Lessons from Lambing Season
It’s the first week of April, which also happens to be spring break for our children’s school. My daughters, seven and five, have been home on our small sheep farm in the Skagit Valley of Washington all week. Unlike other children headed to Hawaii or the Oregon Coast, we stay home and care for the lambs as a sort of “sheepcation.” At least, that is how Dean, my husband, and I pitch it to them. The last two weeks of March are lambing season which is about 144 days from our October breeding season. This year, the first triplets arrived on the first day of spring and then a flurry of little lambs followed.
Tonight, I am milling around the barn full of new moms and their babies. Helena, one of our older ewes and an experienced mother, had beautiful twins; however, now that she is out of the lambing jug (a little pen set up for the ewes to bond with their lambs and recover from labor for a few days), she has decided to only feed one of them. Her back leg rises and knocks the second one off anytime it comes close to her udder. This skinny lamb cries like a human baby, and I am reminded of my own daughters’ strong bleat.
I follow Helena around and try to get her back in a pen for a few minutes. This way, she can’t run away, and the smaller one will be able to reach her teat. The two lambs look similar to me, but Helena has always picked favorites. Ewes will sometimes choose to feed only one twin even though they have two teats. When our ewes have triplets or quadruplets, some will block at least one of their babies from feeding because either they don’t have enough milk, or it is possibly too painful on their udders. Helena, prone to a more detached parenting style (if I can even call it that), did this with her twins last year before abandoning both lambs all together for the freedom to graze and wander as she pleased.
Tonight is different than other nights because I am alone. This is the first time I have been alone in my home since before my first daughter was born seven years ago. My husband decided to take the girls to his father’s house on the Kitsap Peninsula for an overnight, their first spring break slumber party at Grandpa Larry and Omi’s house. Grandpa Larry, a retired naval lieutenant, is a docent for the USS Turner Joy, and from Dean’s texts, I already know the girls have seen the battleship and had a double scoop ice cream cone afterward. Now that it’s dusk, they are probably in their pj’s watching a show or reading a story with their dad. Our evening routines are ingrained in my mind and body, so I almost feel like I am with them.
Pandemic aside, I have been around my children a lot in their tender, young life and have felt them physically attached to my body in one way or another for many years. Unlike Helena’s version of mothering, I have forgotten where their bodies stop and mine begins. I sincerely enjoy being with my daughters and I want to see them thrive in the world; however, I don’t really know how much care and attention they actually need from me. I have learned how to squeeze writing into the margins of my life, and I am making slow and steady progress on my projects. The lingering feeling of never having enough solitude—time and space to be in my own mind and at my own desk—is always with me though.
Mary Oliver writes, “The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work—who is thus responsible to the work.” I know mothers can be artists and vice versa, but since my daughters were born, it has been hard to focus on my writing. My husband and I share most caregiving responsibilities equally, like cooking and laundry. We take turns with bath night and bedtime stories, but despite his support and the fact that our daughters are in full-time school now, I still haven’t been able to reliably carve out the kind of unstructured time that leads you to a new vein of thought or fully realized idea. I am their support, their emotional coach, their guide. It feels like there is always something to tend to, or organize, or worry about, and I am rarely at home alone for long durations of time, let alone a whole night.
When I was single and living alone in my twenties, I cultivated a morning routine that I cherished. I would wake up, walk my beloved dog, make coffee, and write in my journal at my desk for at least an hour. On some days, I would make the luxurious choice to meditate or do yoga for ten or fifteen minutes before writing. From there, I would begin the day with a steady clarity. Returning to those journals now, I see seeds of poems, book ideas, and lists (so many lists). These were markings of myself, my interiority. I never thought I would give away that time or the precious continuity of concentration it offered. Now, as a forty-something mother, no matter how early I try to get up to write or even just hear myself think, a little voice that I can’t ignore always ends up floating down the stairs behind me.
