A few days ago, me, my neighborhood in DC and most of the other good folks in the Mid-Atlantic region got hit with what feels like—to my back, arms and cabin fever spirit anyway—the 300th stupid snowstorm of the season. It was a heavy, messy, sleety conglomerate that me and my new secret weapon—my lean, mean shovelin’ machine of a daughter—had to go out and tackle before the car was frozen into icy isolation. Not that we were planning on going anywhere. Folks drive like wild people in some snow, especially in SUVs. But that’s a different rant for a different time.

Outside on the I Am Legend-like streets of southeast, one of my neighbors had plopped on some boots and perched a scully atop her mountain of weave to half-heartedly bail her Corolla from a mound of slush. “I’m so mad I have to shovel,” she mumbled to me while she flicked pitiful little spoonfuls of snow. “I need a man to be out here doing this for me.”

I managed a “mmm hmm” in response and chuckled to myself thinking two things: 1) in the amount of time that heffa was spending grumbling, whining and boo hooing her lack of masculine muscle power, she coulda been dug her car out and been slumped right back on her sofa and 2) the fact that she was out there doing the grumbling, whining and boo hooing was probably the very reason she didn’t have a man in the first place. I know I’m in the minority, but I get irked quick, fast and in a hurry by women who believe in “men’s jobs,” prissy, delicate, fragile things who want a guy to rescue them from unpleasantries like carrying heavy bags and taking out smelly garbage and, Lord forbid, shoveling a few inches of snow. I believe in the privileges of being treated like a lady, but that can’t-do-because-I’m-a-woman routine peeves me. That’s just how my mother raised me.

My mama is the hardest working person I know. Period. All of her adult life she’s worked in a factory, standing on her feet from 7 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon, lifting, pulling, tugging, bending, doing more physically in one 8-hour day than I probably do in a five-day workweek (and, let’s be honest, probably the weekend too). Ever since I was a chunky little nerd with what looked like the potential to break the cycle of manual labor in my family, she’s always told me that she wanted me to use my mind, not my hands, to make a living. And she made sure that happened: all that hard workin’ helped me become the first person in the Harris tribe to go to college and now I spend my days writing articles and blog posts and editing dangling modifiers and subject-verb disagreements in other people’s projects. I have my mom to thank for that.

But just as importantly, Mommy taught me to do for self. She’s a single mother, though raised in a loving two-parent household where my Granddaddy showed his four daughters as much about the tools in the garage as my Nana taught them about the tools in the kitchen. The end result is this: there ain’t much my mama can’t do. A strong, Black woman, by her definition, is ladylike and feminine by all the run-of-the-mill social standards but she’s also able to handle the challenges—all of the challenges—that come with life. Mommy don’t play that damsel in distress mess. When there’s grass to be mowed or a repair around the house or chicken to be fried or a grandchild’s boo boo to be kissed, she’ll make it do what it do ‘til she gets it done. And I’m so thankful she passed that quality on to me. As her progeny, I can cook a pretty darn good meal but I can also change the oil in my car. I can throw on a pair of stilettos and strut in a cute dress but I can also throw on a pair of Timbs and sweatpants and shovel my car out of five inches of stupid snow. I’m not an androgynous mangirl, I’m not a creampuff prissy chick but I can handle it, whatever it may be.

After being shaped, molded, instructed, groomed, scolded, warned and rewarded by them for more than 18 years, it’s kinda hard not to be mini replicas of our mamas, walking, talking action figures that carry around all of the lessons that they’ve been tattooing on our minds since they popped us out. When you even think about all of the little, indirect, infinitesimal things your mother has taught you, like crossing your legs when you sit down or always keeping a little stash of money for yourself, even if you’re married, you realize how deep her influence runs. Most of the time, they’re pearls of wisdom they imparted to us for the sake of manners or self-preservation or just to keep us from being plain ol’ trifling.

