Proper Care

Birthing lambs is a messy business; so is parenting.

Diane Choplin

Lambs enter the world much the same as humans—alive, covered in slime, and hungry. Some are born under heat lamps in the dry comfort of barn shelter. Ours enter the world on pasture, under big sky. Ewes preparing for birth separate themselves from the group and stop eating. They hoof the ground, lie down, and lumber back up again. Eyes glazed and back legs spread wide, they shift their burdensome weight, clearly uncomfortable. I feel for them. Having babies hurts. Once they crane their necks upward, staring fixedly at the sky, it’s full-on. A lamb is coming.

Optimally positioned lambs emerge front hooves first, along with extended legs and nose, the rest following quickly, finishing with back hooves. When ewes push hard for twenty minutes without progress, I step in and help, checking lamb presentation, sometimes gently pulling in time with their pushing. Mismatched rhythms risk injury, as do tangled bits. Twins, triplets, and (for goodness' sake) quads complicate things: all those bodies crammed in a tight space with their eight to sixteen legs.

One ewe, #310, had a rough debut season. She was impossibly huge, a sure sign of triplets, and her labor dragged on and on. Worried, I called a friend to help. I donned clear plastic gloves that reached my shoulders and lubed up while Kari held the ewe. Two fingers inserted into #310’s cervix told me all I needed to know: the baby was breech, his spine smashed up against his exit. Terrified, I spoke softly to the exhausted ewe: “I’m gonna see if I can help you out, Hon.” Then I froze, fingers at the ready, and locked eyes with Kari, whose experience far exceeds mine. She gave a sharp nod.

I needed to get my whole hand in there. I started with two fingers, followed by thumb and remaining digits. I have small hands, but it was still a tight squeeze. I felt along slick edges, trying to picture the configuration of bodies. To the right was definitely a pelvis, recognizable by sharp points and tail. Rotating my wrist, I sought shoulders and head. This lamb was big, unusually so for a triplet. The ewe grunted, her discomfort magnified by my prodding.

“I dunno, Kari,” I said, worried. “There’s no room in there. I don’t think I can turn him. You wanna have a…”

“No,” she said, cutting me off firmly but kindly. “You need to do this. Tell me what you’re feeling. I’ll talk you through.”

I exhaled deeply, overwhelmed by the weight and urgency of it all, not wanting anyone to suffer because of my ignorance.

“I don’t want to hurt her,” I pleaded, my heart heavy and eyes pricking.

“I know, honey,” she said.

Breaking eye contact, I stared down at my gloved hands, smeared with mucus and blood. Birth is messy whether the going is smooth or rough. When all is well, lambs stand and nurse on their own within an hour. By their second week, they play independently with peers, bouncing around emerald green pastures as if spring-loaded. Their needs are basic and their development drama-free. I’m sometimes jealous of ovine parenting.

Born utterly helpless, human babies require immense care. Though their needs start out simple, they’re physically exhausting. Following toddler tantrums, fears of choking, bathroom skills, and basic socialization there’s a lovely calm during which my son played largely unsupervised, climbing trees, befriending chickens, and making bamboo swords. He enjoyed helping and took pleasure in learning new skills. Media was a definite draw, but it didn’t color our time together. Content with Friday-night movies at Mom’s, Minecraft at Dad’s, and occasional shows or audiobooks in between, we found balance. But balance in parenting requires constant shifting of weight. Circumstances change.

At age nine, in the summer of 2019, my son was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. It began with raw hands, cracked and bleeding from over-washing. At first I thought he was just exuberantly heeding germ warnings from teachers as stomach flu swept through his grammar school. Then other patterns emerged: disproportionately angry outbursts when things didn’t go his way, anxious attention paid to traffic laws, and an obsession with contamination.

I’m grateful we had a summer of specialist counseling under our belts before COVID hit. We learned a vocabulary for navigating anxiety without stigmatizing it and developed routines to help him feel secure. Too much unstructured time, I learned, sets my son on edge, making summers especially tough. Media is an easy time-filler, but it also exacerbates his reactivity and outbursts. I don’t want him dependent on constant entertainment to feel calm, to be content.

