Here Come the Lambs!

Lambing season is finally underway here at the farm. Our first new arrivals came a week ago, which is a bit on the late side; in most years, the ewes begin delivering in March. Given how long the wintry weather has been lingering here, though, I don’t mind the delay. Our sheep may be cold-hardy Icelandics, but every newborn does better when it’s a little warmer out.

I’m especially happy that the deliveries have been spaced out. There have been years when upwards of five ewes have all delivered on the same day — and chaos ensues. Imagine eight or nine little lambs, all running around and getting mixed up with each other, while the mothers try to track down and somehow bond with their own offspring. (My only real complaint about our barn is that we can’t separate the animals into individual stalls. Being able to do so would be a huge stress reliever at lambing time.)

As of yesterday afternoon, we’ve now had three ewes deliver a total of five lambs. Thankfully, all five are doing great.

One of our black polled ewes (no, we never got around to naming her or the one who looks virtually identical to her) kicked things off sometime late Tuesday night (April 3rd) or early Wednesday morning, with a beautiful set of twins. By chore time on Wednesday morning, she’d licked both of them dry.  Here they are, a few days later. The one on the left is a female; the one on the right is a solid moorit male. He’s gorgeous. Assuming he stays healthy, and his horns come in nice and wide, I think we already have a buyer who wants him as a breeder.

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Over the weekend, Fletcherbelle (see this post for the story of her name) gave birth to a mixed-gender set of twins of her own. It appears the solid black female will be polled; her brother will have horns. She had them up on their feet in no time, and busy getting their first meal.

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We’ve been making a point of going out to the barn several times a day, to keep abreast of any new deliveries. That vigilance paid off yesterday. Around lunchtime, I asked the 15 year old to do a check. He returned, and reported that our very oldest ewe, Pachelbelle, was right then in the process of giving birth. This was important news, because it’s the older ones who tend to have the most trouble; their uterine muscles can weaken to the point where they can’t push the lamb all the way out without some help. (Otherwise, our Icelandic sheep have had very few complications with deliveries — it’s one of the aspects of the breed that we most appreciate.)

I hurried to the sheep pen. Pachelbelle was lying alone in a corner, with a small black lamb head protruding from her backside. The lamb’s presentation looked generally correct, because a foot was sticking out alongside the head. And it moved its eyes enough for me to tell it was still alive.  However, at eleven years of age, poor Pachelbelle seemed in no hurry to start pushing again. Her eyes told me, “I’m getting too old for this.”

No problem. I gently inserted my hands into the birth canal, felt around for a secure hold, carefully drew the lamb the rest of the way out, and set him on the straw bedding.

This is the part when the ewe typically jumps up, turns around, and inspects the slimy wet bundle that she’s just delivered. But Pachelbelle was having none of it.

I made a quick decision: if she won’t go to the lamb, then the lamb needs to come to her. I picked the lamb back up, ran a finger through his mouth to ensure it was clear, and deposited him in front of his mother. She sniffed a couple of times, and then went right to work licking him off. He even began struggling to get to his feet – another excellent sign.

Wanting to give Pachelbelle a little more help, I jogged to the house and retrieved an old bath towel. Back at the barn, I gathered up the lamb, wrapped him in the towel, and spent a minute or two removing as much slime as possible. Once back in front of his mother, she again went to work licking him the rest of the way dry.

Sometime after lunch, I made a quick check on the pair. The lamb was on his feet and getting around (big relief), and so was Pachelbelle (even bigger relief). I was also relieved that she’d only had one lamb; at her age, twins or triplets would’ve been taken an awful lot out of her. Pachelbelle 04.10.18.jpg

I pulled the remaining afterbirth from her backside, and milked a couple of squirts of colostrum from each teat (to ensure everything was clear). I also massaged her udder a bit, confirming she was going to have plenty of milk for the lamb.

It’s a bit poignant, watching her do this for what will almost certainly be the last time. We’ve had terrible luck trying to over-winter sheep that get to age eleven, and have more or less resolved to butcher (in the fall) any that reach that age. This last winter was tough on her, even with exempting her from last fall’s shearing so she could keep her warm fleece. I really don’t want to put her through another Michigan winter.

