As I was cramming my head with chicken information before the arrival of our first three chicks, one of the most fascinating facts I came across had to do with “broodiness.”

For those of you who aren’t versed in the ways of the chicken, “broodiness” is when hens get maternal. They stop laying, and their bodies undergo hormonal changes that turn them into egg-hatching machines: their breast feathers thin out in preparation for 21 days of sitting on a clutch of eggs, and somehow their bodies are able to maintain the precise heat and humidity that the eggs need to mature — conditions that have to be painstakingly replicated by an incubator if no broody hen is available.

Not all hens become broody, and nobody knows exactly why certain hens do. Among some serious chicken raisers, broodiness is not seen as an admirable trait, and it’s been bred out of many commercial chickens. A broody hen will stop laying eggs for almost a month. She’ll sit and sit and sit, with only occasional breaks for food, water, and elimination. Not only that: she’ll get grumpy, pecking at anyone who tries to disturb her or her clutch; this is why the word “broody” has come to mean “moody,” even in humans.

All of that is interesting enough, but what REALLY got me was this: When a hen goes broody, it has nothing to do with whether she herself has laid a fertilized egg. To put it another way, the eggs she feels compelled to hatch may not even be her own. Broody hens will sit on the eggs of other hens. They will sit on unfertilized eggs. They will sit on nothing if no eggs are available; I’ve read stories of broody hens spending 21 days attempting to hatch a dirt pile.

This behavior sounds a little silly. It’s also one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. What could be more selfless than sacrificing your own comfort and convenience to raise babies that aren’t even yours? Why aren’t WE more like broody hens? I wondered.

And then I realized that WE ARE.

This past year, I’ve had the humbling pleasure of getting to know a number of women — and some men — who might best be described as “broody.” What I mean is that these are people who make it a regular habit to care for children who aren’t their own. In many cases — but certainly not all — these men and women have raised or are raising their own children. Here’s what else they do: take in foster children, host Fresh Air Fund children (kids from the inner city who come to Vermont during the summer to experience the rural outdoors), act as second parents to college students, and open their homes and lives to friends’ children on a regular basis. Some people do ALL FOUR of those things.

I don’t know why I feel like I’m surrounded by more “broody” people right now than at any previous point in my life. It could be that this behavior is more common — or more visible — in a small town. It could be that I know more people who have older children or no children at home, which makes it easier to care for other people’s children. Without a doubt, I am one of the least broody people I currently know, if for no other reason than that I have my hands pretty full with my own brood at the moment.

But, regardless of how I compare to others, I HAVE been feeling broodier this year. Lately I’ve been thinking that one of the most helpful things we can do is to take care of each others’ kids.

Speaking strictly for myself, the BEST gift that anyone can give me is to watch my kids. Most of life — errands, housework, quality time with your spouse, mental health — is much easier if you don’t have the kids around. If I’m trying to love my neighbors as myself, I need to ask myself: “Self, what would you most love?” The answer: for somebody to watch my kids.

So, my broody self has been trying to notice when people seem like they might need a little kid-less time, and then offering to watch their kids.

Some friends have been desperate enough to take me up on this, and dropped off their kids at our house when they needed to deal with other things. Another friend and I have being doing a “kid exchange” all summer: one day a week her two children come over to our house, and the next day she takes all of the Gong girls. It’s been fun for us, and for the kids.

Back when we were expecting our third child, a more experienced parent told us, “Once you have 3 kids, you might as well have 33.” I think that’s true; adding one or two more kids to our house doesn’t significantly increase the noise, chaos, or my stress level. In fact, it’s often helpful to have a couple of non-Gongs around; when our girls are playing with friends, they stay out of my hair for longer periods of time.

These drop-off playdates are also special chances for me to get to know other children. There’s not a lot of turnover in our small town, so these kids are going to be our girls’ friends (maybe even – ulp! – significant others) for years to come. I hope I’ll get to watch most of these children grow up — not just watch them, but be an active participant in showing them love and care.

Best of all, I get to support other parents by doing this. Parenting can chew way down to your soul; we need to help each other out.

I’ll be honest: sometimes it IS really hard being in charge of a houseful of kids, especially if any one child is having a bad day. Even on good days, our house gets torn apart, our snack supply is decimated, and I often feel like the whole operation is about to spiral out of control.

But then again, I feel that way on days when I’m just in charge of my own children. And, like most things worth doing, this is not about my own personal comfort; it’s about something I can do to love other children and parents.

I often wish I could do more, like teaching in Tanzania, or caring for orphans in Calcutta, or volunteering at the local senior center. And maybe someday, when I don’t have to schedule everything around naps, I will. But if you’re feeling the same way, I hope this might encourage you: sometimes you don’t even have to leave your home to change the world. Like broody hens, you don’t even need to be a parent yourself. Maybe you can change the world a little just by watching somebody’s kids for a couple of hours. Giving parents a break, and giving kids some love, can start endless good things in motion. It reminds me of my favorite Anne Lamott quote: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”

2 thoughts on “Broody

  1. Bryan Alexander

    Perhaps you see, or are aware of, more broody humans because children are relatively scarce in Vermont. This state skews very gray. Addison County is going through a painful process right now of figuring out, well, which elementary schools to close.

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