Distance learning during the pandemic didn’t help. Our routines, as everyone’s, were torpedoed. School became screens at home. Required screen time made J. want more. Not getting it made him volatile. Negotiations became ugly, both of us flipping our lids. As teachers struggled to keep student eyeballs fixed on them during Zoom meetings, J. opened additional tabs set to YouTube or his favorite coding software. He figured out how to delete portions of his browser history and created separate windows he’d swipe away at the sound of my approach. Desperate teachers implored frazzled parents to micromanage their kids’ schooling, encouraging better focus, everyone overwhelmed.

Just as schools began to reopen, J. broke his tibia skiing. We stuck with distance learning for two more months, until he no longer needed his full-leg cast. In many ways it was like having a toddler again, never getting more than a few moments uninterrupted time to work. “Hey, Mom!”, he’d shout from upstairs, “I can’t find my pencil and I need it right now!” My vocal baby bird in his blue beanbag nest.

On one of our worst days, I picked up my dinner plate and carried it to the pasture, announcing over my shoulder: “Mom needs some alone time!” Stomach roiling with hunger and emotion, I sat down just outside the “nursery” where a dozen lambs ran around in small groups, their mamas grazing or lying down, chewing cud. Snow was visible on Mount Ashland, reflecting the changing color of evening sky. If only parenting humans was so simple, I thought, gnawing on grilled broccolini pinched between thumb and index finger. I’d forgotten my fork.

I like to think of myself as someone who confronts fear head on, embracing failure as learning opportunity, vulnerability as strength. That’s certainly true of some facets in my life, but not all. Farming sometimes gut punches me. Parenting, too. It’s the responsibility for another’s life, their quality of life.

There were mixed signs the night before #310 lambed. Tucking myself into bed, I felt an instinctual dread that something was wrong with her. I was scared. The possibilities were beyond me. I talked myself out of it. You’re overthinking, I told myself. All will be fine in the morning.

 

I reported my findings to Kari: “The lamb is definitely breech… and big.” I paused, steeling myself. “My thought is to turn him so I can pull him out by the pelvis, butt first. But I’m afraid of tearing her.”

Kari considered. I held my breath.

“Can you turn him enough to do back legs first?” she asked.

“I don’t think so. It’s really crowded in there.”

She thought for a long, silent moment.

“It’s not ideal,” she said, finally, “but if it’s your only option, it’s your only option. All we can do is our best. This baby will come out with your help, one way or another. It won’t come out on its own. Not coming out is the worst-case scenario. No one survives that one.”

“Okay,” I said, resolute. “Here we go.”

Smearing on more lube, this time up to my elbows, I reached in with one hand, then a second, marveling at how impossibly tight it felt in my poor ewe’s crowded birth canal. To better align lamb bum with his escape, I pulled his pelvis toward me while pushing away his middle back. Seeing his tail, I hooked my index finger under it and drew it out. Hand back in, I slowly worked my fingers over the lamb’s haunches, pulling in time with #310’s pushes.

After three pulls, the lamb’s pelvis was nearly out. One more pull cleared back hooves and torso, then shoulders and front legs, head, and front hooves. A beautiful white creature with black splotches lay lifeless in my hands. My heart broke.

I set the dead triplet aside and covered him with a towel. Exhausted and still in hard labor, #310 didn’t notice. She laid down and started pushing again. Front hooves emerged, thank goodness. Bracing myself for another dead lamb, I helped her along, pulling gently in time with her efforts. The second, much smaller lamb exited quickly and alive, if barely. Kari and I worked quickly to dry him off and clear his lungs and nasal passages. He spluttered. Kari placed him in front of #310 for her to clean.

Ewes do an amazing job licking goo off of their newborns. When he was nearly clean she resumed pushing. I carefully stuffed the lamb in my shirt to warm him, his head protruding from my neckline, and tended to his sibling’s arrival. Another live boy! We gave each a squirt of baby lamb saver, a supplement containing crude fat and vitamins. Colostrum, however, is the real saver, and they both needed it as soon as possible. Mama stood, and the stronger of the two lambs wobbled over to nurse. By this time my son had joined us. I handed him the lamb from my shirt, and he supported the little guy while it feebly sucked.

