“Feed My Lambs”


First Place Winner 1988 Personal Essay Contest

I opened the screen door and stepped inside. The smell of sourdough bread and lamb chops lingered in the air.

“Knock, knock,” I called out. “Anybody home?” I wandered into the kitchen looking for my grandparents.

“Well, look who’s here. How are you?” Grandma asked, giving me a big hug.

“Ummm, good.” I kissed her on the cheek and settled into a chair next to Grandpa, who sat with his head on his chest, his eyes closed. Grandma and I visited while I made short work of a bowl of pistachios that sat on the table. I was well into the bowl when Grandpa stirred.

“Hello, Grandpa,” I said. “How are you?” He nodded that he was fine.

“How are the sheep?” I asked. Though he was in his nineties, Grandpa still kept a herd of sheep. He always liked to talk about them.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, in his Greek accent. “We need rain out there badly. There’s not enough water for them, and the ewes are lambing.” He was speaking about his winter sheep range—a piece of Utah desert where spring rains were rarely plentiful.

Grandpa continued, warming up to his subject. “If we don’t get a good rain, we’ll lose some of the herd. Right now, there’s enough water, but there are few watering holes. When the sheep see the water, they run to it. The good mothers wait to make sure their lambs get to the watering hole and don’t get lost. But some of the ewes run immediately to the water and look for their lambs only after they’ve had a drink. By that time, the lambs have usually gotten separated from them. It’s hard for the ewes to find their lambs, and the lambs often die without their mothers to care for them. We get a lot of bum lambs that way.”

I thought about the lambs Grandpa had given me to raise. I had always loved bottle-feeding them, even when I had to get up early in the morning to make up their milk. They were a lot of work, and even with a surrogate mother the littlest ones’ survival rate was poor.

I soon excused myself to take our turn at the irrigation water. The lawn was parched, much in need of watering. We lived fairly close to Grandma and Grandpa, so I cut across the sheep pasture and followed the ditch to the headgates. I patted my blossoming tummy as I walked. Grandpa’s words stuck in my mind, and I wondered what kind of mother I would be—and what kind of mother I already was, since the child I was expecting would be our second. Motherhood, I had discovered, was a lot more difficult than I had ever imagined.

I reached the headgates that controlled the flow of water. Noticing by my watch that our turn hadn’t officially started yet, I sat down in the crabgrass at the edge of the ditch and tossed pieces of it into the water.

Motherhood was a challenge. Before our first child was born, I had naively wanted twins because I planned to quit my job and worried that I might be bored as a full-time homemaker. Then our baby girl had arrived, and I had found myself scheduling my every minute around her.

As the oldest child in our family, I had thought that I knew all there was to know about being a mother. I had been in charge whenever Mom and Dad were away, and although I hadn’t spent a lot of time caring for babies, I had cared for lambs.

But babies, I had found out, were vastly different from lambs. Lambs didn’t keep one up until two in the morning with colic, and they didn’t have to be diapered. They enjoyed being fed and played with occasionally—and that was that.

“It isn’t as easy as I thought it would be,” I said aloud, to no one in particular, my arms resting on my knees.

Giving up a full-time teaching position to stay at home with my baby daughter had been a big adjustment. I had felt torn between wanting to go back to work and not wanting to leave my child to be cared for by someone else. I loved teaching and found it rewarding and fulfilling. It gave me an opportunity to interact with other people and to receive immediate rewards for my work.

As a full-time homemaker, I had no paycheck to let me know that my time and efforts were valuable. There was no one to evaluate my performance and praise me if I did well, or to talk with me on a professional level. When my husband, Brad, asked me what I had done while he was at work, I couldn’t really answer. With an entire day at home and only one child, I felt that I should accomplish wonders. But often, after a busy day, with dishes stacked in the sink and the bedroom in shambles, I felt totally inept as a homemaker. Deep in my heart I knew my efforts were valuable, but I wasn’t getting the public accolades I had enjoyed while I was teaching.

I listened to television talk shows during the day while I cleaned the house. Quite a few of the discussions centered on women’s changing roles in today’s world. Many of the women interviewed felt that they had to be career-oriented in order to be successful. Most of them were wives and mothers and were also successful in their jobs. I listened while changing diapers, folding clothes, and making dinner—and I felt envious. It made me tired just to think of coming home from a day of work and having to do all I was doing. I couldn’t imagine having small children and a full-time career!

If those women could do all they were doing, I thought that I should be able to do all I wanted to do. I wondered if they knew the secret of time management—or perhaps were more intelligent than I was. I began to feel inferior. Whenever anyone had asked me what I did, I had always responded proudly, “I’m a teacher.” But now, I found myself answering apologetically, “I’m just a housewife.” I began feeling guilty about being “just” a mother, and then felt guilty for feeling guilty. It was a vicious cycle.

Glancing at my watch, I realized with a start that our watering turn had begun. I lifted the gate to release the water into the ditch and watched the water gush down its new path. Then I walked toward home, checking to make sure nothing interfered with the course of the water.

