There is an alpha hen. And after that, a beta hen—followed by a gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, and so on and so forth. The lowest hen on the pecking order can be weathered and literally henpecked, brutalized by the others. Or she can be shy and cunning; she might know how to get what she wants without bothering the others. It all depends on the brutality of that particular flock, of course. But the most amiable of flocks will still eat in a particular order, will make decisions in a particular order, even if they are not vicious with each other.
Meanwhile, the rooster, if present, is always the alpha bird. Even if, in my farm’s case, the rooster is disabled with a bad leg, he still eats first, drinks first, and ventures out first, followed by the hens. If he were a hen, he’d unquestionably be at the bottom.
The relationships within each chicken flock are strife with these conflicts. But mostly, even after sorting out the order, they seem to hate each other, even as they cannot be alone. In short, they are Mean Girls incarnated.
There is a bully I carry close in my heart in the part of my heart that hates. I met her in junior high and she was my nemesis because of her cruelty and the way she made fun of me whenever she could. She passed around parody drawings of me in class. She would point and laugh at me from across the hallway. Everyone knew she hated me, but no one could tell me why.
“Why can’t we get along?” I asked her once. “Why are you so mean to me?”
To which she repeated my question in a mocking tone, providing zero answers. I turned and walked away, wounded, but refusing to show vulnerability.
In hindsight, I realize she was deeply insecure, with a high-achieving brother that overshadowed her achievements at home. She was not an alpha child. I see it now in the way she fawned over the “popular girls” and the flicker in her eyes while analyzing the social hierarchy and gravitating towards the people with whom she was most familiar when she entered a room. Maybe too, she realized I didn’t care about being popular and despised me for it, envied me what she desired; years later, a friend of mine in that particular group told me that I was popular, too. To which I laughed. She insisted I was popular.
“We were all so miserable, popular or not,” I conceded.
My bully went to college with me. Had the same major. Then lived in the same town after graduation. We were in the same spaces. When she saw me, even at a university with tens of thousands of students enrolled, her face turned into a sneer. Because I refused to back down, she kept pecking.
My bully taught me not to trust women. That another woman could turn on me for no reason. I began to make friends only with men. My best friends were men. I entered an industry dominated by men. I confided only in men.
When women spoke to me, I was always polite. But I was also cautious. The overwhelming majority of the women I ended up befriending over the next few decades were the girlfriends and spouses of my male friends.
Social hierarchy is toxic. And I saw it in my chickens as they fought. Did they see me wincing?
Once, one of my hens hatched a baby chick.
And then I found that baby chick nearly dead hours later. The flock had pecked it to death. That little baby had upset the pecking order. Typically, mother hens will protect their young. But the mother hen let the other hens peck away.
“What a bad mother,” said a fellow urban farmer. “Sometimes,” she said, “there are bad mother hens.”
And then I thought about my postpartum depression and how I felt like I was a bad mother—and how, in many ways, my postpartum depression was informed by the lofty expectations of motherhood, expectations tragically expressed by other women. You must breastfeed even if the hormones that supply your milk are trying to kill you. If you do not co-sleep with your baby, you are missing out on attachment. If you co-sleep with your baby, you are putting your baby at risk of SIDS. If you let your baby cry it out, you are setting good boundaries. If you let your baby cry it out, you are inflicting trauma. You must always be full of joy and gratitude for your child. You must never want to die when you look at your baby.
I felt like I failed as a good mother. Which made me resistant to admitting that I had postpartum depression until it was almost too late.
This past year, I tried to integrate a flock, which is to say introduce one flock to another. The original flock had dwindled in number due to predation, and I wanted to build the flock back up. For the record, the flock in question—the one I wanted to expand—was the very same flock that could not figure how to go back inside their own coop. Insert the “welp!” emoji here.
When you integrate different flocks, it is recommended that you make sure the chickens are similar in size and that you introduce them gradually. You must not put them together in a penned enclosure immediately, for they will fight.
There’s a ton of advice on how to integrate flocks: Let them free range in separate areas so they can see each other but not beat each other up. Put them in together at night when they’re sleeping. Put two coops together side by side until they get used to each other. When there is a ton of advice on a matter, the implicit message is that this is a common challenge.
I dreaded integrating the flock of chicks I nurtured into pullets. At two months, they were ready to meet the bigger hens and join that society. And it was brutal to watch.
In the dawn of motherhood, it was me, my daughter, a friend helping me with my daughter, and the blessing of female friends who dropped off food for me each day. It was no-contact delivery, much like how most deliveries occur now during the pandemic. A knock on the door. Or a courtesy text letting me know to open the door.
By three months postpartum, I’d dropped to a size zero, despite the freezer full of food I’d prepared in my last trimester. In my postpartum depression, I stared at the blocks of icy food, overwhelmed by the concept of having to defrost them. I had my daughter wrapped in a sling around my torso, and at least one of my hands was in perpetual service to my daughter’s wellbeing. What, I thought, could I even eat while so exhausted? What, I thought, could I even prepare and eat with one hand?
