When Things Get Hard

There’s a forging of something new that happens on the inside when things get hard.

It’s not always a forging of something good hard things on the outside often form hard things on the inside.

But hard things can also form something good, if we make room for it.

Things got hard during this year’s lambing season. It was beautiful and awful, exhilarating and exhausting, encouraging and devastating depending on which day you might have showed up to observe.

We can state undeniably that the high points outnumber the low by a wide margin. A record percentage of twins, a generous number of ewe lambs to grow our flock, healthy lambs and healthy mothers, mostly easy births, and all the joy of watching young lambs frisk and jump and play. (Did you see this cuteness montage or this newborn on our Instagram? Priceless.)

Lily

The lows were very marking, though, and those few difficult moments stand on almost equal ground as the innumerable positives.

The trouble began with Noah’s sheep, Lily. A first-time mom, she started showing signs of labor on a Thursday afternoon. Normally, a lamb should appear within an hour after the water bag breaks, but two hours later, Lily was not progressing. She wasn’t even pushing or straining.

We knew we needed to assist, which is never a good sign for the longevity of a breeding ewe. With minimal struggle, I was able to reach in and pull the first lamb out: a healthy girl. We celebrated for Noah.

A second water bag emerged and burst, which meant a second lamb was coming. But the same pattern persisted: Lily was not going to push this twin out on her own. This second lamb presented difficulty from the start. He was big too big. After struggling for minutes that were adding up, our concern was mounting. This lamb needed to come out, and quickly, but he just wouldn’t budge. 

We called the vet who helped us diagnose the issue: hip lock. When a lamb is too big to come out through the pelvic canal, they can get hip locked. Stuck fast. By this time, the lamb was halfway out and clearly not breathing. While Andy was on the phone, I tried blowing into his nostrils in a sort of livestock mouth-to-mouth resuscitation effort. But it was too late.

The vet advised us to get the lamb out in whatever way possible. And we did, but it took all of Andy’s strength to do it. We were spent, and our hearts were broken for Noah. These are not genetics you want to keep in your flock, and Lily’s mom had shown similar signs of hormonal imbalance already. He’s going to have to sell and start over. These are hard lessons for a twelve-year-old.

Charlotte

The next afternoon, Charlotte went into labor. We were nervous about Charlotte from the beginning: she had difficulty during every lambing season to date, and we knew we should have sold her by now. But Charlotte was one of our first three lambs that started our flock, and we like her. She reminds us of where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

Andy was home from work and keeping an eye on things in the barn, so I continued working in my office, hoping for the best. When I saw Andy walk hurriedly out from the front of the barn toward the house, I closed my laptop and went to change my clothes: I knew what was coming.

I only see a nose, no feet, he told me as we met in the bedroom.

Dang.

A lamb is supposed to come out with both feet forward with its head on top. I was going to have to go in, find the right two feet, and pull it out. I had never navigated this particular scenario before. Last year, Charlotte’s lamb was upside down so I had some experience in moving a lamb around in utero, but not like this.

We are first generation farmers so this is all new for us. In these crisis situations, we are on our own. Andy read aloud from one of our sheep books while I gloved up. We had a tool to help keep the head and front feet together during the procedure so I was trying to acquaint myself with those instructions as well. We went into the pen and Andy held Charlotte while I got into position.

My first tries were unsuccessful. I had to gently push the head back in, hold it there with one hand, and reach with the other hand for what I hoped was the right foot. I was feeling around in the dark, quite literally, and I could not figure out which feet were the right feet. I didn’t know how many lambs were inside and I had to figure out which feet were connected with which head. You don’t want to pull the wrong feet and make the situation worse.

It was not working. I tried again and again, panting and straining and hoping.

I can’t do this, I said.

I’ll call the vet, Andy said, and I finally assented. I took a break while Andy got on the phone. I was shaking with nervousness and exhaustion. I felt all the pressure of my inexperience and the reality that two, maybe three, lives were entirely dependent on my success.

I could tell by the way the conversation was going that the vet had no new information to offer us, so I set to trying again while Andy tried to wrap up the conversation. Andy was kneeling with the phone on one side, hugging Charlotte in place on the other side.

I cried out, got one! I had maneuvered one front leg into the tool’s loop with the head. Finally!

Andy thankfully hung up the phone and I verbalized what was happening inside as I worked to find the other leg.  think I’ve got it. Which leg is this? There it is. Shoot, it slipped out of my hand. It keeps pulling its foot back I can’t hang on to it. Is this a front or back hoof? This head wants to come out, I can’t hold it back. Wait, I think I had the wrong one. Here it is. I’ve got it now. Okay, it’s coming forward now. Here we go.

I pulled on two legs and the whole body started to move. The head came out with both legs, and finally one wet and slimy lamb was out on the straw. Oh thank goodness.

Charlotte started walking away. Come back, Charlotte, this is your lamb. 

Sometimes in these stressful birthing situations, the sheep are so bewildered that they don’t recognize or accept their lambs. That was the last thing we wanted to happen after all of this work. We wiped the nose and face of the new lamb to make sure it could breathe.