I sighed. Those talk shows had kept me from feeling content in my role as a mother. I had wondered whether I were lazy or selfish to want to stay at home with my children. I had become so confused about my choice that I had looked up every scripture I could find on motherhood. At about that time, President Ezra Taft Benson had delivered his fireside address, “To the Mothers in Zion.” That talk had been an answer to my prayers.

In it, President Benson stated, “There is no more noble work than that of a good and God-fearing mother.” (Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1987, p. 2.) He had also quoted President David O. McKay, who had declared, “Motherhood is the greatest potential influence either for good or ill in human life.” (Ibid.; see also Gospel Ideals, Salt Lake City: The Improvement Era, 1953, p. 452.)

I thought a lot about those two quotes. I had just finished reading about some criminals who had had unhappy childhoods, filled with physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. I knew how hard it was for people to overcome such abuse, and I thought about how different the world would be if all children had “good and God-fearing mothers.” I thought of my own child, who seemed to “soak in” all the attention I could give her. I couldn’t bear to think of her—or any other child—in a home where she wouldn’t be loved and cared for.

President Benson’s talk had helped me feel better about my decision not to return to work. While acknowledging that some women had no choice about the matter, President Benson had quoted President Spencer W. Kimball, who had said, “No career approaches in importance that of wife, homemaker, mother.” (“To the Mothers in Zion,” p. 7.)

Some of the people I had talked with felt that President Benson’s view was old-fashioned and out of touch with women’s changing roles. But I was sure that he, as the Lord’s prophet, had a much clearer view of the world than I did and that some things—like morality and motherhood—should never go out of style.

I reached the fence that marked the boundary of our pasture and climbed over it. This was where I had kept the lambs I had cared for. I remembered how my mother had taught me to get a newborn lamb to suck from a bottle. The lambs had to be fed constantly, not “whenever I got around to it,” or they would die. I remembered how Mother had spent time with me. The time we had shared had made a lasting impression—more so than the gifts I had received for birthdays and Christmas.

I thought about the women on the talk shows. I understood how they felt. No one had prepared me for the repetition of housework or caring for children. In college and in my job, I had done new and challenging things every day. At home the bed always had to be made, the kitchen always had to be scrubbed. I often found myself feeling good about my sparkling-clean dishes just in time to use them for another meal.

On the other hand, no one had really prepared me for the wonders of being a mother, either. I loved seeing my daughter’s everyday accomplishments. I loved seeing her face light up when I came into a room, and I felt privileged to witness little miracles every day as she learned to roll over, crawl, and take her first steps. I found it fulfilling to hold her in my arms and rock her to sleep or to pick her up and comfort her when she felt sad.

I realized how much these things meant to me when I received a letter from my sister, Denice, who was a nanny. Denice took care of all the child’s daily needs and even got up with her, when necessary, in the night. The little girl was just learning to talk, and she had learned to say “Denice” before learning to say “Mommy.” I didn’t want that to happen with my children!

The water was already beginning to trickle onto the thirsty lawn. I walked back to Grandma’s. I was feeling better about my decision to stay at home with my children. I had experienced some self-doubt about that decision, especially after finding out that I was expecting another baby. Several of my fellow workers believed it was wrong to bring too many children into such a decadent world. Even some of our family had voiced dislike at the idea of having a large family because of rising living costs and the strain it put on the mother.

“Well,” I thought to myself, “we will just have to budget more carefully.” I felt that it would be good for spirits to come to our home, where they would be loved and cared for.

Grandpa, who had subscribed to U.S. News and World Report for as long as I could remember, always had copies of the magazine lying around. One day I had found a rather intriguing article in it, titled, “The Birth Dearth: Dangers Ahead?” (22 June 1987.) The book from which the article was derived states, “Fifty percent of young American women will bear either no children or one child . … Most people—men and women—who freely decide not to have children will probably live to regret it. More important … those who unwittingly arrange their lives in ways that reduce their chances to have children will live to be even more sorry.” (P. 60.)

The article said that, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, during 1986 only 65 babies were born per 1,000 women of childbearing age—the lowest rate in American history. “People in most modern industrial nations aren’t bearing enough children to reproduce themselves over a long period of time,” said another writer in a related article in the same issue. (Ibid., pp. 56, 64.)

The fact that the magazine had devoted a cover story to this subject seemed to me to strengthen President Benson’s remarks. In the talk, he had also quoted President Brigham Young: “There are multitudes of pure and holy spirits waiting to take tabernacles, now what is our duty?—To prepare tabernacles for them.” (“To the Mothers of Zion,” p. 4; see also Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1954, p. 197.)

I went back to Grandma’s kitchen—one of the nicest places I could think of. Grandpa had gone to check on the sheep, and Grandma was bottling fruit. I watched her put up a few bottles, wondering if I would be able to follow in the impressive footsteps of her and my mother. Suddenly, I had an overwhelming desire to hug my mother and tell her how much I loved and appreciated her for all she had done for me.

It was late when I headed for home. As I walked, I vowed to give motherhood my best effort. The Lord had told Peter, “Feed my lambs. … Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15–17.) Was that not what I was doing in caring for those precious “lambs” the Lord had entrusted to my care? I decided to quit being apologetic about my chosen role. It was an honor to be called “Mother.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Lori Anderson