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The Childless Mothers
Motherhood, extraction, and the value of the female body on a Vermont goat farm
By Lauren Gitlin
Listen to an audio version of this piece, read by the author, on our podcast here.
Well before human senses can perceive the subtle shift from summer to fall, goats can detect the shortening of the days. The summer heat is still oppressive when the does begin to fight amongst themselves, mounting one another in a feigned choreography of courtship, while the bucks start to emanate their distinct cologne and contort their faces into near-comical paroxysms that only a female goat could love. The heavy, humid air diffuses the bucks’ musk, perfuming a formidable radius of the barn with its pungent hazelnut aroma. It is breeding season. I begin to track individual does for signs of estrus, their heat cycle: vocalizing, vaginal discharge, a recognizable coquetry in and around the vicinity of the buck pen. I do the math, working backwards from when I’ll feel ready to inhabit the role of doula. I take into account the long winters, the frigid springs, the toll that labour can take on a body even without the complications of arctic temperatures, and the more nuanced calculations of my own body’s resilience. When the babies start to drop, the new season officially starts, and from then on there is no rest or respite. It is 150 days from the time the doe and buck are joined to the first signs of labour and the gruelling hours of parturition. When will I decide, as the hand of God, to start the clock?
Man’s — or rather, woman’s — relationship to dairying dates back centuries, millennia. Goats were among the first mammals to be domesticated, and the division of labour around their husbandry up until the era of industrialization was strictly the province of the female. Beyond the economic reasons for this arrangement, there was (and is) a more profound simpatico between women and their lactating charges, a recognition and sensitivity that transcends species. As dairying evolved beyond the point of subsistence and became commercial, this relationship became less reciprocal and more unilateral. I discovered when I began my life as a dairy producer that even with the best of intentions and the most heartfelt commitment to the animals’ well-being, this relationship is fundamentally exploitative.
There is, then, always an undercurrent of tension, a moral quandary at the root of my daily interactions with my animals. When, in 2014, I left my city life behind along with my professional history — populated largely by men in power and intelligent, capable women playing second fiddle I marvelled that within the tiny ecosystem of the farm, females were valued far above males. But what I realized quickly was that their value was critically bound up with their reproductive capacity. Their milk was a locus of extraction. Their worth was relational — as long as they were creating a commodity to be consumed, they earned their keep. Their empowerment was their enslavement, contingent as it was on an “Other” who wanted what they were making. This contingency is familiar to anyone who has entered a strip club, flipped through a glossy magazine, or watched a Hollywood movie. In countless guises, a woman’s power is achieved through her objectification, her success in being either literally or figuratively consumed.
I am not the first to draw these parallels. I was introduced to the idea of the female body as a commodity broken down and packaged for consumption by Carol J. Adams, whose work, The Sexual Politics of Meat, I encountered as a graduate student. Her thesis crackled in my brain, heady, astute, and searing when I first read it, but it did not land in my viscera until my second kidding season, when I could not escape the cries of the does whose babies had recently been wrenched from them, whom I tried to comfort even as I bled through my underwear in the pasture, recovering from an abortion. I had become pregnant almost as a challenge to my body, to see whether it would work in the way that it was designed to. But the reality of my life made the decision to terminate my pregnancy a foregone conclusion. I had committed myself to gruelling physical work and very little money, a set of conditions that would have made single parenthood exceptionally challenging. I understood then that my choice to terminate that pregnancy likely extinguished the ever-waning possibility of becoming a biological parent. It was surreal in that moment to contemplate the way that motherhood had eluded me while I was surrounded by female bodies giving birth.
It is no accident that a woman’s sex appeal — at least in a cisgender and heterosexual context — is inextricably tethered to her perceived fertility. Rather ironically, when I embarked on my career as a dairy farmer, I was at the tail end of my childbearing years, and my choice to pursue this trajectory was, I know now in hindsight, what solidified my status as a non-mother. Rather than bearing a child of my own, I began to be both child and mother to the animals I tended, simultaneously offering comfort to them when they were in distress, and being the catalyst of this distress as I manipulated their natural cycles and became a sort of milk magpie, swapping myself in for their kids in order to collect their life-giving fluid. Like them, I was — am — a childless mother, though for them this status was never a choice. By continuing to pursue my livelihood, I am doomed to bear witness to their pain season after season. I am the architect of their suffering and sorrow.
Pregnancy and labour are indisputably the most life-threatening processes that a female goat experiences, whether due to the attendant risks of a malpresenting, a too-large fetus, or the aftershocks of the bodily trauma that can manifest as metabolic imbalances. Even when they survive the perils of pregnancy, these ceaseless cycles of breeding, parturition, and lactation degrade and deplete their bodies, shortening their life spans. And it is this punishing cycle upon which the dairy industry is built. When I had been merely a city-bound daydreamer, fantasizing about pastoral scenes of frolicking in green pastures and stirring large cauldrons of milk beatifically, I had not counted on the living, breathing collateral that this work demanded.
In the years since I have started working in dairy, I have considered my own value as a woman who is no longer “in her prime”, and the ways in which that value is further depleted because I have not transitioned smoothly from maiden to mother. I am now, it seems, a crone. My body has begun to degrade, as all of ours do, but the particular ravages it has been subjected to cannot be explained away by the mitigating conditions of motherhood. I have nothing to show for these wrinkles, this paunch, these saggy breasts. I have no milk to offer, no progeny imprinted with my DNA.
My animals have, since I began this farming life, become my reason for living. I have ceased to exist for myself alone, much the way I imagine a mother does when she has a child. And yet, the cornerstone of our relationship is one of extraction. How can I claim to love these creatures as my family when I engage in systematic cruelty toward them for my own gain? I don’t have a resolution for this hypocrisy. I still have to confront the awareness, every fall, that I am putting into motion a domino effect that will result in the certain suffering and possible death of the living beings I love. And I still have to rifle through the catalogue of excuses I have invented when I watch them contort themselves in the agony of childbirth and ferry their young away, leaving them bewildered and searching, eyes wide and confused, nudging the ground as though to unearth their stolen babies.
The only small, fleeting comfort I can take is the knowledge that until such time as our society abandons the strange and singular practice of stealing the milk of other species, I can approach my role as a thief with an empathy granted by my own status as a childless mother, a perpetual state of heartbreak scarred over, strengthened, and girded with the fierce and deep love I have for my animals. After all, parents of human children also consign their heirs to lives unknown, pockmarked by pain and punctuated by delight. We all suffer at each others’ hands, the more so when our hearts are raw and open to one another. The cycles of suffering and solace aren’t all that different across species, amongst the mothers and those who would wish to be. Milk, more than blood, is what binds us, a tangible measure of maternal love and the myriad things — grief, sacrifice, compassion, care, transcendence — that love has the capacity to contain.
Lauren Gitlin is a former food scholar, journalist, and wine professional. She currently owns and operates Villa Villekulla Farm, a goat microdairy in Barnard, Vermont.