Chickens were first domesticated thousands of years ago, and have since become the most commonly kept animal. At some point, humans started breeding chickens for specific qualities, such as the ability to lay more eggs or put on meat quickly. The chickens most commonly kept as layer hens by both commercial farmers and hobbyists, Leghorns, Barred Rocks, and Black Stars, to name a few, begin laying when they’re about five months old, can produce up to three hundred eggs a year, and are not inclined to nest. This means that that they’ll lay a lot of eggs, but don’t have much interest in sitting on them. Hence the incubator.
When the urge to brood does surface in a layer hen, it’s generally seen as an undesirable quality, one to be discouraged. This is especially true for hens that haven’t mated with a rooster, because the eggs those hens lay will never hatch. The best way to get a hen off a nest is to make her uncomfortable by lifting her up and placing her elsewhere. Some chicken keepers will dunk her in a bucket of cold water, though this is generally frowned upon. Another option is to simply wait it out. Often a hen will begin to brood, getting warm and comfortable on top of her eggs, and then give up after a week, maybe two, distracted or bored.
I’m not sure whether to envy or pity my hens. On the one hand, they’ve been freed from the work of rearing young. In a world where many chicks don’t survive, this seems like a blessing. Chickens (at least the ones lucky enough to live in the backyard of a pair of vegetarians) are able to scratch in the dirt, fight over treats, and roost whenever and wherever they like, without worrying about fragile offspring. On the other hand, we’ve bred them so that their ability to protect and propagate their own species has all but disappeared. They couldn’t be mothers even if they wanted to, which makes the incubator in my kitchen seem a bit cruel.
There’s another unpleasant fact about layer hens, one that I—moral vegetarian, the lover of animals—do my best to ignore. The truth is that laying an egg nearly every day is hard work. It requires a massive amount of calcium, makes a hen more prone to ovarian cancer, and hurts, at least for a few minutes. Furthermore, chickens lay eggs for about two years. After that, they slow down and eventually stop entirely. Most people consider hens useless at this point and get rid of them, usually by way of a hearty stew.
This is not something my chickens need to worry about. I think of them as pets and companions, and the enjoyment they bring me extends beyond the breakfast table. Chickens are mostly valued for the eggs they lay and, as I approach my own reproductive prime, I can’t help but empathize with them. In a society where motherhood seems to be lauded as the most important job a woman can do, choosing the opposite path feels, at times, like a betrayal.
For Nathan and I—a young, white, middle-class couple—a life with children would lack the freedoms that have guided our lives so far. For the last ten years, we’ve been in and out of school, chasing different degrees and putting our passions ahead of our paychecks. If we had children, our lives would no longer be our own. A chicken can get bored and step off the nest, but once you have a child, there's no turning back.
And then something strange happens. One egg is cracked, we can see the tip of a beak poking through, but the chick isn’t moving. There’s no chirping coming from the egg, no tap tap tap echoing from within.
“I think she’s broken through the membrane inside the egg,” Sharron says, her brow furrowed.
“That’s okay, right?” I ask.
Sharron shakes her head. “Air can get in, and that’ll dry out the egg. The chick could get stuck, and if that happens, she’ll die.”
“Can we help her?” I ask, afraid of Sharron’s answer.
“We can try.” She removes the egg from the incubator and begins pulling away the pieces of shell that are already stuck to the tiny bird. She works slowly, trying not to tear the bird’s delicate skin. I know that chicks face many threats—inclement weather, predators, disease, getting pecked to death by bullying elders—and it’s a shock to realize the danger starts this soon.
Sharron is able to free the chick from the egg, but she’s still not moving. Since all the chicks looked dead at first, I’m still hopeful.
“Is she okay?” I ask.
“Maybe,” Sharron says. “We can put her back in the incubator and see if that revives her.”
“Does that work?”
Later that day, another chick emerges, bringing our total to four healthy birds, but the one who was trapped in her shell still won’t move. When it’s clear that she’s dead, Nathan comes to our rescue, and does the job that I can’t. He carries the little bird outside and lays her body in our compost bin. As far as these things go, it’s a tiny tragedy, but there are four other chicks that need my attention, so I can’t mourn for long.
The last four eggs remain silent, no cracks or chirps, and after an extra week, when it becomes clear that they’re not going to hatch, we carry them to the compost, too. We try to figure out what went wrong. Did the drive from Illinois damage them in some way? Did we lift the lid of the incubator too many times? Did they suffer a deformity that left them unable to escape their shells? The possibilities seem endless, and it’s why Sharron brought nine eggs even though I only wanted four or six chickens.
One morning near the end of the month, juggling leashes in one hand, I look in and there it is: a single small brown egg. I gasp and immediately slam the lid shut, while the chickens in the run below cock their heads at the noise. I put the dogs in the fenced backyard, then raise the lid again. The egg is still there. I reach in and pick it up. It’s warm.
But once we start planning the ceremony, something shifts. We begin talking less about the wedding and more about our marriage. All the things we’d always dreamed about—the house we want to buy, the book I want to write, the farm he wants to own—suddenly seem tangible. By the time our friends and family join us in North Carolina for the wedding, we’re excited to see them, to have a big party, to drink too much wine and dance all night. And when we stand in front of our community and make our vows, it feels as if we’re stepping over a threshold into something new and certain. We started out wanting a party, but we ended up wanting to be married. The shift is a beautiful surprise.
Of course, being married means that many people expect us to take the next step, and I feel guilty when I tell them we don’t plan on having kids. “You also didn’t plan on getting married,” they say, “and look at you now.”
What I don’t tell them is that a few months after the wedding, I thought I was pregnant. I’d forgotten to get my birth control refilled, missed a month of pills. When the pregnancy test read negative, I was so relieved I wept. There was no wistfulness, no moment in which I imagined another path. It was one of the times in my life when I felt truly free.
Still, I wonder about the years to come. I think about how our bodies are constantly replacing cells, and worry that one day I’ll wake up a new person, with new needs and desires. Minds change, desire shifts, nothing is certain. Sometimes I fear the window is shutting right this second, sending me down a path of regret. Other times I can’t tell if the sound I hear in the distance is a clock ticking or my heart’s steady beat.
When I make breakfast for Nathan and me—eggs fried in olive oil, scrambled with hash browns, baked in a frittata—I think about the nourishment the hens and I give each other. I don’t have a child, but I do care for other creatures. I keep reminding myself that the path I’m on isn’t a betrayal, it’s simply another way to love, and be loved.
I throw the chickens a handful of pumpkin seeds, then collect their eggs, smooth and brown, warm and round. I thank them, as always, but they’re too busy scratching for seeds to notice.
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