Motherhood’s next dimension


Five years ago, the two older kids were safely launched, and the two younger ones were approaching liftoff. Day-to-day, do-what-I-say parenting was ending, and we welcomed it. We were winded.

Motherhood and, to a less influential degree, fatherhood, was about to be something new. With all this increasingly in mind, we visited a new mother and her spanking new firstborn. It was a Mother’s Day visit, celebratory although Mother’s Day was a few days past.

Six days old, the long-limbed, excitable, bright coppery filly with four tall, white stockings, and a broad, irregular blaze kept her mother moving. Just skin, bones, and heart, her big joints and angularity apparent with every step, she sped in great galloping, looping circles around the big paddock, at the University of Massachusetts farm in Hadley, where her mother had come to live. The university’s equine program was expanding aggressively into the business of breeding top-quality sport horses, and the farm’s managers hope this filly, and two or three other newborns nearby with their mothers, will raise the visibility of their breeding program.

As the filly sported around, her mother, who would be bred again to a new, carefully chosen sire, cantered with her daughter, the two of them moving as if they were still one, the way a herd of starlings or a wing of F-15s might, in tight, but perfect formation, invisibly communicating at the level of blood, nerves, and instinct. Such is motherhood, though nowadays, for mothers of grownup children, that instinctual symmetry, still powerful, seems vestigial.

The mare kept her maternal radar carefully tuned and, for her part, the long-limbed, big-boned, willful filly kept careful track of her mother’s udder. The pair got together frequently, when the filly would whack her mother’s udder to demand refreshment, and the mare, relieved at having stopped for a moment or two, let down her milk. After a moment, the filly would be off once more, and with a sigh, a kind of equine shrug, and a snort of exasperation, her mother followed suit.

This mother-child behavior is familiar to me. I’ve been in on the breeding, birth, and nurture of human, horse, and bovine creatures, not to mention a few swine. Indeed, a few years ago at the West Tisbury farm I owned, some of my best friends were cows, all mothers.

There were about 20 in the cowherd then. They were all Charolais, the big, white French breed. Some were two or three years old, some 10 or 12. When bred to a top-notch sire, some were proven producers of tall, straight-legged, straight-backed, big-boned bull calves. Some delivered beautiful, feminine-looking heifers with big, tight udders. Some were promising-looking brood cows, but difficult to get pregnant. Some ought to have been dropping prize-winning calves, but weren’t, mainly because they hadn’t been matched yet to the right male line. Motherhood doesn’t always click the way we want it to.

My relationship with these animals was mildly affectionate but strictly functional. My job was to feed, water, and clean them, to medicate and mend them, to get them bred, help them deliver their calves, and then to separate them from their offspring when the time came. It could be nerve-wracking. Negotiating with a worried mother to approach her nursing calf who needed medical help — a drench, or a shot, or a bolus — endangered life and limb. Once, while I fended off the angry, charging mother with a cattle cane, an unsuspecting friend came along to bottle-feed her baby, who was not thriving. When we were done, this jogging, biking, tennis-playing lawyer was a trembling shell of his former self.

But I liked the whole business, and later, with horses, the experience was just as stirring and rewarding as it had been with cows. The breeding was mostly successful — although, with mares and stallions, there was a wild friskiness and blood-pumping excitement that rarely attached to bovine matings — births were mostly trouble-free, the mothers were mostly conscientious and protective, and the colts and fillies were mostly attractive and healthy.

During our visit in homage to motherhood, this mother and daughter attracted a crowd of smiling onlookers, who acknowledged that here was an unambiguous example of motherhood, as ordained in nature’s mysteries and practiced most of the time successfully, if exhaustingly — no matter what ghastly aberrations we read or hear of occasionally in the news — in mammalian circles.

Of course, one never knows what’s to come, what the empty nest — like ours is now — will teach, in motherhood’s second act.

This column has been adapted from one published in 2006. D.A.C.