It’s a girl, I said quietly, eyeing Charlotte as she noticed the lamb and started inching closer. Charlotte came near and sniffed the lamb, paused, and started licking it. We breathed a sigh of relief. She had recognized it as her own. That was one battle we wouldn’t have to fight today. 

I reached back in and immediately felt another body. She’s got twins, I said. So I was fumbling around among eight legs all this time! No wonder I was having a hard time.

I found the front two legs right away and gently pulled. This one slipped right out and onto the straw beside her sister: another girl.

Charlotte was in full maternal mode by this time. We stood back and let them do what they do, and that old magic creeped into the barn again. Two more miracles.

They were all going to make it, and we were thankful. And tired.

While all of this was happening, Faith’s sheep Nancy had delivered a perfect ewe lamb in the next pen. Andy had been watching and checking on things, unbeknownst to me, while I was dealing with Charlotte. I stood up and turned around to see Nancy licking her lamb and nickering to her young one. Faith was thrilled to hold her very own lamb when she got home from school that day, welcoming Blossom to the flock with a long hug.

Greta

The next day was Saturday. Andy woke me in the morning with news: Greta was in labor. I got up to put my barn clothes on and wondered how this would go. Greta is a brood ewe that we bought from a show sheep operation looking to downsize. She had already mothered several lambs before she came to us so we hoped it would be smooth sailing.

She delivered a ram lamb with no problems a half hour later. We waited awhile longer to see if she had another lamb in there. While she paced and seemed slightly agitated, a couple of hours passed and still no second lamb. But since this was her first lambing year with us, we didn’t know what to expect. We put her in a pen with her lamb and went inside to try to rest.

A couple of hours later we discovered Greta had delivered a second lamb, but it had fallen through the gate and was trapped by itself, wet and crying, where mom couldn’t get to it.

Andy rushed out to the barn to help. Thankfully, the new lamb was okay and she was reunited with Greta with no further complications.

But Greta had one more surprise in store. When I went to check on everyone a short time later, there was a third lamb in her pen. This one was stillborn, and I found her crumpled right where she had fallen. This was a first for us. She had just stayed in too long, and she didn’t make it. Another disappointment.

Agnes

By the time the evening rolled around, we were ready to be done, at least for the night. Agnes, however, had other plans. A last check in the barn before bedtime revealed another sheep in labor, so we hunkered down again to wait.

And wait. This was not going well. Agnes is another brood ewe that we bought alongside Greta last year. Like Lily a few days before, Agnes was not progressing like she should have. She walked around, obviously in labor, but not pushing or even trying, it seemed. We decided I would need to assist and quickly discovered that the lamb had one leg forward and one leg back. Not again.

This would explain why the lamb wasn’t coming out on its own. This leg position widens the shoulder span as it’s coming through the birth canal. Andy remembered that the vet had told us on our call the day before that you can deliver a lamb this way if the mother is big enough. We decided to try.

I pulled on the forward leg, felt movement, and with just a little more effort, a lively ewe lamb came out in our arms a few minutes later. With great relief, we placed her in front of mom, but watched with dejection as Agnes sniffed at the wet, bawling creature … and turned away.

Agnes! 

She would have none of it. We tried and tried to encourage Agnes to care for her lamb, but she was completely unresponsive. We dried the lamb with a towel and showed her how to nurse, and while mom wasn’t helpful, she at least wasn’t violent. Some sheep who reject their lambs will push the lambs away forcefully and won’t let them near. Agnes merely ignored her lamb and walked away, uninterested and unconcerned.

We moved the pair to a lambing pen and discussed what to do about this lamb. The only way she could nurse was if we held Agnes still. Otherwise, she would move and walk away every time her lamb tried to eat. It’s critically important for new lambs to get mother’s colostrum very soon after birth, so the first stage of our plan was to come out every few hours through the night and the next day to hold Agnes and make sure her lamb was eating.

As it turned out, Agnes eventually chilled out enough to let the lamb nurse freely throughout the day. She wasn’t exactly maternal, but she wasn’t hostile either. This was the best possible outcome of our labor and saved us lots of time and money bottle feeding. Our perseverance paid off.

Our remaining mothers lambed fairly uneventfully, and despite all of the trials, we’re calling this year’s lambing season a success. Because on the far side of the unrelenting hard, I discovered something good a few somethings.

A deeper capacity for endurance was formed that I didn’t have before. We grew in confidence in a new ability to maneuver a way through any number of birthing scenarios. And hope, that what seems bad at first still has the potential to produce something good.

You don’t know what you’re capable of until more is demanded of you.

That’s a lesson many of us have learned the hard way. But then again, there really is no other way to learn it. It’s always hard. You think you’ve given it your all, and then you realize: my all isn’t enough. I need more.

THEY need more. They is different for each of us: our child, our spouse, our job. And we can rise to the challenge, or retreat in resignation. It’s a choice. Hard things can be redemptive when we don’t give up.

It was our sheep that needed more this time around. And next time, our capacity has been expanded to BE more. If that is not worthy work, I don’t know what is.

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