What makes the decision more difficult is that Pachelbelle is the very last surviving animal who made the move with us from Illinois in the “Noah’s Ark on Wheels.” (She was about eight months old at the time.) When she goes, the books won’t just be closing on her life. The books will be closing on a whole chapter of our life.

Fortunately, the fall is still many months off. Lambing is just getting started, and we’re grateful that Pachelbelle has blessed us with another little one. I know we’re going to enjoy watching her raise him this summer, with much gratitude for all eleven years of her life.

 

Passages

Spring is always a time of new beginnings on the farm, and that’s certainly been true this year. In early March, before Spring even officially got here, we had over a dozen goat kids born. It’d actually been a long drought; the kids were way overdue. We woke up the morning of March 6th, still with zero kids. By the evening of March 7th, we had SEVEN. Two sets of twins, and our first-ever set of triplets. Over the course of the next week, the rest of our goats delivered. They ended on the evening of March 13th, with another set of triplets. Here they were, trying to warm up in my office, the morning of March 14th:

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One of the males was very strong and went right back out to his mother. The female unfortunately had been born in very poor shape, and she didn’t make it past the first day. The other male was in-between; he was in poor shape, but just strong enough to pull himself to his feet, stand, and take a few steps at a time. He stayed in my office for several days, hanging out with the dogs. I actually grew adept at bottle-feeding him at my desk, while checking email. (The Yeoman Farm Children were bottle-feeding a couple of others, out in the barn.)

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To say we had our hands full was an understatement. We certainly didn’t need a dozen goat kids; what we really wanted was the milk, and a few females to keep as replacement milkers. One of our goats in particular, Button, was getting really old (she was our last surviving goat to have made the move from Illinois nine years ago), and had been looking especially worn out after this most recent kidding.

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer got in contact with the woman who serves as the goat coordinator for our county’s 4-H program, to see if they had any interest in our males. (The Yeoman Farm Children themselves haven’t participated in 4-H; we think it’s a fine organization, but we’ve simply had too many other things going on.) The goat coordinator was delighted and relieved to hear from us. As it turns out, they’d been unable to get kids this year from the large goat producer who usually supplies them. With the weird weather last fall, it seems everyone’s goats had gone into heat late. That meant kids were late this year. She had a long list of 4-H children who were wanting goat kids to raise; MYF’s call had come just in time.

All our goat kids are mixed dairy breeds, which is fine for our purposes, but it means the males don’t get especially large – and they’re not especially valuable as breeders. So, we let seven of the males go for ten bucks each. We gave away the frail one for free. And we even threw in what was left of the milk replacer that we’d bought.

All told, financially, we barely broke even (the 22# bag of milk replacer alone cost over $50) — but that wasn’t our goal. We wanted those bucklings gone, and we wanted to help out some local children. Above all, we wanted the milk. And are we ever getting milk: at least six quarts at each milking. That’s twelve or thirteen quarts a day. (Yes, that’s more than three gallons.)

Our eldest daughter, who’s taking a year off after graduating a year early from high school, has basically turned the kitchen into a cheese factory. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer has been assisting, especially with the hard cheeses; her press has been running more or less non-stop.

As if that weren’t enough, March decided to truly go out as a lamb: on the very last day of the month, we had our very first ones of the year born. FletcherBelle delivered a healthy set of twins (a male and a female), and has been doing an excellent job raising them.

FletcherBelle Lambs 2017

We had another set of twins born two days ago; in fact, they arrived while I was out in the barn taking care of early-morning chores. The female was very strong, and immediately thriving. The male was barely alive, and looked like he hadn’t fully developed in utero (his eyes, in particular, were badly deformed). I wrapped that one in a towel, took him to my office, and made him comfortable in a box near the furnace. I also held him in my lap from time to time. We knew he wasn’t going to make it, but got some satisfaction from knowing his few hours with us weren’t spent abandoned on the floor of the barn.

It hasn’t all been joy and rebirth. Life is a cycle, and we’ve had some sad reminders of it lately (much sadder than the loss of a couple of newborns). A week ago Sunday (March 26th), we lost our very oldest animal, a sheep named Conundrum. She was nearly thirteen years old, and the last couple of winters had been difficult for her. She hadn’t produced a lamb in a while. In recent weeks, she was getting more unsteady on her feet. We really should’ve butchered her last fall, but none of us had the heart to do it — she’d just been with us so long, and was such a fixture in the flock.

