How Three Cows Helped Me Get Over My Divorce

The small Holstein calves helped pave the way for my new life — and win a good man’s heart.

woman laying on ground with 3 whit calves beside her Odua Images via Canva | Tatiana Stepanishcheva via Canva

When I realized I’d be leaving Southeast Asia and flying home to the family farm in Oregon, I was happy to be leaving — but knew it would be hard.

I needed to go home, but farewell to glamor. Farewell to exotic Southeast Asia. Farewell to a lifestyle of opportunities, lights, action, and camera.

In fact, during my last few months in Cambodia, I was an extra in a Matt Dillon film.

When I flew home at forty-one, I had a broken heart and went from a big frog in a small pool — as a publisher and marketing person — to a country bumpkin sleeping in a guest bedroom at her parents’ farm.


It was about as humiliating as it could be. I can’t say I hated it, but it was hard.

I shared a bedroom with stacks of old magazines, ragtag furniture crammed in, and a mannequin named FiFi. I was squeezed into an empty corner, like an old photo album with gloomy memories.

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I missed my ex terribly, although he and I communicated nearly daily.

I'm not sure that was great for getting over him, as it kept me a bit too connected — but we were both struggling. Even though our marriage had collapsed, being apart was like living in an alien universe.


Yet, the marriage had good reason to be over: He’d been running around with a woman half my age, and my logical side said "Get out now, or you will die." 

While that sentiment sounds dramatic, it was probably true. I was so depressed I was starting to make stupid mistakes: nearly falling off sidewalks, stepping in front of traffic. I had to leave.

Cambodia is, as I said, edgy. My ex died in Phnom Penh. One misstep off the side of a boat, and he was gone. But all of that came later.

At home, on the farm, my daily activities were numerous.

I got up at 5:30 a.m. and started drinking coffee — and missing my ex. I felt depressed, without purpose. I had no home of my own and was living in a dusty storage closet. 


To counter that, I worked outside for three hours, the large yard soon resembling a golf course. Neighbors lined the street to watch the transformation. I shoveled bark dust. Mowed. Edged. Weeded.

Dad had gossiped about my spectacular breakup with the neighbors, which I found out easily.

"So your husband went native on ya, huh? What was she, twenty-two?" my next-door neighbor said.

"Your dad said you didn’t have a place to live, so he’s supporting you," another said, "But he’s so happy you’re back from over there."

Ugh! I loved my dad, but I felt like I had a blinking red 'loser' light on my forehead.

I begged him to stop broadcasting my plight to the community. He seemed surprised I found out. He shouldn’t have been; this is, after all, rural Oregon, where if there isn’t anything to talk about, people just make stuff up to gossip about anyway.


Thus, I was motivated to work — and get out from under my Dad’s roof.

The neighbors watched as I flew around on the mower and tractor. I have never taken advantage of other people, and I wanted my dad and stepmom to know I’d reciprocate their generosity for letting me stay with them.

My father followed me around, "You’re working too hard! It’s hot!"

Then, I’d get on my bike and ride for ten to thirty miles. I couldn’t stop moving, as moving is my way of dealing with deep pain. Do you remember the part of Forrest Gump when Jenny dies, and he starts walking? He walks, and walks, and walks.

That’s what I did.

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After six weeks of watching my nonstop activity, Dad invited me to go to a farm auction in a neighboring town.

Every day, I did something with Dad. He was so thrilled to have me around again, and he was trying to help me get through my impending divorce.

He had an idea we called 'torturous farm therapy.'

At the auction, the old farmers in overalls brought livestock out and ran it around a corral, and the old dudes in the bleachers at the auction bid on the cattle, pigs, and goats. Dad said, "I’d like you to buy some cattle." 

I thought that was pretty funny, but he sold me on it right then and there.

I was in a 'why not!' frame of mind as my life seemed generally messed up already.


Why not buy three young calves and live in a barn for weeks with them? Flies and cow manure and switching tails and heat, oh my!

It sounded just about miserable enough for me to embrace it — and that's exactly what I did.

The auctioneer brought out three very pretty little Holstein calves, black and white dairy cattle. They were what are called 'feeder calves.' 

The problem with feeder calves purchased from an auction, around many other animals, is that they bring home disease. Even if they get antibiotics at the auction, and a vet is on hand to administer them, they're at risk of a malady called scours. Scours is, basically, diarrhea.

Once home, the little calves all got ill, and I got a crash course in tending to the young animals. I bought antibiotics, administered shots, and hand-fed them. Before they got terribly ill, they drank prepared formula out of huge plastic bottles with long red nipples. I cleaned and sterilized the bottles, and they would drink, butting them hard.


Three calves are quite a project even if they’re well. I was sure they would die, but I did everything I could to keep them alive.

I lay with them in an area just outside the barn and rubbed them, loved them, and talked to them. They were sick little animals.

I used a huge syringe to slowly hydrate each calf. They were weak. I brushed them with a curry brush, willing energy into their bodies. They had long legs that curled up under them as they lay. Their eyes with long eyelashes were sad. I rubbed their ears, their necks, their backs.

Each night, I spread a light flannel blanket over each calf, cleaning up the area where they’d been ill and putting fresh hay and nesting chips around them. I washed them with cotton rags and cool water, keeping them clean and dry. I positioned a heating lamp on them at night. At 11 p.m. or so, I collapsed in bed.


In the early morning, I was up again drinking coffee and preparing fresh, clean bottles of water with formula mixed in.

RELATED: Cow Symbolism & The Spiritual Meaning Of Seeing Cows

Over the course of two weeks, I had pulled the calves through — miraculously.

My dad and stepmom beamed. Dad said, "I knew it would be good for you to have a project." I raised my eyebrows but agreed with him.

It had been a ton of work. Yet, oddly, I felt happy. The depression lifted. How had that happened?


A few weeks later, I began dating.

One guy I kind of liked. We were having fun talking, so I took him home with me so he could see the farm. We’d been out to dinner, and I had on a pair of low black heels with my blue jeans.

I walked him out to the barn. I dodged all the cow pies so artfully in those little black heels, I’m sure he was smitten then and there.

He had a funny look on his face when I showed him my young cattle. They stood around me, butting and rubbing against me, their surrogate mom. We petted the calves together, and I told him the story of Dad pushing me to take on a project — to work through my divorce. He understood as he’d gone through a heartache of his own.


As it turns out, he grew up raising cattle, too. And like me, his parents had a red barn and a farmhouse.

And four years later, on a beautiful hot summer day in August, I married that guy. This August will be twenty-two years that we have been together, eighteen years married.

That’s how three small Holstein calves helped pave the way for my new life back in my home state of Oregon — and also helped me win a good man’s heart.

It took me several years to work my way through the trauma of everything that happened to me when I lived overseas. My parents are gone now, and I’m in the farmhouse with my husband.

Life’s about as good as it could possibly get, and while it’s been a journey, I’m in a great place. Not only that, but together we’ve been to London, Glasgow, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and many new cities.


Together, we’ve enjoyed the best of both worlds — city and country. Tonight I smile, remembering Dad and the three Holstein calves.

RELATED: 12 Realistic Ways To Finally Get Over Your Divorce Once-And-For-All

Debra Groves Harman is a creative non-fiction memoirist who's been published in myriad magazines.