldn’t do. His front legs worked fine; he’d use them to pull himself up. But his back legs wouldn’t hold. As soon as he was vertical, he’d topple. Again and again he tried. As an animal of prey, he knew instinctively that immobility was a death sentence.

Because Sebastian was unable to reach his mother’s udder, I decided to bottle-feed him too. My parents, in true grandparent fashion, came to the rescue, driving down from their home in northern Virginia to help with round-the-clock feedings.

Meanwhile, after a few days, Beatrice’s runt had grown strong enough that we felt confident in giving her a name. We called her Juliet, because she was small but also determined to be the center of the drama. With two babies to feed, those early days seemed like a nonstop cycle of bottle washing and mixing up batches of powdered milk. As this went on, it became clear that Sebastian and Juliet needed each other. They were best friends from the very beginning.

A week after Sebastian’s birth, I took him to the University of Tennessee’s vet school to see what, if anything, could be done. An all-day road trip resulted in bleak news: he might learn to walk, but he might also be suffering from internal damage that we couldn’t see. In sheep, spina bifida can cause malformations of the skull. It was possible he could die at any time.

By this point, even if the vets had offered to put Sebastian down, I couldn’t have given up on him. I was in too deep. Watching him struggle to stand, trying to overcome the obstinacy of his own body, was too familiar. I had to give him a chance to triumph.

There were moments when Sebastian’s physical problems made me dwell on my own. I’ve spent much of my life struggling with what my body will and won’t do, and as I took care of him, I thought about the period in my early twenties when I tried to transition from being a decent amateur bike racer to competing at the next level. Basically, I became a miserable almost-elite. I remembered climbs where I seemed to be going backwards as the other women surged, internally screaming at my legs and heart to just do the damn thing. I remembered willing myself to be smaller, to be stronger, to have more discipline, to not be so hungry, to not be so weak.

When Sebastian would stand for just a single second and then falter and roll, I thought about how much of my life I’d spent trying to get my brain to be normal. I lived with undiagnosed ADHD for 36 years, and a lot of that time seemed like an unending series of frustrations, with me pleading with my brain to work right and focus. Now I know I’m neurodiverse. For years I simply thought I was broken.

“Bodies truly are a bitch,” I would tell Sebastian as I set him right side up.

Juliet’s body was beginning to fail her as well. She’d been born with front tendons that were too lax, her legs bowing like a cowboy after weeks in the saddle. The vets thought this handicap might fix itself over time, but the opposite was happening. As she grew, the added weight made her legs bow even more.

Each morning we put her front legs in braces—designed for a dog but modified by us to fit a lamb—hoping to give her tendons a chance to become stronger. Local old-timers who were familiar with this technique said two weeks would fix it. Yet two weeks later, Juliet was worse, not better.

Back to the University of Tennessee we went, my ancient truck groaning the whole way. This time the vets had a solution: tiny, high-heeled plastic shoes that reduced the stress on Juliet’s tendons. Alas, on the return trip my truck finally decided to break down. Standing on the side of the road as I waited for Chris to pick us up, I refused to be shaken out of my good mood. Someone’s body was finally doing what it was supposed to do. This was progress.

Over the next few weeks, Juliet thrived while Sebastian stalled. His natural growth was killing his chances of ever walking on his own. His back legs simply couldn’t support his weight. “I think I may try getting him a wheelchair,” I told Chris.

“How is he going to manage in a wheelchair on a farm?” he said. “In the grass? On our hills?” He wasn’t trying to be a jerk, of course. In fact he was right: the logistics didn’t make sense. If we had to travel, how would we find a sitter who could lift Sebastian into and out of it when he grew to weigh 150 pounds? Could I even do that?

“I’ll figure it out,” I snapped. Then I clicked Buy Now on a mobility cart—designed with two wheels, like the back half of a wheelbarrow, and a harness that would strap him in—made for beagle-size dogs.

Sebastian, diapered up and ready to roll
Sebastian, diapered up and ready to roll (A.C. Shilton)
The author’s husband and Juliet
The author’s husband and Juliet (A.C. Shilton)

Sebastian’s cart arrived on an April Saturday in 2021. I put it together after finishing the day’s farmwork. It was hard to get to sleep that night, knowing that the next morning I’d be able to grant a little brown and white lamb the gift of motion.

The next day, it took a few minutes to strap him in to the harness and make sure everything fit. His first steps were hesitant; his sudden ability to balance was disorienting. I tugged gently at the wheels to show Sebastian that if he pulled with his front legs, the cart would roll along. He took a single step, and another. Then something amazing happened: Sebastian ran.