Despite the desire for solitude, I have chosen to spend a lot of time with my children, knowing that past generations have taken a different approach. In my grandparents’ era, parenting was fairly hands off. In general, dad was out of the house; mom was busy taking care of the house; and kids were free to run around the neighborhood unsupervised until sundown. As Ada Calhoun explains in her book Why We Can’t Sleep, most of my fellow Gen Xers were raised by baby boomer parents with some form of benign neglect and as a result, have shifted toward attachment parenting styles within their own families, spending a much larger amount of time focused on caring for their children. Calhoun asks, “If our generation has been told for decades that we have so much freedom, so many choices, such opportunities, the question women with young children face is: how free are we to reach for the stars in midlife if we have someone else depending on us?”
After several years of mothering, I strangely envy Helena’s blatant call for space. She bobs to the right of the feeder, and when I lunge toward her to grab her collar, she shifts to the left. We go back and forth like this for a few minutes until I can’t help but laugh at our silly game. “Helena, you are sneaky,” I whisper to her as if we are in conversation.
Before tonight, the last time I was completely home alone was my thirty-sixth birthday, seven years earlier. It was May, and I was almost eight months pregnant and Dean was away visiting a friend for his fortieth birthday. As a present to myself, I had signed up for a weekend ceramics workshop at Sue Roberts’s studio on Guemes Island, a short ferry ride from my coastal farm. Over the three years prior, I had finished my low-residency MFA in creative writing and connected with a vibrant network of artists, including Sue, who also lived in our farming valley.
Most were women, either retired from other careers or working as teachers or professional artists, with the freedom to create daily. I was grateful to be welcomed into this community. Gallery openings, studio visits, a group printmaking event, long conversations about art and place—I loved it all and it filled the void left by my stimulating and expansive writing program residencies. As a young thirtysomething, living in a quiet, rural place, I soaked up all the encouragement this group had to offer.
This particular workshop was focused on clay portraits, and my friend was hosting a well-known Seattle artist at her studio for two days. The visiting artist was a pixie-like woman with sparkling eyes and a huge grin bigger than her body. She did not have kids and was amused by my pregnant belly navigating the narrow alleys of the crowded studio. Her entire life revolved around art, and I envied her singular focus on her craft. At the time, I wasn’t a mother yet, but already found myself distracted from my own writing by birthing classes and research on car seats and pediatricians.
In the workshop, I focused on building my face—first forehead, then lips, then the complicated eyes. I was trying to do a self-portrait, but as it came together on the stand, I didn’t recognize whose face was looking back at me. Based on the size and spacing of the eyes and nose, the teacher noted that it looked like a child’s face. I wondered, if subconsciously, I was already anxious about who my daughter would be and what she would need from me.
Our small group ate leisurely lunches outside in the spring sunshine and talked for hours as we worked. I was lost in time and space, smoothing the clay, rolling the clay, inspecting others’ creations. I was doing this workshop for fun, to be in the company of other artists. When it was over, I went back on the ferry with my clay head tucked safely away, propped up by newspaper in a box. When I got home, I put some hay out for our sheep, a fledgling flock at the time, and ate dinner on the couch using my pregnant belly as a TV tray for my plate. I was content after an engrossing day of art making and blissfully unaware of how much freedom I had.
Back in the barn, Helena is still rejecting her lamb. If I move the feeder slightly, she will be pinned, and I will be able to grab her collar. I wait for her to eat again before making any moves—sheep are always watching the periphery from their slitted eyes. Slowly, I lurch toward the feeder, lift it gently and . . . damn. Before I can move it, Helena dodges in the other direction to the far corner of the barn, her full udder knocking back and forth between her legs like a bowling ball. Besides having a starving lamb on my hands, I am worried Helena might get mastitis, an uncomfortable and sometimes deadly udder infection for sheep, from all that milk. She has so much creamy, rich sheep’s milk to spare, it feels wasteful to make a bottle out of formula.