“Think we should tube them?”

“Yeah, I would,” Kari said. “I’ll run home and get what we need.”

“We’ll boil water and get more towels,” I said as I returned the weaker lamb to my shirt. Hypothermic lambs won’t properly absorb colostrum.

Reconvening in the pasture, we led #310 to the shelter, leaning her against the wall. Kari held her while J. and I milked, coaxing yellow cream from wax-capped utters. Thick and golden, colostrum is packed with carotenoids, vitamin A, protein, and white blood cells—a nutrient-dense immune-booster. Ewes only produce colostrum during the first twenty-four hours after birth, and lamb digestive systems take about the same time to come fully online. Once they do, the benefit of ingested white blood cells is lost. It’s a narrow window of opportunity for giving lambs their best start to life, and I didn’t want to miss it.

When we'd collected half a cup, Kari and I sat down to feed the lambs. Holding red rubber tube against tiny body, we measured from mouth to last rib, marking the point lining up with lamb lips. We needed to know when we’d inserted enough length to reach the belly. Next we submerged the tube in boiled water to clean and soften it before use. Kari sat the lamb upright in her lap, pinching the tube between thumb and forefinger, and pushed it along the inside left wall of his mouth, then over the back of his tongue. He startled a bit, then swallowed and relaxed. Lambs generally remain calm during the procedure. If they instead struggle or show signs of irritation, the tube is down the wrong pipe. A lamb will not survive milk in the lungs. Tube in belly, we filled a plastic syringe with a quarter-cup of milk. Slowly and steadily depressing the plunger, Kari fed the first lamb and quickly removed the tube. She made it all look easy. My turn.

I lifted the weaker lamb out of my shirt and felt a rush of cold air replace his fuzzy warmth. Setting him in my lap, his thin hind legs extended over my thighs, I slid the tube into his mouth along inside left cheek. As I pushed it over the bump of his tongue he wriggled and kicked.

“It’s probably down the wrong pipe,” Kari said. “Pull it out and try again.”

Heart racing, I started over, this time moving along his inner right cheek. When I pushed the tube over the bump of his tongue, he swallowed. Whew. From there it was smooth and quick. We laid the newborns back-to-back in a sun-warmed patch of bare earth. Crashed out and full of colostrum, they looked dead save for subtle, steady rise and fall of tiny ribs.

Dirty and emotionally spent, we gathered all we’d brought for our efforts. I wrapped the dead triplet in slimy towels and carried him to the other side of the creek to bury him near our beloved first border collie, Skye. “He’ll appreciate the company,” I said as I grabbed a shovel.

The next morning I was relieved to find #310 and her two surviving ram lambs looking bright-eyed. Mama was lying down in a bed of discarded hay, chewing her cud, while her boys explored their surroundings. Joyous relief!

 

This year #310 was again looking impossibly large, and my anxiety was building at the thought of more triplets. Kari was out of town for the season; whatever happened, I was flying solo. I checked on #310 multiple times a day and at least once at night. Twice I recorded videos of her shifting her weight and sent them to Kari. “Is it time?” I’d ask. “Do I need to intervene?”

“Has she been looking at the sky?” Kari asked over a weak signal from Idaho.

“No, no stargazing. Some pawing at the ground, but when I let everyone into a new paddock, she followed, headed for clover and started eating.”

“Doesn’t sound like it’s time, but I’d keep an eye on her.”

Another ewe, #79, beat her to it, going into labor late that afternoon. I looked out my window to see my black ewe lying on her side, nose reaching for the sun. She rocked her pelvis slightly, back leg extended stiffly behind, moving in time with her efforts. I grabbed my lambing bucket and headed out. White front hooves emerged. I love good presentation.

Twice she managed to push her lamb out far enough for me to see a little black nose, then tired, she’d stop, her baby sucked back into the birth canal. She stood up, looking pained.

“You want some help, hon?”

The lamb is presenting perfectly, so all I need to do, if anything, is gently pull while she pushes, easing her burden. Front hooves reappear, then tip of nose. I began the familiar process of tugging legs, then shoulders and pelvis before the lamb slips easily onto the ground, wriggling and shaking her head. Grabbing the nearest towel, I wipe slime from her nose and bring her to #79 to lick, a tender scene backed by mountains.

