It is 5:30 a.m. and I can hear my 17-year-old daughter, Lucia, climb the basement stairs to head outside. I also hear the usual, impatient throaty baahs from her small flock of sheep. They know what these human sounds mean – breakfast is coming. Before I fall back into the haze of sleepiness, I hear the snow crunching beneath her boots as she navigates the path to the sheep pen. After weeks of jolting awake every night around 3 a.m. to check animals for signs of labor – everyone in the family has a shift – I’m wiped out and jealous of the animals’ slumber during each and every one of my nightly checks.

A few minutes later, much too soon for Lucia to be done with morning chores, I hear the basement door open and feet pound down the stairs.

“Mom, Modge is having her babies!” This is shouted through the rafters just below my bedroom. After the hasty declaration, she is back out the door.

* * *

I never set out to be a farmer. I grew up in a large city and so did my husband. Raising livestock feels accidental in so many ways, but it has been an entirely natural progression, and lifestyle, to my animal-loving children. They started with chickens, graduated to pigs to show at the fair, added sheep a year later and then dairy goats. (They also love working with with cows and horses at other farms).

When folks ask about my “farm,” I am quick to point out that’s not exactly what we have going on in our backyard. What we have represents some quick-talking, ingenious and industrious kids. It has been hard for me to say no to kids who have an interest that requires commitment and a strong work ethic. We don’t raise animals to make a profit (in reality, it’s a money drain), and it doesn’t always feel purposeful. It’s a hobby, a way of life and an excellent teacher. We did not jump into breeding sheep and goats initially. This season marks our third of birthing animals at our place.

I shake my husband awake as soon as the door slams closed, and we are both on the move, stepping into boots and grabbing jackets, while noting that our daughter has already grabbed the lambing supply box. With a few lambing and kidding seasons under our belts, it takes only a few minutes before we, too, are outside.

The laboring mother is already corralled into the lambing shed and Lucia’s bottom is planted in a small folding chair with towels an arm’s length away, watching for signs of a lamb emerging. My husband starts rooting through the lambing box to ensure all the supplies are handy: towels for drying babies, betadine solution for dipping umbilical cords and vitamin paste to give the mama sheep, or a potentially weak baby, an energy boost after delivery. He then grabs his own towel and sits on the floor, watching and waiting with our daughter. There isn’t room for me in the shed. I love my husband but, we don’t always make a good team during the birthing season. Truth be told, I’m a horrible assistant. I have my own ideas about how to do things thanks to many hours of conversations over the years with farming friends, while my husband has other priorities. After several years of this birthing business, I leave it to him when he’s home, with our daughters serving as his able assistants. I watch from the window outside, partially frosted from the breath of the laboring sheep and her two human nursemaids.

* * *

Our diligence of checking animals for signs of labor and doing our best to be present at every birth was borne out of a tragedy we experienced last year. We had a stillborn baby goat. We hadn’t anticipated our three-time mama, Angel, would have a problem kidding since all had gone well previously.

We chose to be conservative with our intervention with Angel’s labor. Anytime a human hand is put inside the birth canal to pull a baby out, sterilized glove or not, the mama is at risk of infection. The time frame in which the babies need to be pushed out once the mucus plug releases is about 30 minutes. I gave Angel only a few extra minutes beyond the recommended time before I reached in and found, to my dismay, the baby was in a wonky position. After some maneuvering and guesswork, I was able to reposition the baby and pull him out. We immediately tried to get him breathing using bulb suction, towels and even swinging him upside down (a stimulation and mucus clearing method I have seen work). It was to no avail. His lifeless form on the ground left my daughters and I shell-shocked. Thankfully, Angel needed no further assistance, and two live, healthy babies plopped out of her minutes later. We mourned the loss and consulted farming friends about what we could have done differently. The consensus was most of them would have handled the situation the same way. Every farmer knows that sometimes, no matter how hard you try – or how many times you’ve attended a birth – you can’t save every animal. We chose to focus on the good that came of the experience: Pulling out that first baby helped ensure the twins behind him survived.

* * *

This same morning my 18-year-old daughter, Gaetana, is tending to the goats in their shelter a few yards away from the lambing shed, making sure the new goat mama, Marzia, and her five-day-old triplets are their usual energetic selves. She wraps up her chores in record time and stands next to me to watch the laboring sheep.

After a few minutes in the bitterly cold morning air (we planned the timing of breeding assuming March would be warmer than February), I head inside to get a quick omelet made for my husband and daughter before they head off to work and school. While in the kitchen I hear the door open and feet running down the basement stairs again. I brace myself, thinking this may be bad news. But my daughter replies to my anxious inquiry that all is well.

“The twins are big! We just need more towels!”

Omelet forgotten, I head back outside.

* * *

This year, lambing season began with a single white ewe lamb just a few days ago. We bred three ewes last fall but as these things sometimes go, one ewe miscarried.

We also bred three goats. The first triplet baby goats arrived a week before the first lamb. It was an uneventful birth that my 18-year-old attended. My 17-year-old was on baby watch a week later when Angel, the goat with a stillbirth last year, went into labor. I was at work when she called.

“Angel just had four babies! One isn’t breathing and one is acting dopey so I’m working on her.”

My daughter kept a cool head, moved the dead baby into the snow outside the goat shelter and relayed her plan for helping the one with the not-so-normal behavior, rigorously rubbing with a towel to stimulate her as well as giving her a vitamin boost. Since that’s what I would have done, I left her to it. I then called her sister, asking her to get home since she was closer to the house than I was at the time.

I tried to focus on my work at the office, but it was futile because I was worried about my daughters alone with a lifeless body. I made quick arrangements to return home to help my capable, but concerned, daughters. And, to deal with the little dead body.

* * *

Looking through the lambing shed window this morning, I spot the two midnight black ram lambs. They’re already trying to stand on their gangly legs while moving around like dopey drunks. But even with their unsteady gait, they manage within a half-hour of emerging from the birth canal to stand under their mama’s udder and nurse the nutritious colostrum milk. Thankfully, these twins demonstrate all the signs of healthy lambs.

I blow out a puff of breath to release some of the tension that has been ever present for the past month of this birthing business and send a thanks above for a successful delivery. I know, as well as my daughters, not every birth has a favorable ending. But thankfully, today’s delivery is a happy one.