Conundrum had the distinction of being our first lamb born to a ewe that’d been born on our property. She arrived on a Saturday morning: April 17, 2004. I was in California, on a business trip, when I got the call from Mrs Yeoman Farmer. I remember being so happy, and so proud, I wanted to pass out cigars to my clients at our meeting. I can’t find any pictures of her as a lamb, but this was her as a yearling:

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And this was her in the Spring of 2014, at the age of ten, with the last two lambs she produced (she had a premature stillbirth the next year, and did not lamb last year).

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She’d been especially unsteady on Saturday, despite the extra attention we’d been giving her. I checked on the flock late Saturday, before going to bed, and she’d seemed alright. Then, when I came out the next morning, I found that she’d left us sometime overnight. Hauling her body out of the barn was terribly sad, but I was grateful she hadn’t lingered in pain. And I did give thanks for all that she’d provided us over her nearly thirteen years.

We closed out that week by losing Button, our oldest goat. As I mentioned above, she’d been tired – and having twins had taken a lot out of her. She was still nursing her female, and we weren’t taking any additional milk from her; our idea was to keep this female as Button’s replacement, and build her as strong as we could by letting her take as much milk as she wanted. Button had seemed to be holding her own, despite being tired, but sometime in the early hours of Saturday … she wasn’t able to keep going.

I found her when I came to do chores that morning, and quickly moved her body from the barn. Our eldest daughter was very fond of Button, and I knew she wouldn’t want to find her like this. She’d want to remember her the way she was, like in this photo from nearly seven years ago (note the lopsided horns – Button was always getting herself stuck in fences, so we trimmed the right horn back to make it easier to free her):

Button-Kid 6.27.10

Disposing of the bodies of dead animals on the farm is always a challenge. Digging graves for mature sheep and goats is tough without a backhoe, so we prefer to give them a “Viking Sendoff” (minus the boat). Early last week, one of the Yeoman Farm Children and I built a large pile of logs and tree branches, and placed Conundrum atop it to incinerate her remains. This past Saturday, we did the same for Button.

It’s a bit sad: we’re down to exactly two animals, both of them sheep, which made the move with us from Illinois at the end of 2007. Soon there will be none. But that’s all part of the cycle of life on a farm, I suppose.

And it’s certainly something to contemplate as we bottle-feed Button’s beautiful little orphaned doe kid, and think ahead to when she’ll be producing kids — and milk — of her own.

Making Hay

One of the key features of our new property is a 6-acre, established hay field. With a flock of ten breeding sheep, and four goats, we go through a lot of hay each winter. And at $5 per bale (or higher), the total bill can get pretty steep pretty fast.

A local farmer had been renting that field for $275 per year and taking all the hay to sell. Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I were astonished at that deal — particularly since the rent had not increased in ten years. Given that he was probably reaping in excess of 700 bales per year, he was making a fortune. We introduced ourselves to this farmer, and proposed a new arrangement: we charge no rent, you cut and bale the hay, and we split the hay. His offer? Okay, but he keeps 75% of the hay. That was so laughable, I didn’t even respond. A moment later, he hedged a bit and said he could go “no lower” than two-thirds / one-third. I told him we’d think about it, but it didn’t take me and MYF long to decide this was a lousy deal.

We began making inquiries, and discovered a nice family that was the friend of one our friends. They do custom haying, and came over to look at our field. We agreed to have them do all the cutting and bailing, and to haul all the hay into our barn, for $2 per bale. Although the field will produce far more hay than our animals can eat in one year, we decided we’d rather not part with any. Rather, given the enormous capacity of our barn, it made sense to stockpile as much as possible. In a drought year, hay could become scarce — particularly since so many farmers have been plowing their hay fields under so they can plant more corn. (Hay is already fetching upwards of $6-$7 per bale at local auctions.) Besides, in the next year or two, our field will need to be replanted with alfalfa (a planting of alfalfa is good for only 7 years or so, and ours is nearing the end of its run), and our yield might be quite low that year. We figured it would be prudent to have a good stash of hay. Heck, it doesn’t spoil as long as it’s kept dry.