But looking at our lives through our mothers’ lenses can also be restrictive. And shoot, sometimes mom was just wrong (but don’t tell her I said that). Some mothers taught their daughters that it’s OK to let a man smack the fire out of you once in a while so long as he’s maintaining the household and keeping the bills paid. There are mamas out there who have pressed on their daughters’ brains that hard work and integrity aren’t all that necessary if you look real pretty and flirt your way to what you want. Others have passed on their own crazy insecurities and baggage about relationships, religion, education and responsibility to make their girl children prime candidates to become some psychologist’s best paying patients.

Like me, can’t stand me: I’m the woman I am because I’m the product of my mother’s instruction. She did the best she could to prepare me for the never ending array of what the heck? moments she knew life was going to throw me. Even now, as an adult with my own daughter to raise, my own bills to pay, my own path to follow, I’m in awe of her ability to cope, deal and survive, even flourish. Still, there’s some fallout from keeping my mother’s mantra so close to heart. I’ve been blessed with a man who wants to do for me, take care of me and carry my loads, literal and figurative, and I’m having the hardest time letting him do that. I’m supposed to take care of myself, remember? It’s something I’m continually working and praying on to let go, just a little bit. I’m trying to let myself be a little more pampered and a little less bad by myself. He’s patient with me, though. After all, I get it from my mama.

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  • African Mami

    Great article, but when it comes to winter time, a man with dreads is necessary to shovel the damn snow! I ain’t even ashamed to say that!

  • wow this article was great

  • zy

    all i have to say is… i’ve been digging my car out of every single snow storm NYC has been hit with since 12/26/10… on my own, with no help. back aching and all, i won’t complain because it’s my car and my responsibility… yes, i get it from my mama. lol!

  • I’m with Cara. I live in Milwaukee, and not having a snow brush is just totally unacceptable. My mother never married but had on-and-off long-term (oxymoron) relationships. She raised me to take out the trash, rake the leaves, and do whatever else needed to be done because I was the oldest child at home. Never-mind that I was the only girl. I saw my mama shovel snow, and get under the hood of her car if she needed to. I also saw though, that if there was a man around, she did take on that damsel-in-distress attitude, and correspondingly, the man in our life would do the grunt-work. That damsel role never suited me, and I had to learn how to let the man be a man, and I’m still learning. It’s honestly more laziness for me that I would rather my man take the trash out, especially in this snow. I’ve come to appreciate that he’s here and does it. On the flip, if it needed to be done and he wasn’t here, I wouldn’t grumble about taking care of it.

  • Lexa

    Kind of agree with Xara, but only to a degree. I think there’s a big difference between being able to do something for oneself (e.g. change a tire, shovel the snow, mow the lawn) and consistently taking it on under one’s assumed responsibilities. I feel confident in my own abilities, and I’m sure that, were it necessary, I could do literally anything for myself. That doesn’t mean, however, that I will consistently try to do everything for myself – that’s where I think that many modern women (and particularly black women) get wires a little bit crossed.

    Women suffer so much stress from the double burden phenomenon (where taking on new fields and new opportunities that were traditionally “men’s work” doesn’t mean a reassignment of “women’s work” – it just means that women ultimately do twice as much work – in particular, working moms), and I don’t see any reason why I should want or pursue that for myself. Why in the heck would I be happy with: I cook, I clean, I sew up the holes in your clothes, I take care of the dog, I put together dinner parties for our friends and parents, I decorate our space, I manage the household budget, I nurture the kids…. and then I come home and change the oil in our cars, mow the lawn, get on the roof and clean out the gutters, shave down that drywall, shovel the snow….while you do what, exactly?

    But I’m sure that no one here is saying that women should do all the work, all the time, right? So what, then, should men do? Is it OK for me to expect a man to go grocery shopping and pick the kids up from soccer practice, but not OK for me to expect him to repave the driveway or hang up the basketball hoop on the garage? Is it only OK for men to take on tasks that are traditionally “women’s work”? How does that kind of restriction NOT emasculate men, and how does it not continue to devalue the tasks that have been traditionally within the domain of women?

    I just think that an aggressive I-can-do-men’s-work/ew-look-at-that-sissy-girl-who-can-only-do-women’s-work attitude ultimately does nothing more than continue to denigrate the value of things for which women have traditionally been responsible for.