I took off behind him, worried that he would tip over and catching him when he did. The cart’s instructions advised keeping the first session short, but Sebastian was quite literally on a roll. As Juliet in her special tippy-tappy shoes pranced along, Sebastian kept up with her. His body was doing the thing.

We went up and down the cracked asphalt of our driveway. A group of friends had chipped in to help pay for Sebastian’s vet care and his cart, and I couldn’t wait to share his progress. While he rolled around, I snapped pictures like a mom watching her toddler toddle for the first time. I couldn’t wait to share them to the Instagram account I’d made just for him: lamb_o_rghini.

Juliet stood still for a beat. Then she leaped straight up, giving a little kick with her hind legs, as if to emphasize that she was more than OK. Truly, she was great.

When all three of us were saturated with joy, we collapsed in the spring grass. I worked Sebastian out of his harness and set him down next to his friend, who was snoozing in the sun. He tried to get up a time or two more, unsure why his superpowers were suddenly gone. I promised that I’d put him back in his cart soon.

Undeterred, Sebastian tried to get up again, fell over, and began shaking. As the vets at UT had explained, Sebastian had what’s called a Chiari malformation, a condition in which brain tissue extends into the spinal column. As he’d grown, his skull had likely started putting pressure on his brain, and it was now causing convulsions. Even though I’d been warned, I was woefully unprepared to hold his soft body as it trembled and stiffened, less than an hour after he’d been moving around with such gusto.

In that moment, there was little I could do besides let his body do its thing while my body held him close. Tears streamed down my face as Sebastian’s seizing intensified. He went limp, breath ragged, eyes closed. With Sebastian in one arm and Juliet in the other, I moved us out of the yard and onto a bed of straw in the barn. Sebastian snored softly. I cried, and Juliet bore witness to my grief. My husband brought out a blanket as the sun sank over the Tennessee hills and evening gave way to night.

By morning Sebastian had slipped away.

Sebastian and his cart
Sebastian and his cart (A.C. Shilton)

Sheep are deeply social creatures, and with Sebastian gone I became Juliet’s mother, best friend, and playmate. She followed me everywhere, and I was happy to have her company. Several weeks into her life, I was still putting a diaper on her (so she could free-range in our house) and carefully mixing bottles of milk, even though technically she was old enough for weaning.

After three weeks of wearing her special shoes, Juliet’s hooves were likely to be in need of a trim, and for me to do that, the shoes would have to be removed. I wiggled the molded plastic off, the way I used to wiggle my baby teeth. I was in no rush. So far everything had gone wrong with these two lambs, and I imagined the shoes coming off and Juliet’s tendons sagging like candles under an open flame. When the second shoe popped free, I lifted her from my lap and set her on the ground, holding my breath. She stood still for a beat. Then she leaped straight up, giving a little kick with her hind legs, as if to emphasize that she was more than OK. Truly, she was great.

As it turned out, integrating Juliet into our flock was nearly as difficult as getting her legs to work. Sheep form such close cliques that interlopers are rarely allowed. Juliet, raised by a couple of humans and our 14-year-old dog, was now a sheeple—she looked like a sheep but was clueless about the correct body language and social cues used by her kind. My first attempt at integrating her annoyed our two adult ewes, who slammed their heads into her rib cage. They were backing up for round two when I rushed in like a mom running interference between her kid and the playground bully. After several weeks of supervised visits, the flock finally softened toward Juliet, and I began leaving them alone for minutes and then hours. Her calls for me as I walked away pierced my heart every time.

But perhaps my softheartedness is the exact thing that will make me the kind of farmer I want to be: The kind who cares deeply about the welfare of every living thing she oversees. The kind who took a year to finally write about Sebastian’s death, because remembering how his body failed him still brings up too many hard feelings.

In that year, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do if I had a single day where my body was capable of doing the things it refused to do in the past. Years ago, my answer would have been something ego-driven. Winning a bike race or a triathlon might be nice. Maybe I’d take the SATs again and get a score I’m not mortified to share. Honestly, there were points in my life when all I would have wanted was for my body to be noticed, to be enough.

With time and space to process Sebastian’s death, though, I realized I got my chance. Bodies are fickle. If yours hasn’t failed you yet, just wait. I know mine may never give me exactly what I want. For a single day, though, I showed a disabled lamb the freedom of movement, one of the greatest joys of my former life as an endurance athlete. More importantly, in Sebastian’s last hours, my body offered up comfort, safety, and love—all the things this body has ever craved about motherhood.