Once I see her drift back to the feeder, I try a new approach. I can open the pen and guide her in there by blocking off the alley between the fence and the feeder. I try not to make eye contact and give away my next move as I open the gate. Then I step back around her, and she finally bolts into the corner of the pen, knowing she has no other options except for up and over the high metal fence. I run to find Helena’s twins. Once all three are in the pen, I gently push her up against the north wall of the barn, and the lambs nervously come up to her teats to drink. The milk is now flowing, and as Helena settles down, I am not sure if she is grateful to have all that pressure in her udder released, or if, possibly, she is enjoying this moment of connection with both lambs. The inner conflict of wanting space for myself and wanting to hold and comfort my children is a daily struggle for me.
As I turn down the barn lights and wander back to the house, I realize that it has gotten late. Rounding up Helena has taken some time. My evening alone is slowly coming to a close, and I have spent most of it taking care of Helena’s lambs. The girls and Dean are going to a life-size dinosaur exhibit in Seattle the next day, but will be back home for dinner tomorrow. I walk around aimlessly in the soft dusk light, slowly getting used to the idea that I am by myself. The house, partially walled off with plastic because of our ongoing remodel, is eerily quiet and hollow. I feel an ease being alone, now simply tending to my own needs, but also a dull ache, like part of me is missing.
Back in the dark house, I find a chair, the remote, and a glass of Dean’s Irish whiskey on ice. The kind that is too nice for mixed drinks, he tells me. I’ve lost a taste for hard alcohol since my pregnancies, but it is soothing to wrap my fingers around the cool glass. I hesitate to turn on the TV, savoring this spaciousness. No loud noises, or fighting, or constant movement back and forth. May Sarton writes, “Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.” Maybe I should write something? At this point in the night, I can’t tell if I am longing for my family or content. I don’t have the energy to concentrate on anything except this precious stillness and the weight of the glass in my hand.
The girls return the next day, waving their small, brightly colored plastic dinosaurs in the air, telling me all the intricate details of the life-size Tyrannosaurus rex and Grandpa Larry’s big ship. Time away was good for them, too, and as spring break officially ends, we resume our regular routines. All the lambs, including Helena’s, are eventually weaned from their mother’s milk over the following month and are now grazing on fresh, spring pasture.
For Mother’s Day, Dean offers to take the girls to a Mariners baseball game. Not a full overnight like the previous month, but at least several hours of time home alone. Perhaps it is his afterthought, or perhaps it is a gift? Either way, I immediately say yes and start to imagine the projects I could work on in their absence, like editing a new book proposal or writing out a poem that has been trapped in my head for months. Or maybe pulling out my dusty box of watercolors to paint some newly opened flowers in the garden would be good to do for no other reason except that it is fun?
Mothering can take many forms: the held hand, the cut grape, the corralled ewe. Representation of mothering can, and should, also include time for the mother to care for herself. I will not be a good caretaker if I don’t make time to step away, recharge, and I know that raising children, as well as sheep, has made me more present, observant of what is around me, which has fed my writing in important ways. Good art needs room to breathe, to gestate. Yes, we are accountable to the work. My lack of solitude up until this point has taken its toll on my artist self, but thankfully, creativity is cyclical and full of second chances. Ideas will keep coming and as I pull more and more large blocks of time together to write, I have to believe that new projects will come to fruition.
After contemplating my options for this Mother’s Day, I feel a wave of both sorrow and joy come over me. Both girls are drifting into their own solitudes, whether through journals or tablets or exploring the perimeters of the farm, and I have to remind myself that they won’t need me this much forever, at least not with the intensity that has marked early motherhood. There will always be a balance to navigate between mothering and art making, I imagine, even when the girls are grown and in lives of their own.
As I sit with my decision, I realize that I do indeed want to eat French toast after milking the sheep and plant a tomato in the garden, like we’ve done before. I ask Dean to give the tickets away. This year, I am choosing to celebrate being a mother with my family and flock around me, knowing that it is my choice, my day.
1 reply on “Lessons from Lambing Season”
Truly beautiful. “There will always be a balance to navigate between mothering and art making” is a universal truth and you’ve brought it to life here with cleverly chosen vignettes on the sheep, your family, your past. I loved it!