Toronto
3 min

This woman’s work

When 'aiming higher' means devaluing our mothers' labour

I feel some shame every time I realize I will never be as handy as my father.

I hate to admit that I am closer to learning how to sew my own clothes than I am to learning how to fix the dryer, rewire a lightswitch or build anything functional out of wood.

Like every good lesbian, I’ve got a great toolbox. It’s heavy and closes with a series of satisfying snaps. I haven’t used most of the tools in it. I don’t know how to use half of them. But the box looks good and I display it proudly on a shelf in the basement, hauling it out when the neighbours come knocking.

I’ve had a bunch of strange men in the house recently, servicing the furnace, cleaning the ductwork — doing things that cost a lot but have no value to the untrained eye. I have no idea where $300 went. Someone trekked mud through the basement, freaked the dogs out and told me I needed a brand new everything.

I hate being so clueless about how a house operates. I hate feeling like I got ripped off but having no way of verifying it without calling in yet another man (usually my father). I seem to believe, being queer, that I should be more knowledgeable about such things than the average woman, so I pretend to understand. I seem to have fallen into the trap of valuing stereotypical men’s work differently than stereotypical women’s work. I have never met a man who felt embarrassed, or who stood at a financial and social disadvantage because he didn’t understand how a garment went together or how bread dough rises and falls, goes from bubbles to bread in a single afternoon.

My mother won a car this year. In a wave of generosity, or something, she offered us her old one. I had reservations about taking it — environmental and health concerns, and the understanding after 26 years of experience that nothing your mother gives you is ever really free. My parents live in Scarborough, as does the grandfather I struggle to love amidst racism, sexism and general grumpiness that looks more like depression since my Nonna passed away. The car would double my quota of trips home. Still, I decided to take it. Having a mother is like having a credit card; I make the minimum payments and factor her in as a life expense. What I forgot to factor in was The Service Centre.

Mechanics don’t expect women to know anything about cars. In my case it is absolutely true — I don’t know, or care, two shits about cars. That is, until I have to “take it in.” Then I find myself reading up like mad so I can walk in, adequately play the game, pay the bill and still have no real idea if I got ripped off. Why is it so hard for me to accept that there are some things in life I might never understand, not because I am incapable but because I am not interested enough to put the time in, things that I will most likely end up paying a man for, over and over again?

Why is it so much easier to accept that I will never be a great seamstress, that I will forever be taking in my jackets when the zippers break?

It is no surprise that I have internalized the devaluing of stereotypical women’s work, work my mother and my grandmother did with pride, singing to fill the silences void of gratitude. It was “their” work I swore since I was able to speak I would never do. I looked up instead to my father with his greasy hands and his TurtleWax that smelled better than the beets my mother pickled every fall.

I fear that in encouraging girls to “aim higher” we are teaching them to have disdain for the labour of their mothers. We are teaching them that it is cooler to be a firefighter than it is to be a full-time mother.

Many queer women of my generation grew up idolizing stereotypical men’s work. We didn’t see opportunity for girls like us in stereotypical women’s jobs, or we didn’t see the potential for power in fields dominated by women. I scoffed at my mother’s efforts during my teenage years. It didn’t matter that she actually enjoyed (and demonstrated great brilliance) cooking, making clothes, decorating the house, parenting and being married to a man. I argued like a good (and ignorant) little feminist that she enjoyed them because society said she should, that those were her only perceived avenues for success, that she would never really know what she enjoyed until she had a go at the other stereotypically men’s jobs in the world.

Well, I’ve had a go at them. I am starting to own up to the fact that I hate fixing things. I hate building things that work. I hate driving. But miraculously, there is a love inside me for cooking, for knitting, for canning peaches and cradling babies — and that’s okay. I can still be a strong, cutting-edge queer woman without my toolbox.

I’m listening to Maxwell’s “This Woman’s Work” as I write this. “I stand outside this woman’s work, this woman’s world.” The truth is that I want back in but I don’t know the way.