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Sophie's Choice

Updated: Mar 20


Things go awry at Fern Creek. Of course they do. Little things pepper our life here, like clumps of dirt, pebbles, straw, and poop attached to straw that get tracked into the house, and medium things like pulled muscles and failed crops and big things like stillborn baby goats. Life at Fern Creek is also astonishingly full of things that don't go awry, like predictable fresh strawberries, naps in the hammock, the cluck of hens and baas of goats, and a general sense of well-being as we fall into bed. These also flavor the stew that is our life.


This is a story of a thing that went awry but maybe is going to be okay.


Sophie is the little Nigerian Dwarf who lives at Fern Creek. By little, I mean that she is petite for a Nigerian, who are already on the small side in terms of their goatishness. I wondered, during her pregnancy, if I had been irresponsible to invite a cute little buck with blue eyes and moon spots over for a weekend of sexual adventuring. But adventure she did, and last week gave birth to two small baby boys without much difficulty. She cleaned them, attended to them, and fed them. All seemed to be well.


On day five something veered. Or maybe I just noticed that on day five she refused to let her second born ("Storm") nurse, butting him away with increasing violence, as in, smashing him into the wall, biting his tail, in all ways declaring loud and clear to him: "I do not claim you as mine. You are not welcome at my udder."


Maternal rage burbled up from my gut. What sort of mama does that? I cornered and held her and forced her to let the baby feed that was indeed hers. But even as I held her, I knew that wasn't a good long-term solution and felt shame for forcing her into a humiliating position to feed a baby she had rejected.


What it is like to be so unloved and unwanted as to be pushed away by the only one who can keep you alive?


My roughness with Sophie at a particular point that day made me pause. I didn't like the enraged mama that expressed itself as frustration and anger at Sophie for rejecting this second baby while fawning over her first born. I left the barn and went inside to troll the internet... a go-to behavior of late when flummoxed by goat birthing and post-birthing behaviors.


I know this happens to babies of other species, too. Including human ones. I'm grieving those babies and children today, whose mothers abandon, abuse, and reject them. Dear Lord--how does that happen?


Mostly I needed to stop the path I was on, take some deep breaths, and try to gain an alternative perspective. Maybe Sophie's perspective.


Maybe she is doing the best she can given who she is, a little goat in a world that expects more from her than she is capable of being. The next day I tried milking her so I could feed Storm her milk instead of Clara's and there was nothing there. Maybe Sophie only has enough milk for one baby, and she had to make a choice. That could be.


Along with a whole lot of other people, in 1982 Mark and I watched the heart-wrenching WWII movie, Sophie's Choice.


Sophie, a Catholic mother in Poland, is arrested for helping Jews, along with her two young children. At the train station she is forced to choose between her elder son and younger daughter. One would go to camps for children, the other would be sent directly to the gas chambers. To not chose meant they would take both children to the gas chambers. She makes a choice, and is forever haunted by it.


That scene in the movie haunts me still.


Some mamas cannot care for their offspring because of physical and emotional limitations outside of their control that leave them with hard choices. Some are in social and political circumstances outside their control that force them to make hard choices, sometimes life and death ones.


Sure, personal choice and responsibility are at play, too, but since my default is to focus on those pieces, I want to compassionately lean into the story behind the story for why a mama mothers as she does. I want this experience with our little Nigerian Dwarf goat to gentle my spirit toward all beings that do not perform according to expected expectations. Rather than assume Sophie is a bad mama maybe I can assume she is doing the best she can with what she has to work with. Maybe then my heart will pivot away from judgement and frustration toward compassion and a different sort of problem solving. I will hope so.


* * * * *


This post-script risks tidying up a hard situation and reinforcing the false notion that all hard stories end okay. Many stories do not. But often enough they do, and these are worth celebrating, a bearing witness to a story that ends well even as we hold grief and mourn for those whose stories do not.


On day six I tried introducing a bottle of Clara's milk, and Storm would have taken to it begrudgingly, but he still would have been the unloved and alone one. On day seven I decided to ask Clara if she might be interested in adopting Storm (I doubted it, as Clara had communicated to both babies to leave her alone with butting and threats of butting whenever they approached her). However, being as she is an amicable goat, she agreed to consider it and the three of us (Clara, Storm, and I) played out what that might look like yesterday. Clara has not yet said yes, but neither has she said no. Once she licks Storm's butt it's a done deal. I've seen face licking, which felt like a huge step forward, but no butt licking, and no nursing without my encouragement and help. But on this night, which the two of them were to spend in the same pen, but separated by a screened fence to give Clara plenty of privacy, she maneuvered her way around my fencing so she could sleep next to Storm. I headed to bed with a guarded yet hopeful heart that perhaps Storm would gain a mama and dear Clara an unlooked for opportunity to be one.



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