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.