Behind me, #310 hoofs the ground and lies down, then gets up and lies down again. Labor is catching! I take this as my cue to get a quick dinner in me. It may be a long night.

Three more newborns and several hours later, I’m helping #310 as she runs out of steam birthing her third lamb. Triplets again! Together, we deliver a large lamb, his birth sack intact. I break it open, amniotic fluid rushing out to reveal a tan ram lamb with white splotches. Grabbing the cleanest towel from nearby pile of already used, I clear his nose, rub him down, and place him in front of #310. Still prone, she gets to licking. #79 is doing the same for her second, her first already standing, wobbly, at her side. Five lambs born to two mamas tonight.

One more trip to the house for fresh towels and molasses. It’s chilly, and I want to make sure everyone is dry before I call it. I rub all five lambs until fluffy, clip their umbilical cords, and dip what remains in iodine. #310 sniffs out the molasses while I work, gulping nearly all of it before I manage to slip the bowl to #79. “I’ll bring you more in the morning,” I say, scratching her head. Then I stand, legs leaden with fatigue, and chart my own wobbly path through the pasture, over gravel drive and up a flight of stairs. Triplet watch successfully concluded, I strip off my slime-coated outer layer, crawl haggardly into bed, and fall instantly asleep.

Parenting sometimes leaves me equally spent. As my son ages, challenges take on more emotional weight. He’s feeling out his edges, defining his independence from others, especially his parents. This is normal, expected. What’s surprising is how much this process pokes at painful patterns from my own childhood and failed marriage. While I make great efforts to be present for J., providing the opportunities and quality time that I so desired from my own absent parents, he complains about media limits, grudgingly goes on outdoor adventures, and sometimes greets meals with thinly veiled contempt. My calm adult self gets it: he’s being a kid. But I’m not always parenting as my calm adult self. I sometimes lash out about his attitude, entitlement, or general laziness. As soon as the words exit my mouth, I feel like a jerk for saying them.

My son is not a bad or wholly ungrateful kid. He’s often wonderfully polite, engages with other adults, and can be thoughtful and helpful at home. I just get his worst. And, to be fair, he gets mine. There’s something lurking under my mishmash of emotions that I can’t clearly picture. I need to emotionally glove up, bravely reach into my depths, feel out the edges, and gently tug it into the light, so I can administer proper care.

Comments

8 comments have been posted.

As someone solely responsible for being there for the birthing of six llamas, I can't thank you enough on unknown others' behalf who will ever benefit from this super-well-written account of how it's done, including when the going gets really tough. Courage, determination, and a large measure of gentle respect for animals we share the planet with are clearly in your DNA! Kari is amazing in so many ways, too. It's an honor to know you both. But there's more. The larger context of parenting (singly) is thick icing on the cake. Your willingness to share your and J.'s story is awe-inspiring and the words you chose to do so are nothing short of stunning. Bravo!

Shirley Weathers | July 2022 |

Thank you all for the kind words of encouragement and for taking the time to read my piece. @Shiela Foster - I'd love to discuss writing for you!

Diane Choplin | July 2022 | Ashland, Oregon

Beautiful and Inspirational- I am grateful to know you and have had a opportunity to visit with your son and your flock of sheep πŸ‘πŸ™‹β€β™€οΈπŸ™

Cristinkathryn Roberts | July 2022 | Ashland Oregon

Beautifully written. If it was a book I would have sat and read all day long. I was captivated by the details and the deep emotions of her story, I could hardly see her words through my tears. It was as if Diane was reading it to me.

Gail | July 2022 |

Dear Diane, This is a harrowing and beautifully written story. I love and admire your strength and insight. July 2022

Nancy Hubbart | July 2022 |

Amazing article, Diane. So true, on so many levels. I’d love to talk to you about writing for the Biodynamics journal. Keep doing what you are doing. It’s a gift.

Sheila Foster | July 2022 | Ashland

Beautifully written! I cried several times lol. Keep this going farm girl.

Colette Waddell | July 2022 |

Beautifully written Diane,, and perfectly titled.

Birdy Ring | July 2022 |

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