I still remember the moment, about two months after we were married, when the cows made their first appearance in the discourse of our relationship. I can’t remember what we were debating now, but it led to the following exchange.
“You know who you remind me of?” Mike asked in a tone of mingled frustration and admiration. “Ivy, our second smartest cow on the farm when I was growing up.”
“What?” I said. “Who was the smartest cow?”
“That was Emmy. She was awesome. She was the sweetest cow ever, so bright, and so gentle. She was the queen matriarch of the herd. All the other cows followed her everywhere.” Mike got slightly misty eyed at the memory. “She was my favorite. She was everyone’s favorite.”
“What was Ivy like then?” I asked.
“Ivy was smart all right, but boy was she ever obstinate,” Mike said with grudging respect but a total lack of misty-eyed affection. “Ivy was the only cow that ever figured out that if she wriggled right under the electric fence it would only hurt for a little while before she would be through to the other side and she could have a whole, untouched pasture to herself. Emmy was smart and used it for the good of all. Ivy was smart and used it for her benefit alone. She was a determined, stubborn bugger. And she kicked.”
In a rare turn of events I was momentarily speechless.
“Ivy was my second favorite, though,” Mike added quickly after glancing at my face. “You couldn’t help but admire her even if she was a bugger.”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “I remind you of your second favorite, second smartest cow.”
“There were 40 cows in the herd, honey,” Mike said. “Second isn’t bad.”
It took a long time after this exchange before I grew to appreciate the cow stories. I certainly wasn’t amused the night I woke up with cramps at 3AM and Mike told me that he thought midnight cramping may be part and parcel of the female mammalian system because he’d noticed over the years that pregnant cows usually went into labour in the early hours of the morning. And I didn’t particularly appreciate the subsequent descriptions of how he had to help hand-deliver the calves (in some cases, using chains to pull them out) when labour didn’t progress.
“Oh, Ivy was a good breeder,” Mike told me when I inquired, with mingled sarcasm and curiosity, about my bovine doppelganger. “I don’t think she ever had trouble delivering. And whatever else you can say about her, she was a very good mother. If her calf ever started bawling she always came running, usually looking to bite someone.”
Slowly, however, over the two years that we’ve been married, the cow stories have started to make me smile. And just the other night, for the first time, I wondered whether those cows haven’t helped prepare Mike for marriage and parenthood in important ways.
The other night we were out to dinner with friends who have just had their fourth baby. Hannah was telling me about some of the things she wished she had known before she delivered her first baby.
“I wish I’d known how hard breastfeeding could be,” Hannah said. “I had no idea about even basic things – like the fact that some women produce more milk than others, and that flow rate can be different. For some women the milk spurts out so fast the babies practically choke on it. For other women it comes out really slowly.”
“OK,” I said slowly. This was news to me.
“Anyway, having trouble breastfeeding was such a shock,” she continued. “Holton just wouldn’t latch on for ages, and then my milk didn’t come in for a long time, and then I got cracked nipples, and then mastitis, and then – because we were here in Laos and didn’t get to a doctor quickly enough I think – I developed an abscess in my breast.”
“Huh,” I said, feeling horrified in that way you do when you see a car accident and you’re secretly glad that it has nothing to do with you. I am still, on some level, clearly in denial about the fact that I am pregnant and will be giving birth and attempting this feat called breastfeeding in less than five months.
“Breastfeeding is just not as easy as you would think it should be,” Hannah said. “I’m happy to show you some tricks. Western women don’t often get the chance to see breastfeeding up close, so how are we supposed to know how to do it in the best way?”
“That would be good,” I said, thinking that she had a point. How were we supposed to learn in a society where women are fairly shy about whipping out their boobs in public and inviting detailed scrutiny of the whole process?
Well, apparently one other way to learn some of this would have been to grow up on a farm.
“I had such good filters tonight, honey,” Mike said triumphantly after we got home from dinner. “I was going to say all sorts of things during the breastfeeding discussion, but I didn’t.”
“You were going to talk about cows, weren’t you,” I said.
“Alright,” I sighed. “Tell me about the cows and breastfeeding.”
“Well,” Mike said. “Everything Hannah said makes sense. Our cows also used to vary dramatically in terms of how much milk they’d produce and how fast it would let down. And some calves, oh my word, some of those calves were so dumb. They just couldn’t figure out how to drink – you’d have to spend hours out there coaching them.”
“Really?” I said. “They didn’t just know? How do you teach them?”
“First you’d prod the calves in that direction and hope they’d figure it out. But if that didn’t work, eventually we’d have to milk the cows and put it in a bottle and hope that the calves would made the connection between what comes out of the nipple on the bottle and what comes out of the nipple on the cow. But some really struggled to make that quantum leap. We had one calf we thought would die it took him so long to figure it out.”
“And I know all about mastitis because the cows used to get it,” Mike continued while I took this in. “Sometimes the calves would develop a preference for only one set of teats – usually the forward ones because they were easier to reach and the calves were lazy. Then the back ones would get full and blocked up and infected.”
“What did you do?”
We’d have to massage and hand milk them on those teats, and sometimes they needed antibiotics.”
As far as I can see so far, Mike’s farm background has substituted quite well for older sisters in preparing him to deal with period cramps and breastfeeding challenges, as well as equipping him with skills in the area of assisting in the delivery of baby mammals (skills that both he and I fervently hope he does not need to employ later this year). And I will admit that I’ve grown quite fond of the cow stories, even if they involve Ivy.
That doesn’t mean, however, that all other animal analogies are fair game.
The other day, when I recalled some random (probably useless) fact, Mike asked me, amazed, how I’d done it.
“I have a good memory,” I said modestly.
“Just like an elephant,” he said. “You’re my elephant.”
“Careful,” I said. “Thin ice.”
“Oh, honey,” Mike said. “Instead of the second smartest cow you can be my smartest elephant.”
“What was that I just heard?” I asked. “Oh, yeah, a big splash.”
What about you? If you’ve had children, what is one thing you wished you’d known before you had your first? If you haven’t had children, what questions or observations do you have?