This 30-something-year-old writer always wanted to be a mother, but never expected to find family among a herd of goats on a Vermont cheese farm.
When I moved from Brooklyn to the wilds of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom five years ago to pursue dreams of making goat cheese, I wasn’t overly focused on my waning fertility. I always harbored a kind of faith that in spite of my urbane existence, I’d eventually wind up with something resembling a conventional family: a partner, at least one kid, a dog, a cat. And scene. Like many of my peers, I’d spent my impetuous 20s and early 30s dating people who, it turned out, held no real potential. Until I departed the city for greener pastures, I viewed my dating life as a rather amusing—if at times emotions-destroying—contact sport. A smattering of friends were starting to settle down, and for them I served the archetypal role of the love adventuress, through whom they lived vicariously from the comfort and safety of their stable family units.
After 12 years as a city-dweller, I’d suffered through a number of heartbreaks that made me question whether New York was the right place for me to fulfill my true potential—not professionally, but holistically. I wasn’t certain Vermont was the right palliative to this itchy notion of un-wholeness, but I was willing to gamble that the city no longer was, and probably never would be.
And so, when an opportunity to work for a cheesemaker I’d admired from afar for years suddenly presented itself to me, I saw it as the escape hatch I’d been seeking. Gauzy daydreams of settling into my farming life and lassoing myself a hot lumberjack (a fantasy I’m certain I share with many cosmopolitan women) quickly dissipated as I acclimated to my new, intensely isolated life as a burgeoning goat farmer. Between the sparse population, the long lonely winters that made travel difficult, and the very real demands of my new job, I found myself without much time, opportunity, or even inclination to actively pursue love or intimacy. Which didn’t make its absence any less crushing. When I moved north, I proudly and goofily affixed “Does before bros” to my email signature, not realizing what a self-fulfilling prophecy it would be.
I did, finally, find someone to date. But after years of breaking up and reconciling, I was forced to admit that, much as I wanted some of the things that the relationship would offer me—companionship, stability, the family I’d always assumed I would have—I was not willing to settle for this version of it with a person who was in many other ways incompatible with me. Of course, right around the time I tried pulling the plug for good, I found out I was pregnant.
It is odd, perverse, and profound to be a woman negotiating her identity as a mother or a not-mother against the backdrop of an industry founded upon reproductive potential. Because in dairying, a female goat’s fertility is synonymous with her value. And so it was that I found myself recovering from an abortion smack dab in the middle of kidding season, surrounded by goats who had either just given birth or soon would. They were mothers—all of them. They had had a bodily experience that, in making the choice to terminate my pregnancy, I all but assured myself I would never know.
In the past year, I’ve watched the youngest cohort of my friend group get married and start families. As I entered my late 30s (today is, in fact, my 39th birthday), I had to confront the fact that it was no longer feasible for me to hope that motherhood would just happen—I would need to be proactive. I began researching alternative insemination, and mustered the courage to approach a gay friend whom I envisioned being an ideal sperm donor: smart, handsome, funny, kind, emotionally and financially stable and without any glaring genetic defects or psychotropic bruises.
Adulthood is weird. From what I can glean, it appears to be a gradual winnowing down of choices, a process of discarding the multitude of possible futures for one. Committing to something, knowing all the while that that something is not the guaranteed right something. In the fall of last year, I faced down three distinct and discrete life choices. I was accepted into an MFA program for creative nonfiction. I was given assent to proceed with my single parent path, as my friend agreed to be my sperm donor. And, perhaps most improbably of all, I came across an opportunity to rent a barn and creamery and was gifted with three pregnant does.
It seemed obvious to me that choosing the farm meant abandoning, at least temporarily, the other two pursuits, because I did not have the financial or energetic resources to take on more. And so I chose the thing that was at once most familiar and the riskiest: I chose the farm. There have been many instances over the course of my life where the absence of a partner has made my desires feel out of reach or unnecessarily hard. Would it have been easier/safer/more romantic/less economically burdensome to go to Europe with a partner? Maybe. But I’d be damned if being solo was going to keep me from trekking around Naples. The same was, it turned out, true of farming: If chasing my dairy dreams alone was the only way it was going to happen, so be it.
In January of this year, my three goat wards arrived. In February, one of them miscarried and teetered precariously on the edge of death, necessitating constant care, long, bone-chilling spells in the barn alone but for my quadruped familiars in subzero conditions, sleepless nights of worry. My other two girls gave birth in March, and not without complications of their own. Then there were three bouncy baby kids to bottlefeed around the clock in addition to my other goatular duties. In April I acquired two more goats and am now managing a small herd of eight ruminant colleagues as I work steadily toward expanding and crafting artisan dairy products to sell, which promises to be an enterprise equal parts daunting and exhilarating.
Having been present for the latest batch of friends birthing human children, I cannot help but recognize the parallels between new parenthood in the traditional sense and the formation of this nascent farm business, to say nothing of the more specific challenges that single mothers/caretakers face going it alone. There is the constant, low-grade, pit-of-stomach worry that any number of things could go wrong at any time. And with it the attendant guilt surrounding leaving one’s charges for a) a trip to the store b) a night out c) low-grade intoxication. There is the gnawing concern that I could and should be doing better, that I’m somehow failing them if I don’t let them out to graze for the right number of hours or don’t notice a change in their demeanor right away. There is the awareness that caring for myself is no longer a selfish pursuit but a responsibility, and the well-being of my animals and my business is contingent on my ability to function at optimum capacity. Texting and driving is a non-starter. I now traverse icy expanses as gingerly as an octogenarian to avoid the threat of bodily injury. And I am now fully in possession of a searing, crystalline sense of duty to ask explicitly and unabashedly for what I need, to cobble together support in all of its forms, to be shameless and audacious in seeking help in the service of something greater than myself. Unlike human children, my caprine ones will never achieve any level of self-sufficiency, nor will they ever fully be capable of expressing their needs to me (though I hope to gain some level of fluency in ethology to bridge the human-animal divide). The macabre awareness that what you have birthed will one day die, which is often invoked (albeit in hushed tones) by new mothers, takes on a different dimension with the knowledge that in all likelihood, I will be witness to the death of every one of my mammalian charges.
There is the exhaustion and the repetition (and the cleaning up of endless amounts of shit), and the understanding that my needs must in almost every instance come second to those of other living creatures every single day. There is the unquestioning ferocity with which I approach my obligation to advocate for these beings at all costs. And there is the ineffable reward of all of this sacrifice: the ebullient joy that accompanies me nearly every waking second, and the sense of honor I feel at being allowed to care for them and watch them thrive, and to make something completely and uncompromisingly on my own terms. I’m tempted to invoke the title of Jennifer Senior’s tome on modern parenthood, All Joy and No Fun, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t, in spite of all of its traumas and heartbreaks, a helluva lot of fun a helluva lot of the time.
We live in a golden age of alternative families. The ways of loving, of caring for ourselves and others, of creating and maintaining meaningful connection has never been more generous or abundant. And for that, I am immensely grateful. There is still a wistfulness, a sizable lump in my throat when I let myself contemplate the certitude that one of my dreams has eluded me irreversibly. I will never give my parents grandchildren (though they take endless delight in referencing their so-called “grandkids”), will never know the limits of my body’s potential to create life, will never be called “mother.” But I take comfort and refuge in the maternal and creative roles I have hewn for myself. I look to the other women in my life who have not given birth but who embody that which is nurturing and generative, resilient and strong. There are many of them and they are each uniquely awe-inspiring. And I count my innumerable blessings, most especially the eight I wake up to every morning and tuck in with a kiss on the muzzle, no matter how tired or hungry I am, every single night.
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