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  • Helen McNutt

Stockholm Syndrome on the Farm

Back when I first gave birth, seven years ago, I couldn’t even walk past a field of sheep and their lambs because the power of the mother/baby connection so completely overwhelmed me. I saw my tiny baby boy in those lambs and felt such unbearable tenderness towards them I had to look away.

This is our fifth year on the school farm and lambing is always the highlight. In fact, I have often had a little lump in my throat at the sheer miracle of it all; the majesty of birth, the beauty of a tiny life unfurling.

This year, however, has been different.

On Saturday night we were invited to a friend’s house. Twenty minutes before we were due to leave, I was at that exquisite pitch of stress that comes from trying to leave the house at a designated time. I hadn’t yet got into the shower, the kids were still up, the house was in chaos.

Our first sheep chose that exact time to go into labour. Grinning, Andrew skipped off down to the field. He lives for this shit. I, on the other hand, do not live for this shit twenty minutes before we’re due to leave the house in clean clothes. My eyes remained dry, my throat un-lumpy, the miracle of life went un-wondered at.

Andrew had to stay with the sheep to make sure the twins she delivered were ok, so a friend came to pick me up. When she came down to the barn to see the lambs she was horrified when Andrew told her this time next year, she might well be eating them.

‘It’s just so terrible,’ said my friend, who bills herself as a meat-eating vegan. ‘The way that baby will be taken away from its mother and turned into meat.’ Although by the time we’d got to the dinner party she’d sufficiently recovered to eat the main course, which was, erm, lamb. She came around a few days later and again we visited the lambs. I found myself in the slightly wonky position of being a vegetarian defending sheep farming, whilst a meat eater told me how awful it was.*

As an 11 year old girl hugged one of the lambs the next day, Andrew told her the same thing he’d told my friend; in a year or so the baby would probably be eaten. She was pretty disturbed, but it’s important to Andrew that the students here learn about all aspects of farming, not just the cuddly bits. Then, a short while later, because Andrew is a born teacher and really can’t help himself, he launched into a mini show and tell, in front of the small crowd of children and their parents who had gathered around the pig sty.

Earlier that day our pig, Gloria, had given birth to eight piglets. Two of them were born dead, and Andrew had temporarily stored the bodies in a bag near the pig sty. He proudly showed the crowd the tiny piglets, suckling on their mum. Then he moved on to the dead ones, pulling them out the bag, and explaining how this one’s jaw hadn’t developed properly, whilst this one didn’t have anything noticeably wrong with it.

Everyone looked on, shocked but fascinated. Everyone except our kids. Raff was more interested in picking off bits of plaster from the wall to get the insects underneath it to crawl over his hands. Edie had snuck off round the back to eat pig pellets.

Like Andrew and I, all three of our children love animals. They’re just not that interested when they die. Because they spend so much time with around them, death has become relatively normalised. Whilst they know how important it is to look after them properly and to be kind to them, they don’t get upset or squeamish about them, and I’m proud of that.

But then I worry they should be a bit more sad. Like I would have been at that age, surely a teensy bit more sad? Like, just the right amount of sad? Only a few years ago I had been really upset when the runt of the pig’s litter had died. And I realised the other day, as a friend of Andrew’s politely declined to look at the video he had of a dead pregnant ewe having a caesarean, that we perhaps need to remember that other people are a bit more sensitive to such things.

So when Bear came in from helping Andrew with the lambs this morning and told me another one of the piglets had died in the night, he couldn’t miss the slight note of panic in my voice. ‘You were sad though, yeah?’ I asked. He thought about it for a minute. ‘Medium sad,’ he said, carefully. Medium sad I will take. For a boy whose mother used to weep at lambs for just living, medium sad is just fine.

*I have just heard from my friend who came to see us yesterday. She has very solemnly told me she has not eaten lamb since.

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