Parenting Lessons from Cows and other Cattle

When a women gets pregnant she becomes public property.  Strangers feel they have permission to touch her belly, declare the sex of the child and give parenting advice.  And that’s just beginning.  From here on out as a parent, you must accept advice and judgement about every choice you make from the way birth your child to how she or he is schooled.  In all this there is a lot of emphasis on what is ‘natural’ as shorthand for correct.

Cows have provided me with ample valuable perspectives on what is ‘natural’ which is a useful guide for what is right for me.


When I went into the hospital to have my daughter I was already in labour and pretty close to giving birth.  I was totally disoriented by the lights and couldn’t understand what people were saying to me.  Eventually my husband got the nurse to turn of the light in the labour room and leave me alone to get on with it.

Cows like to calve on their own, as  far away as possible from other cows and possible interference.  When they join the herd its often because they are in trouble and need help.

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In the lead up to childbirth there can be huge expectations about how the birth will turn out.  Many women feel they have failed when things don’t work out the way they imagined. But even in nature, natural births aren’t always possible.

Assisting at a birth

In the first few months of my son’s life I felt like celebrating at the end of each day that we had managed to navigate all the fatal hazards crisscrossing his path.  But the truth is that babies are incredibly resilient.

Newborn calves are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for.  The other day we had to assist a cow giving birth.  We caught the new calf and put him very close to the cow so she could clean him off and let him suckle.  But she had no interest in this calf and she stalked off ignoring her newborn.  For a couple of hours post birth this new calf stood up on his wobbly legs and followed his mom attempting to find her udder.  She kicked him and shoved him away with her nose.  In spite of his traumatic introduction to the world he clambered over rocks and through thorny bushes in pursuit of his mothers udder.  At just a few minutes old his determination, in the face of the nasty response from his mom, was awesome.  After some time had passed, and I had given up on her maternal instinct surfacing, we shackled the cow so that the calf could drink.  Luckily for him (and for us) she softened her attitude and claimed him as her own.

(In the past we had a cow that persisted in rejecting her calf and I spent mealtimes punishing mom with a large stick every time she kicked her calf away.  We called him Baby Jake because he was a fighter and ended up being bigger than most of his peers.)

Breastfeeding can be such a source of such stress and anxiety for moms when it doesn’t go as planned.  Mothers are often shamed by other women who believe that the mother hasn’t done enough to breastfeed her baby.

Some cows struggle to breastfeed too. They have all sorts of problems from too much milk to too little and can develop complications like mastitis (which is not so easy to treat with cabbage leaves due to the placement of the udder!)  So if the iconic producers of milk can have hassles I reckon we need to cut the humans a bit of slack here.

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There are very few women these days who can afford to stay at home and not earn an income.  This can be a source of deep guilt and anxiety and often judgement from their community.

Try this argument next time someone suggests you do things differently: Cows send their calves to childcare.  I often see one cow with a group of calves while their mums are off grazing far away.  It seems the most maternal cows are selected for this job.  And maybe those moms that aren’t quite ready to let go of their babies.

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A cow whose calf has died in labour or after birth are much more aggressive and protective with their next calf than other cows are.

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Cows can be bad moms. Even among our bovine counterparts there are those cows who just aren’t that interested in parenting.  They lose their calves, don’t notice when their calves are missing, don’t feed them, abandon them. Sometimes they are even abusive, kicking them when they are trying to feed.  There are often good reasons for this behaviour (as with human moms) but sometimes it just a personality thing.

I was late to the parenting party and had to sit through countless conversations about nappies and baby food which I endured as a mild form of torture.  However, once I had a child these conversations were a critical resource for my survival.  I even initiated them.

Cows with babies tend to hang out together and those that don’t hang out together.

Women who don’t have children can be treated with an awful combination suspicion, pity and judgement.  They are often treated to the opinion that a women’s ‘natural’ purpose is to have children.

Some cows take longer to conceive than others and some don’t conceive at all. These cows are called Queenies, maintaining a beautiful condition year round and can often be found hanging out with the bull.

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Some offspring have better relationships with their mother than others.  Once the heifer calf is old enough, and if she is selected, she will rejoin the breeding herd (at about 2 years old).  Some of these heifers will tend to hang out with their moms while others won’t acknowledge the relationship at all.

I was pregnant with my second child at 40 sending the medical profession into a spin.  I was called a “geriatric mother” (resulting in a severe beating with my walking stick).  If I hadn’t given birth in a provincial hospital where they have to justify what they spend I would have been forced to have a cesarean whether I liked it or not.

Old cows can give birth and are better at it than the younger ones.  We have never had to assist an old cow in calving.

“Fat old cow” is the biggest compliment you can give a cow.  They have survived, are fertile and prepared to climb high and walk far for the best grass.  Take that.

P.S.  I acknowledge some poetic anthropomorphisation for the sake of this blog.  However, we humans tend to idealise the animal kingdom as somehow being more uniform when it comes to easy births and natural parenting skills and that somehow we humans (especially women) are somehow “unnatural” when we aren’t able to perfect the conception, childbirth and parenting thing by the book.  It helps us to recognise that there is no perfect model in nature and we are doing the best we can with all our imperfections.

P.P.S. Bulls may provide slightly less valuable a role model for parenting.  Those men who are tempted to follow this example must remember that they are required to sucessfully mate with at least 30 females within a two to three month time period (every year).  Under performance would result in being culled (turned into hamburgers).  When not mating you will be required to fight with other males to show dominance.  You will also forfeit any relationship with your children and spend most of the year only the company of other males. (Also most male calves do not make it to old age and forfeit their manhood early on). I refer you to the prairie vole or the macaroni penguin for a better resource for inspiration.

Come and Reconnect on The Rest.  Get Grounded.  Do a workshop.  Learn from the cows.  Come to RestFest at Easter. See www.karoorest.com on the workshops page.

Parenting Lessons from Cows and other Cattle

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