The sound of milk building in a pail is almost meditative. It starts as a soft, metallic ‘tss, tss, tss,’ and evolves with each squirt; as the bottom of the pail becomes further away, the sound becomes more fluid and as light as the air being pelted into the milk, causing the froth that moves continuously to the edge of the bucket. When I get in that zone, I can feel the details on each udder, the texture, the differing force with which I have to milk depending on the doe. Each doe is milked differently (one with forefinger and thumb, another with the first 2 digits, another from the front because otherwise she sits down) and each one takes from three to five minutes.
Between each doe is the frantic exchange, controlling who comes blazing through the door for grain in the same way I rip through the wrapper of a Coffee Crisp, getting them in the head gate without them dancing hard enough to splash milk out of the pail, or worse, getting a foot in it. When I’m milking for household use, there’s washing the udder with a hot cloth of soapy water, and after all is said and done, there’s the 10 minute stand-about while Ferdinand remembers how to suckle the bottle with any sort of efficiency.
On the walk back to the house I start thinking about the mid-morning snack for the human kids, and at this point they have finished an episode of Dark Crystal or a couple Paw Patrols. And every day, in this moment, as I close the door behind me, I am overwhelmed with guilt. I cannot imagine the life of early homesteaders, alone in the wilderness, on the prairie, in the mountains with children and animals to keep; beasts to hunt, chores to do, sometimes while pregnant, sometimes hungry, sometimes with a baby crying.
This time of year, when it’s too cold for their tolerance and the chores are too long for their interest, they spend a chunk of time in the morning and afternoon enslaved by fascinating colours of mindlessness that don’t even offer lessons anymore. The time spent harvesting the resources of our lifestyle comes at a cost, one I fiddle with in my mind on a daily basis. Are those 20 minutes milking goats, the 15 minutes feeding babies, the 12 minutes doing dishes, 10 minutes sweeping house,7 minutes letting out birds worth it?
Moreover, I wonder will my children begin to look on that time with resentment as they grow older, or will they see it as an opportunity to get dressed quickly and brave the weather, their own goat on the milk stand, their own calf to feed, their own eggs to collect and some extra time helping Mom and Dad build a legacy they wish to inherit.
Admittedly, because of that constant conversation I have with myself, the house isn’t what it could be. There are clothes and toys on the floor, the morning dishes stay there until the afternoon; sometimes the floor goes unswept because it was warm enough the kids could help me shovel the driveway and that felt like time better spent. There are often pen marks on the kitchen table where their drawing got out of hand, and toilet paper shoved in the fridge; my jars are precariously placed in my path because my son was bored while I was doing chores and strewn them about. And sometimes there’s attitude.
Parenting on a homestead is unique in its challenges and sacrifices, as is the inner turmoil caused by opting out. It’s nice to have a choice to go to the store and buy what I need, even if the eggs are 5 weeks old from hens who have a hole in the wall they can peak out of so they’re called free range. It’s easy to feel like the time spent in the vehicle on the drive to the city is better than the twenty spent getting richly nutritional, beautifully fresh, raw milk from the herd, as though the sacrifice put into a good, home raised meal can be made up for by crappy boxed food and a ride in the car.
I try to remember this will get easier as the seasons change. Soon, early morning will be the time for playing barefooted in the garden with a glass of milk from yesterday’s milking, for snatching spicy radishes and sweet carrots from the dirt and crunching them without washing. When they’re older, they can spend that downtime making crafts, drawing pictures, reading books or even helping out. My time is as important to them as it is to me, and sometimes we both feel the hurt of the sacrifice. I can only hope, like those times I remember from my childhood, they garner an understanding as they grow, an appreciation for the work, and a love of the memories forged in the essence of raising livestock humanely, dinners together around the table, nights by the fire and the meditative sound of milk building in a pail.