Ah, yes. Keeping dry. The family came over to cut our hay a week ago. Then they came back a couple of days later to flip it over to continue the drying process. The plan was to bale it on Friday…but as the week progressed, the weather forecast for Friday became increasingly bleak. Thunderstorms were a near-certainty; if the hay got soaked as it lay on the ground, it wouldn’t be clear how much could be salvaged. But Thursday was too soon to bale it, so we had to watch the hay as it lay in the field, raked neatly into windrows, and wonder if our animals would ever get to feast on it.


So we prayed. And prayed. And prayed. And got up Friday morning to discover a gray, unsettled-looking sky. So we prayed some more.

The farm family arrived just after lunch, with two strong young local boys in tow. They worked quickly, with one eye on the sky and the other on the field ahead. The tractor and its baler were a fascinating combination to watch: it sucked the hay up, fed it through a device, and nice square bales emerged from a chute. One of the boys would then stack these bales neatly on the hay wagon that was in tow.

They had two hay wagons. Once one wagon was full, they would tow it around to the barn, back it up the slope into the second story, detach the wagon, and go back out in the field with the fresh wagon. As they filled it with more bales, the wife and one of the boys (and, when available, MYF), stacked those bales in the barn. Then the husband would pull up with another load, they’d trade wagons, and keep the cycle going.

We got the final load stacked in the barn just after 7pm. We looked at the counting device on the baler, and found we had harvested 451 bales! Looking at the amount of work and equipment involved, and considering that we now had basically a full year’s worth of hay in the barn, the $900 price tag seemed very reasonable. They will be back in 28 days to do the second cutting, and we will get a third cutting later in the summer. Even though second and third cuttings yield fewer bales, we still should get at least 600 more bales this year. Am I ever glad we have such a big barn!

And there’s one other big thing to be glad about: the weather held. We didn’t get a drop of rain the whole time they were working, despite skies that never got sunny. And then, five minutes after their truck pulled off our property, all those clouds opened up. Rain came down in buckets, soaking everything in sight.

We ran for the house, and raised prayers of thanksgiving — not only that the hay had remained dry, but for the wonderful rain that will immediately help our field to begin growing again.

Please Pray…

…for Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s mother. She’s been chronically ill for many years, and in hospitals or nursing homes for nearly two straight years. She’d seemed to be making a recovery in recent months, and there was even talk of her moving home this summer. But in the last few days, she’s taken a terrible turn and is now deteriorating rapidly. Prognosis is quite dim. She received Extreme Unction (yes, we still call it that in our family) this afternoon, and is spiritually very prepared to pass to the next life. Please join us in “accompanying” her with your prayers in these hours.

I must say, we’ve never been so glad we made the move to Michigan. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer has been able to see her mother many times over these last months, and has been able to spend many hours at the hospital these last few days. We’re very thankful we’re not right now frantically packing the minivan and wondering if we’ll make it from Illinois to Michigan in time…and wondering who will take care of the farm while we’re gone.

It’s good to be home. And for this to be our home.

Sad Farewell

With a trip to the mailbox this morning, I’ve brought an era to an end: For the first time in nearly 17 years, I do not own a Volvo 240. Or any other kind of Volvo, either.

Yes, the old things are known as quintessentially liberal cars…but I think blowing the stereotype was part of why I enjoyed driving them so much. Nothing like putting a Bush-Cheney 2004 sticker on the bumper, and an NRA sticker on the window, to thoroughly confuse people.
I learned to drive on a 1973 144, and a 1983 242 was the first car I bought after graduating from college in 1991. That vehicle ended up saving my life; I spun out on an icy freeway, and was crushed against a guardrail by two tractor-trailers…and walked away from the accident with little more than scrapes and bruises. Needless to say, everything you’ve read about Volvos and safety is true. I quickly bought another; when it rusted out in 1998, we got our 1978 244. Later, I would buy a 1984 station wagon. The whole series was solid, reliable, and even an amateur mechanic like me could do a lot of the work on them.

Alas, the 1978 sedan eventually became unreliable; after stranding us in St Louis on vacation, we retired it to the second string. As the 1984 wagon also became unreliable, we finally broke down and got two late model vehicles. The 1978 sedan was redundant, and we never drove it, but I couldn’t bear to part with it.