My female friends saved my life. They took care of me, much like the worker bees taking care of the queen bee in a hive, feeding and grooming her as she lays eggs. Reese, who dropped off lemon meringue cake from Tartine. Connie, who dropped off posole. Naomi who drove fifty miles to visit from Davis. I cried every time I opened the door and found something—someone—to sustain me.
I had discounted the friendships of women until then.
And I wondered why it was that the term “pussy” means weakness when after giving birth, I knew that my pussy was way more resilient and stronger than the vernacular states. Why, I thought, wasn’t the term for weakness and fragility, “balls?”
I was both ashamed and emboldened by my new steps towards matriarchy—ashamed, because it had taken so long, really. Ashamed, because I’d bought into the henpecking relationship brought on by the patriarchy. I had prioritized men to the desire of patriarchy. I had prioritized my marriage to a man at the sacrifice of all else. We are all pit against each other in a pecking order.
Why, I thought, wasn’t the term for weakness and fragility, “balls?”
When my marriage fell apart shortly after giving birth, it wasn’t men who came to my side. It was women.
The two flocks eyed each other warily as I introduced them to each other. At first, the younger birds roamed outside the main flock’s coop. Then I let out the main flock so the two could free range together before finally, I put them all into the same coop at night. In the daytime, the older hens pecked and chased the younger ones into the corners. I placed a piece of plywood in the run to provide a hiding place. The younger ones huddled there all day until they eventually emerged, wary and nervous. They were never the tightest of friends. Whether or not they might have fully integrated, I’ll never know.
They lived together for only a very short time. Before shelter-in-place orders began in California, on the evening of Super Tuesday, the coop and run were breached in the middle of the night. We’d made sure it was the Fort Knox of chicken coops, but a joint came loose, just enough for a predator to squeeze itself in.
In the morning, I witnessed a brutal slaughter. Every chicken, including the ones right at the point of lay, had been murdered. Every single one, dead. Almost all were decapitated, with their bodies left—as if someone were completely fucking with me.
This was the work of a raccoon—for foxes will not leave a body, because they take the chickens away. On the other hand, a raccoon will feed right there, and leave pieces of chicken everywhere on site.
It was too much. I left the door open so that the other predators could take the bodies away. I didn’t have the resolve to clean up the chicken carcasses. I just could not.
When shelter-in-place was in effect two weeks later, we were without eggs. I am not one to have anxiety, but the thought of not being prepared, of being robbed of eggs, agitated me to no end.
I decided to fortify the coop and get chicks again. All the chicks around town were sold out. I called my friend Yolanda at Pollinate. She said she could get me straight-run chicks. Oh yes, I told her, at this point, I’ll take straight-run.
Straight-run chicks are chicks that aren’t sexed yet—we don’t know if they are male or female. Most chicks sold on the market have been sexed. There are skilled workers who can look at a chicken’s “butt” and tell if the animal will be a hen or rooster. And this procedure can ensure ninety-five percent accuracy.
A few weeks later, around week three of lockdown, it was fairly clear that I had at least two roosters out of the straight-run flock of nine chickens.
In the months that followed, the cockerels began crowing one by one until they began crowing nonstop in pursuit of the alpha position. I apologized to my neighbors who said they could barely hear them. But the coop was below my kitchen window. I could hear them all day.
I had always planned on dispatching a chicken as part of my learning experience on my farm. I’d learned to slaughter chickens both from the advice of friends and YouTube videos. On a warm summer day, I took one of the roosters and put it upside down in a cone. I was calm. It was calm. In hindsight, I’d dissociated.
“I can’t do this,” I told my partner in a whisper.
He said, “You don’t have to—”
And before he could finish his sentence, I took the shears to the rooster’s neck.
There is a perception that there is someone in social charge and we must follow their lead. Maybe it is an elected official. Maybe it is a husband. Their leadership may or may not be toxic, and they may or may not promote that we henpeck each other.
My daughter and I are thriving. To her, I hope to show that female friendships are sustaining. That social hierarchy is a construct. That we each have something to contribute, and that we each do contribute. In the Black Lives Matters protests, the marginalized are making themselves heard. In voting, we each submit our choice. In raising a daughter, I can show her her own power. Her own uniqueness.
I realize now that I was afraid to have a daughter because of toxic patriarchy. That I didn’t think it could change, that the world was too dangerous for a girl. That I couldn’t protect a daughter. That I was an alpha hen taking on the role of a rooster.
Author of Tell Me Everything You Don't Remember (Ecco/Harper Collins). Her short fiction and essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Guernica, The Rumpus, The New York Times, and BuzzFeed, among other publications. Her novel is forthcoming from Ecco / Harper Collins. Beekeeper. She/her.