The girl’s voice was just shrill enough to arch over the sound of the lawnmower and pierce my ear. West Texas had served me up a 95 degree day, so I was sweating in my dorky overalls leftover from the Gap heyday of the late 90s. Not my most fetching outfit. That wasn’t really my goal. My goal was, quite simply, to mow my lawn on my own.
Silly, I know. Who cares if I can do something any 10-year-old kid can do? Well, I do. Until last April, I had never mowed a lawn. Never tried to start a mower, never heard the sound of a blade running into pine cones (which is reminiscent of the wood chipper in Fargo), never had my whole face itch from being out in the flying grass and weeds. A male friend of mine offered to mow the daunting half acre of my new home, but I refused. I asked him to teach me how and he watched with nonjudgmental amusement as I pushed his mower around my lawn. He had to do some of the harder hills because I had not yet mastered the tact of navigating uneven terrain. Still, when it was all done, I was exhausted, but prouder than the day I won the third grade regional science fair.
This go around, I wanted to do more of it on my own. So I went out that particular night to see what I could do with no help. I was empowered, feeling like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, as I navigated the ridiculously tall weeds all the May rain brought. With my son following behind me pushing his Mater bubble mower, I was strong and useful.
Thankfully my sweet little boy was in the house by the time the teenaged girls came by. A few minutes before the heckler and her friend tramped through my yard like it was their own, ignoring that it was clearly somebody’s home, a guy and his buddies pulled up at the curb to tell me how hot I looked and make piss-poor puns about “hoeing.” Needless to say, my feelings of empowerment had shifted to annoyance when the girls decided to use my yard as a short cut. But it was what the girl said that made me mad, much madder than I was at the dumb guys with their dumb innuendos.
I ignored her response and told myself that she was only 15. As the night went on, however, I mourned the opportunity I had missed to share an important fact of life with these young girls.
Waiting for or expecting a man to take care of you is the worst thing any women can do to herself.
This is not just coming from a place of divorce, which is why I am now the mower of my own lawn. It is coming from a place of reality. People die, people get sick, people never fall in love, people fall out of love, and people realize they can be happy on their own. There are so many possibilities in life, assuming that marriage to man who will take care of anything a woman doesn’t want to, is nothing short of a failure of imagination.
How distressing that at this stage in life, this girl has already settled into such limited perception. She probably didn’t even realize how her comment spat in the face of women who struggle every day in a male dominated world. She probably just thought it was funny to mock someone who was working hard and physically showed it. That distressed me too.
As we raise a generation of girls into women, it is crucial that we impart to them this message:
If you do end up in a long term relationship, to whomever, you should build your life on your own rules, not the defined rules of a society that itself doesn’t truly uphold them. If you want to mow the lawn, mow the lawn. It’s actually therapeutic and rewarding. If you don’t want to, fine. But don’t do or not do something because that is what your gender stereotype tells you.
Kill your own spiders, do your own laundry, change your own tires, and make your own dinner. Even if you don’t do those things well at first, you will eventually. Then if you do chose to be with somebody, you can work together to make your lives run the way you want, on your own terms.
I am glad my 8-year-old daughter didn’t hear the girl’s question because she was excited to see me start the lawn mower and wanted to know when she could start helping too. My son prefers vacuuming, as it turns out, which is good news for me since I would rather mow.
Amber Kelly is a single mother of two, and English and History Professor at Howard College, where she is also the Dean of General Studies. A vegetarian, pop culture junkie, and traveler, Amber publishes essays, short stories, and poetry on a myriad of topics, ranging from literary tattoos to cooking in Spain to cinematic cowboys. She currently freelances for publications such as Ploughshares and Cinefilles.
Amber enjoys punk band t-shirts, the writings of Margaret Atwood, and roasted corn salsa. When she grows up she wants to be Patti Smith.