I’ll Get by With a Little Help From My Herd

My ex was a bad husband but a good horse trainer. When we met, he had just bought a pony for 50 euros that the seller swore was unbreakable. Three months later, he sold it for 10 times that price as a child’s Christmas present.

He was kinder to horses than he was to me. He had better luck training them, too. His attempts to break me were easy to brush off at first, but they grew more forceful after our son was born. On our baby’s first birthday, he told me that if I didn’t obey him, he would have me deported back to America and keep our son in Ireland.

I reacted the way any threatened animal mother would: I took my baby and ran.

After a brief brush with homelessness, we moved to a rural cottage I could barely afford even with multiple jobs. In a field across the road was a skinny dun mare, her mane falling out and her hide raw where she had bitten off her own fur. You could always see the whites of her eyes.

One of the many things my ex taught me about horses is that a horse kept alone in a field will never thrive. It won’t sleep, will go off its feed, will even start pulling out its own hair. But if you put any other herd animal in with it (doesn’t have to be another horse — could be a sheep, goat or donkey), they’ll get on fine.

That’s because in a herd, animals take turns being the lookout. One animal keeps watch while the others rest and eat. A herd animal by itself, or alone with its baby, is always watching for danger; it won’t lower its head long enough to eat much or feel safe enough to sleep deeply.

I felt for that horse. I felt like her, too.

I didn’t know my neighbors — and after learning to fear my spouse, I had become afraid of everyone else, too. I kept my door locked and curtains drawn. Even after the long days of working single parenthood were done and my child was in bed, I watched the windows for unexpected shadows, predator eyes.

I had a safety order, the Irish version of a restraining order, but my animal brain knew that wasn’t the same as real safety. I barely ate and I slept fitfully, half my brain alert for danger. Congratulations on my weight loss made me want to scream.

By then it was April 2020, and Ireland was enduring the longest lockdown in Europe. I might have been alone with a toddler, but everyone else was alone in their fields, too. Logging on for Zoom reunions with family and friends I hadn’t caught up with in years, I felt less isolated than I had before lockdown. Apart from the creeping sense of Covid doom, I kind of didn’t want it to end.

It was in that disembodied space that I felt safe enough to start opening up to people again. Online I talked about my grief over my divorce, the hardships of single parenting, my financial struggles. I lived in fear of eviction and of separation from my child if my ex were to succeed in having me deported. Online, I didn’t have to explain my weight loss or the way I kept flinching at unexpected touch.

I connected with people who had been through similar things, but more important, I learned how many people are willing to reach out in kindness just for the sake of it. College friends from the States crowd-funded my rent and grocery money one month when I couldn’t make it; they paid for my parental visa application, too.

Old friends from every era of my life — as well as people I had never met — reached out to help me survive. Their generosity revived my faith in myself and in others and helped me imagine a better future — one where I might be able to offer that same help to other single parents who felt alone in their fields.

At night, when my baby or my anxiety woke me, I soothed myself to sleep by reading real estate listings, dreaming of a home not just for us but for other single parents, a childcare-inclusive residency space where we could take turns being the lookout. I longed to give other single parents the thing I most needed myself: a respite from the hyper vigilance of loneliness.

One sleepless night, I found a place that I thought could work, an old knitting factory on Ireland’s west coast, priced low because it had been on the market for years. The seller agreed to a rent-to-own scheme but said I needed to give him a whole year’s rent up front.

I barely had one month’s worth. I got ready for bed that night full of longing that was close to despair. But I told my online communities about my idea and did something they had with their love taught me to do — I asked for help. Then I went to sleep.

When I woke, I found that a herd of friends and strangers had kept watch over my son and me while we slept. There was several months’ rent funded already, and within days the whole year was covered.

After my baby and I moved in, I spent the next two years crowdfunding the knitting factory’s purchase and renovating it to receive guests. I hacked through brambles, erected fencing, scrubbed musty old walls, cleared away cobwebs. And every day I talked online about my dream of a family home that could care for other families, and more strangers and friends joined in support.

I finally closed on the building in spring 2022, having raised the entire purchase price. My herd had kept my baby and me safe, and it was time for me to offer that safety to someone else.

Last summer, I hosted my first single mother resident, a remarkable woman named Tawasul who came to Ireland as a refugee from Sudan with her two young children. In the knitting factory’s sunny kitchen, we shared strong Irish tea and cardamom-spiced Sudanese coffee while we talked about domestic abuse and immigration and the strange sadness of watching your children grow up in a different culture.

To fund the residencies, I also began to offer the space on Airbnb. A few years ago, locking the door every night against my ex-husband and neighbors alike, I never could have fathomed being brave enough to share my home with strangers.

But the funny thing is, those strangers have made me feel safer. The backpackers who stay up late keep a vigil without even knowing it. The retirees who wake up early for the ferry take the morning shift. I barely talk with most of them, but their presence helps me breathe easier because I know there would be witnesses if my ex did show, especially now that my safety order has expired. But really, the feeling of safety I get is more primal.

I used to fantasize about putting a sheep or donkey in the field across from my rented cottage to keep that dun mare company. I settled for visiting her myself when I could, picking long grass for her, letting my baby pet her rough velvet nose. Often, she would nod off while we sat there.

A few weeks before we left for the knitting factory, I saw another horse with her. They didn’t bond right away, mostly remaining in their field’s opposite corners. But by moving day, the mare’s fur was already growing back in.

It’s not like every person who stays at the knitting factory is a kindred spirit either. But their presence soothes my animal body in a more profound way than I ever expected.

Since we bought the house, I have started getting to know my neighbors, too. It took me those two years to get brave enough, but the rewards of that bravery are many: My son runs to greet his classmates at the playground, and I share custody of a sweet gray cat with the couple across the road.

And last week, an elderly neighbor brought us an unexpected gift: a goat.

I thanked him but thought, “Oh god, what am I going to do with her?” Or rather, them: I knew that I would have to get her a friend.

Until our goat’s companion came, my son and I stayed outside with her for hours, feeding her porridge oats, stroking her while she regarded us with her mild letterbox eyes. “I’m sorry we’re not goats,” I wanted to say. “But I promise — we’re herd animals too.”

Betsy Cornwell, founder of The Old Knitting Factory in County Galway, Ireland, is the author of the young adult novel, “Reader, I Murdered Him.”

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