Itís 11 p.m., and Iím sitting on the bathroom floor with a rumpled towel on my lap and a needle-less plastic syringe in my hand. My other hand cradles a tiny orange and white spotted kitten. Her eyes are barely open, and her body is so frail in my palm it feels more like an autumn leaf, as if the slightest breeze could carry her away. She doesnít want to drink from the syringe, but it is the only way I can get milk into her belly ó she is too weak to suck it from the tiny bottle I bought at the farm supply store. She mews as I put the syringe tip in her mouth and squeeze out one tiny drop at a time.
How many times has this same scenario repeated itself in this bathroom? Iíve never bottle fed a baby kitten before, but the count of newborn lambs Iíve nursed now numbers in the dozens, not to mention baby birds fallen from the nest, chilled-down chicks, and once a newborn bunny rescued from our dogís mouth. Each time the work looks surprisingly similar: Me hunched over on the bathroom floor, willing the little ones to swallow, fretting about them choking, trying, trying, trying to get enough sustenance in them so they can survive.
Most of the time there is not a happy ending. More often than not they are sickly or born with some kind of defect (otherwise they wouldnít be in my bathroom) and they fight me. I am not their mama and they know it. Cross-species mothering is a gamble even with a healthy, thriving baby. And yet, I stay, late into the night, or early in the morning, unable to walk away until Iíve gotten as much nourishment as I possibly can into their small bodies.
My husband will tell you I do the same to him. Before we had kids, I was constantly asking him when and what he last ate. I know he is quite thankful that now two small children take the focus off his eating habits. Still, when the three of them head out for an adventure in town or to the pasture to check cows, I am often found chasing the pickup down the driveway, waving a bag of healthy snacks and a water bottle, just in case.
Itís gotten me thinking about what comes naturally. For the orphan babies in my care, a connection to their biological mother comes naturally. When I pet this little orange kittenís ears, as weak and sickly as she is, she starts to nuzzle and purr, looking for a nipple. She knows what she should be doing, which is why the syringe is such a disappointment.
As for me, my penchant for taking in baby animals started in childhood, but it wasnít until I became a mother that I finally understood this tendency. Apparently my maternal instinct extends to almost every creature that crosses my path, but when I had my own babies, I experienced a fulfillment that my other forms of mothering never achieved. Sometimes, like right now, when my warm bed is calling, those nurturing instincts feel like a burden. I would rather be sleeping than caring for a kitten that has little chance of surviving even with my ministrations. But, itís who I am, so I let go and lean in.
In pursuit of a purpose-driven life, I think we all question the wisdom of the patterns that emerge over the years. Some habits are worth breaking, or, at the very least, refashioning; but, there are certainly aspects of ourselves that are intrinsic, and those are worth celebrating. We each have gifts to offer, and a world that is hungry to accept them, even if it sometimes requires late nights and a tiny syringe to get the job done.