Dairy cows, like other mammals, must be impregnated to lactate. Originally from a city, I somehow failed to realize this until I started dating a dairy farmer two years before my daughter was due to leave for college. On his farm, calves are born daily, long-legged babies with soft silky coats that plunge their noses into my daughter’s outstretched hand, greedy for grain. Most of the time, though, my daughter stays home to work her server job while I spend weekends at the farm.
For so long, it’s been just us, my daughter and me, connected in a deep and frightening way I never anticipated when I adopted her, becoming a single parent. In the media, parents are portrayed as too strict or too permissive; compared to zoo animals, tigers and jellyfish; likened to machinery: helicopters and snowplows, lawnmowers and bulldozers. Hovering parents who clear away all obstacles. I will not be any of these parents, I tell myself. When the time comes, I will let go. I will move effortlessly from all-consuming motherhood to a peaceful life as a farmer’s girlfriend.
I get it in my head that I need to witness the birth of a calf, to see it arrive, feet first, on its belly. To watch its mother lick it and urge it to stand. Observe its first wobbly steps. Remember my own child’s first steps, toward me and now away.
A business throughout Canada that produces ice cream and whimsical T-shirts: Dr. Moo, Anne of Green Stables, Cownton Abbey, Dr. Moolittle. My daughter is obsessed with these cute cows with cocked ears and pink snouts and surprised expressions as if bemused to discover themselves inhabiting these new identities.
Cows, Real Life
The first time I stood beside one, I was startled at its enormity. My boyfriend’s cows weigh more than 1000 pounds. They are nervously curious, tongues stretched out as long as snakes, sliming us with a flick. Out in the pasture, they lumber over to inspect us. They stand in a circle around us, freckled with flies, crusted with mud, stoic and sweet-natured. Sometimes, from barns, you can hear them bellowing for their lost calves.
Elsie the Cow
This mascot of the Borden Dairy Company sports curled horns, perky ears, a perennial smile, and a necklace of sunflowers. It only now occurs to me that, like the Cows Creamery cows, the dairy industry’s youthful and spunky symbol is, by definition, a mother, though her perky innocence seems to belie any possibility that inside her beats the heart of one who has let go of many babies.
The hearts of cows beat 60 to 70 times per minute. Their stomachs have four chambers. Highly social animals, they have almost 360-degree panoramic vision. They are red-green colorblind and have an excellent sense of smell. They are protected animals in Hinduism; McDonalds in India serves veggie burgers. Cows sleep only four hours a day and eat 100 pounds of food. They will walk long distances in search of their calves.
It is widely believed that cows can walk upstairs but not down, though Snopes’s assessment of this rumor is inconclusive. My daughter plots to kidnap one and keep it in her room upstairs where, she imagines, it will be unable to escape. Sometimes I reminisce aloud about my daughter’s first homecoming. She resisted all confinement: strollers, high chairs, car seats, shopping carts, cribs, bathtubs, small towns, small minds, wanting only wide-open spaces. I was confined from then on by my helpless love while she battered at every door, begging to be free.
Holding your loved ones captive has its drawbacks, much as you might never want them to leave, I try to tell her. Besides, does she really want to wade through all the manure a trapped cow would generate?
Farms, Popular Images
Green fields, weather-beaten barns with sweet-smelling haylofts, tall bullet-silver silos, sprawling rustic farmhouses. Fresh air, hard work, a satisfying ache in the muscles at the close of day. Sturdy strapping men who are close to the earth and the seasons and who understand the life cycle and the interconnectedness of all things. Who understand that, despite loss, life always goes on (see strong, sexy D.H. Lawrence heroes and gardeners in TV shows.)
Farms, Real Life
Farming is, of course, a business. Outbuildings are erected in what may appear to an outsider as haphazard fashion, rather than designed for their beauty or future bucolic appearances in amateur paintings. Cows rotate through industrial pens. Old houses are solid and full of history but often musty. Haylofts are surprisingly treacherous, like wading over uneven, slippery hills of snow. Farms are stinky collections of blood and bacteria, muck and sweat, the smells of livestock carried on the wind.
My friends ask me if I help with the farm chores. They talk corn shucking and haying with my boyfriend. At a conference, people gather three layers deep around him to ask questions about milking cows. I pretend to be a serene farmer’s girlfriend, not a restless mom whose daughter has developed an illness that won’t go away: she throws up daily, has constant headaches, misses months of school, develops multiple infections. And I, who once envisioned a healthy process of separation, a gradual movement toward independence, feel constantly torn, wanting to be home even when there’s nothing I can do to help her.
