- On Chickens, Children, and Fascism
Before I got baby chicks, I attended chicken class at Wardell’s Feed and Pet, a few miles down the highway. Eric, the chicken class teacher, sold me a brooder. If you don’t know, [End Page 160]
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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 light-bulb, 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 [End Page 162] Noah’s ark. The house was an uncertain home, owing to the difficulties in my marriage to their father, but also beautiful: a 1920s Italian-style house on a busy street. Daily, I walked them along tree-lined streets. I sang them to sleep, wore them against my chest. My son was observant, analytical, taking apart his toys methodically. My daughter was wiry, athletic, a child who ran the day after she walked. They were gorgeous, fierce children. I was overcome with the magic of them, with the ways they grew and learned.
And I was overwhelmed, too. The problem of being a parent is this: the job is to raise children to become independent, thoughtful adults who are productive members of society, yet one must do this through the exercise of one’s power. This problem—helping a creature of free will achieve independence through judicious use of power—stymied me. I’m no Marxist theorist—or any kind of theorist at all—but power dynamics of all sorts have always unsettled and disturbed me. This is mostly due to my childhood...