But we couldn’t take it with us to Michigan, and I couldn’t find anyone in East Central Illinois crazy enough about old Volvos to want to buy it. The solution: donate it to Illinois Right to Life’s vehicle donation program. The tax deduction will be minuscule, but hopefully IRTL will get something for it…and I hope someone will be driving it (I couldn’t bear to take it to the junk yard, even if they’d have paid $100 cash for it.) The title is going in the mail this morning, and they’ll pick it up from our old farm next Monday.

Someday, I hope to have another of these cars. Actually, the 1975 164E, with manual transmission, is the Volvo I dream about. But right now, I have one old project car in the garage…a second one would be irresponsible.

Here’s hoping the end of this era is only temporary.

Too Furious For Words

When we left Illinois late last year, we made two trips with 26-foot U-Haul trucks; the first had a whole winter’s worth of hay and straw, plus as much farm equipment (rolls of fencing, t-posts, etc) as we could fit. The second trip was all our household goods. Even with both of those trips, we knew we’d need to come back a third time to get the remaining farm equipment — and I told this to the new owner of the property. I told him that repeatedly. We were moving to a place with three times the acreage, and we needed all our fencing and posts. And gates.

We had at least a dozen of those expensive, steel pasture gates stacked neatly against the barn. At least a dozen rolls of expensive chain link fencing. Chain link fence posts, all neatly stacked. And a huge pile (hundreds) of t-posts that I’d yanked out of the ground before it froze.

And it’s all now gone. GONE.

Our intent had been to come back in mid-December for all of this, but the snows came first. I did go back in mid-February for some stray household goods, but couldn’t get a big truck on that trip. And I told the new owner, again, we’d be back soon for all that farm stuff.

That trip was to be this weekend. But when I called to let him know about these plans, he told me EVERYTHING HAS BEEN GIVEN AWAY to his buddies. “I didn’t know what you were going to do with that, and I needed to clean up the property,” he said.

There are no words to describe how furious we are at this. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer is especially angry, because she spent two weeks out in the cold, very carefully taking down the chain link fence and rolling it up neatly. We couldn’t have made our intentions clearer to the buyer.

I was frankly so stunned while on the phone with him this morning, my brain didn’t engage enough to even ask, “WHY DIDN’T YOU CALL US FIRST?”

We’re talking about a couple of thousand dollars worth of supplies we’re now going to have to purchase…and that’s money we don’t really have at the moment. Yet with more lambs arriving every day, and goat kids bursting at the seams, we need to get these animals out on pasture. We do have some t-posts, and some fencing material. But that’s only enough to get us started.

It’s an old lesson, but one I grew complacent about following while living in the country: get it in writing. Even if all your country neighbors do everything with a handshake and verbal understanding, when this much money is on the line you really need to spell it out on paper. I’m not sure a piece of paper would’ve prevented him from giving the stuff away, but at least it would’ve provided us with some legal recourse to recover our losses.

A Morning with the Sheriff

Next stop on the “becoming a Michigan resident” tour: the Ingham County Sheriff’s office, to register my pistol. It seemed a bit “big brother-ish” to be presenting a firearm to the police and seeking permission to continue owning it. But every state has its own gun laws, and I wanted to make sure I was following them from the start. As soon as I can complete the requisite training course, I plan on getting a concealed carry permit (in my opinion the way in which Michigan gun laws are far and away better than those of Illinois); my pistol would need to be registered then, anyhow.

And even before then, suppose I had to use the gun to defend our family against an intruder. After the incident is over, and the police arrive to make their report, what do you suppose the first question will be? “Could I see your registration certificate for that handgun?” And, “I, uh, came here from out of state and didn’t know I had to register it” probably will not suffice as an answer. At least long guns need not be registered, so I guess Michigan laws are still a whole lot less intrusive than they could be.

Anyhow, there I was yesterday morning in line at the Sheriff’s office. Ahead of me, at the counter, was a very nice older gentleman who was also presenting a handgun for inspection. After I mentioned that I’d recently moved here from out of state, he struck up a conversation about the local gun shop. As we waited for the clerk to process his paperwork, he told me all about the place and what they have to offer: huge selection, wonderful indoor firing range (“they open at ten, and I’m going over there right now”), gunsmith services, and so forth. I was actually disappointed the clerk finished with him so quickly. Funny how a common interest in something like firearms, which the general public largely does not understand, can create such an instant bond between two people who wouldn’t seem similar to each other on the surface.