I pull away from my boyfriend, who is handsome and sturdy and humble and kind, but, while working, is also unkempt and smelly and unfashionable. He wears pants that are ridiculously short because longer ones end up bottom heavy with caked mud and manure. He sticks tubes in bloated cows unable to burp on their own, spreads manure across fields, yanks reluctant calves out of their mothers.
A cartoon by Gary Larsen. Far Side cows cook, put their babies in playpens with electric borders, and when people approach their pastures, quickly revert from strolling upright to standing on all fours, grazing pastorally. In coffeehouses, they read poetry about their longing to graze and frolic in tantalizing, lush meadows, ending with the lines,
Damn the electric fence!
Damn the electric fence!
In the preparatory stage, the cow separates herself from the herd and the fetal membrane might break. Contractions, which are rarely noticeable to an observer, are mild and far apart. In the hard labor stage, the cervix dilates fully and the fetus enters the birth canal. Contractions increase and become visible, the cow’s sides heaving as she tenses and releases her abdominal muscles. This stage concludes with the delivery of the calf.
I’m at the farm one morning when my boyfriend reports a cow in stage two, so I hasten out to its sheltered hay-strewn paddock. Snow dusts the ground. My breath fogs before me while an unwieldy Holstein paces, casting nervous glances at me out of her enormous eyes, obligingly turning her butt to me.
“I want to see,” my daughter says on the phone, but even if she were feeling well, I doubt she’d be jealous enough to leave her life to come to the farm.
The cow’s flanks throb. A white hoof like a lobster claw pokes out and then withdraws. But wait—something is emerging. I watch a dark and formless shape rise, grow, double in size. I hold my breath, expecting, any second, something recognizable, momentous, inspiring, the reassurance that life does go on, duplicates itself, brings infinite new beginnings. I expect two hooves, wet limbs, a head cradled between knees.
Instead, the dark form breaks free and plops to the ground: a heap of poop.
The hoof pops out, disappears. More poop slaps down, steaming on the cold ground.
Minnie and Moo
These loveable cow best friends—empty-nesting mothers, maybe grandmothers, I realize now—star in a series of early reader books by Denys Cazet. At three, my daughter laughed and laughed at their escapades. They wreck the farmer’s tractor and think they’ve landed on the moon; they board a bus and take what they imagine is a world tour. Reading these books, we took for granted that my daughter would go on her own world tour if not to the moon. Would read these books to her children someday. I had her life all mapped out in my head. It did not involve delaying her college applications due to illness.
My boyfriend, whose cows have been known to escape and peer in his kitchen window, who has awakened to find cows clustered in conversational groups around his lawn, is mildly amused at Cazet’s portrait of farm life.
Natural Order of Things
Calves are born, they scamper around on awkwardly long legs, bounding and rearing, tumbling and prancing, they grow to adulthood, are bred, have more calves. Children grow up and you send them on their way. Take them to college, assemble furniture, hang clothes, gather bus maps, buy them fruit, say goodbye in a lobby where girls clutch pillows and shy little sisters hug big brothers. This is the way it is, is supposed to be. Parents open their fists and let go.
After hours of labor and no progress, my boyfriend in his high muddy boots, too short pants, and a dorky hat with earflaps, takes matters into his own hands. In surreal fast forward, he attaches a makeshift obstetrical chain fashioned of bailing twine to the calf’s hoof. Three men fall in line as if in a dance performed many times, the rowing move, the tug of war step. And the calf comes sliding out.
I still have hope for smooth transitions. For futures. But I watch uneasily as the calf plops on the ground.
My boyfriend clears its nose with his fingers. “Not breathing,” he says and gently shoves it aside, no time to spare, no time for contemplation or a moment of silence. Instead he urges the cow to her feet. He leads her off for milking.
I’m left behind in the winter dark with a motionless form slouched on the ground before me. A couple of hours ago, its hoof was a living thing, ready to push its way into the world.
Soon after this, I will stop going to the farm. I will stay home with my daughter. I will urge her out into the world, first to our local college, then, eventually, to school three and a half hours from home, where she can only manage a part time schedule. Under any circumstances, separation would have been wrenching, but the uncertainty makes it even more so. Stalls us both. More oppressive than missing her, I will find, is my worry, its blades rotating within me in an ever-tightening curve.
And I will remember that day, left in the paddock in the dark with the immobile calf. Wait, I want to call. Rewind, stop time, try this again. This isn’t what I wanted to see. Where is the small creature wobbling forward into its life, something to go home and tell my daughter about?
But no one is there to hear the protest that rises on my tongue, enlarging, trying to break free.