a brooder is a kind of substitute mother hen: it’s a box with a heat lamp
and a feeder and waterer. The chicks live in it until they’re eight weeks
old and ready to move outside to the coop. It’s obvious to me why a
substitute mother is called a brooder. Motherhood for me is characterized by an ongoing sense of worry and inadequacy. My own mother was
not much more than a source of heat who offered food and water (and
some personality issues) alongside a rigid and authoritarian perspective,
and because of that, I have a conflicted relationship with caretaking and
motherhood, which is to say a perpetual feeling of anxiety about my
failures as a mother alongside the moral quagmire of how much power
a parent wields over a child. Still, I filled the brooder with pine shavings
and added feed and water dispensers and a thermometer. Then I bought
seven little cheeping chicks and set them in the brooder on the second
day of their lives.
When the chicks were three weeks old, their constant cheeping drove
the dog crazy. Our open-plan ranch house doesn’t offer many closed-off rooms, so down the hall they went in their brooder to my daughter’s room. My daughter was away at college and wouldn’t, in a practical
sense, be disturbed by the birds, but the notion of it—birds living among
her cherished childhood possessions, her ballet shoes and Hula-Hoops,
her extensive earring collection, a worn set of Harry Potter books—
pissed her off.
“I can’t believe you put chickens in my room,” she said.
“They’re in a box,” I explained, which ameliorated some of her concerns.
For a couple of hours a day, I sat on the floor of my daughter’s room,
among her things, her scent, in her world, observing chicks. It did not
escape me that it was during these days in her room that I began to feel
something like love for the chickens. I observed them with pride, with
worry, with curiosity, and with the deep sense of humility that comes
from observing the complexity of another’s life. Along with the lightbulb, I was their mother, and I took the raising of them seriously, just as
I had with my children, and it was there, among my child’s things, while
raising animals that are cognitively and emotionally so primitive they’re
often compared to dinosaurs, that I began to revisit the moral struggles
I’d had as a parent.
My children were born nineteen months apart, a boy and a girl, and
brought home to a baby bedroom wallpapered with the animals from