The registration process took quite some time, in part because I didn’t yet have a Michigan driver’s license. However, as mentioned in recent posts, I did have a voter registration card — and I also had that (expensive) dog registration for Scooter. The clerk had to check with her supervisor, but eventually agreed to accept those documents as proof of residency. The “safety inspection” of my pistol (which is what the process is supposedly about) was a joke; she basically just picked up the gun, looked at it from a few different angles, and then set it down. I spent much more time filling out forms, taking a “test” (which was a series of common sense True/False statements about gun safety that any of my kids probably could have passed), and so forth. I was actually surprised they didn’t photograph and fingerprint me, but I guess they’re saving that for when I get a CCW permit.

Anyway, while I was standing there waiting for the clerk to finish something, a very odd (and sad) incident took place. A woman came into the lobby, and asked another clerk if she could talk to a police officer about a domestic issue. The clerk directed her to a deputy, who met with her in another part of the lobby. The deputy, who struck me as an incredibly nice guy and very professional, listened patiently as the woman explained, “It’s my eleven year old. He’s completely out of control, and I just can’t take it anymore. I honestly don’t know what to do. I need the police to get involved, and don’t know how to go about doing that.”

The deputy asked where she lived, and she gave an address in town. The deputy then explained that their jurisdiction only covers unincorporated areas of the county, so she would need to talk with someone on the local police force. “Can you give me a referral?” she asked. The deputy gave the name of an officer, explaining that he works with all the schools and covers all the problems related to juveniles. The woman thanked him sincerely, and then hurried out to her car.

As I waited for the clerk to finish processing paperwork, I couldn’t help reflecting on what I’d just observed. First of all, the woman had appeared to be so average and ordinary: middle aged, middle class, tastefully dressed, well-kempt, well-spoken. She defied the exterior stereotypes that someone might usually associate with “homes that produce juvenile delinquents.” But what had been going on behind the exterior? What kinds of influences was her kid picking up at school? From older siblings? Did he have a father at home? A father who was involved and engaged in his life? There was no way to know, and it wasn’t fair to speculate. But one word kept pounding through my head: ELEVEN. Her completely-out-of-control son, who needed to be turned over to the police, is ELEVEN.

Why is this significant? I have an eleven year old son, too. I know what eleven “looks like.” Or, rather, I know what my own eleven year old son looks like and does. I could not, for the life of me, imagine a child that young and that innocent being so much of a demon as to cause his mother to seek assistance and protection from the sheriff.

I thought about that a lot as I waited for the clerk to finish my paperwork. And I kept thinking about it later, when I was at the local gun shop the man at the sheriff’s office had told me about. As the gun shop guy was getting me registered for the CCW training course, a 30-ish man came in with his son. The little boy couldn’t have been older than three, and was as cute as they come: big eyes, short brown hair, and very shy. As his father looked at rifles and bantered with one of the salespeople, the boy stood close by and seemed to be observing all of us with rapt attention. What a wonderful thing that his father brought him here with him this morning, I thought. Here was a father who was closely involved with his son’s life, spending one-on-one time together at a very young age, and from the beginning introducing his son to the strong, masculine and responsible culture of hunting and firearms. And this particular shop was an ideal setting: warm, clean, safe, well-organized, and staffed by men who were both friendly and knowledgeable. Assuming that the father stuck around and continued building these kinds of connections with his son, I figured the odds of this kid’s mother ending up in exasperation at a sheriff’s office were close to zero.

I walked back to my truck making a mental note to be more creative and forward-thinking about taking a kid with me on errands like these. Each trip to the gun shop, or bike shop, or hardware store, or auto parts store, or salvage yard…each of those trips comes only once, and each of them slips away so quickly. The big temptation, for me at least, is to make those trips and run those errands alone; there are fewer distractions, and fewer things to worry about when I’m by myself. The key is remembering that each of those trips out of the house is more than an errand: it is also an unrepeatable opportunity to share an experience with another little person.