A poignant testament to digging in and doing it by yourself
My dad was a putterer. He was always moving through the house and yard trimming a few branches here, watering the plants, cleaning the downstairs bathroom. He didn’t take on big projects, but he kept a constant vigil on the small things. He also taught me how to change the oil in my car and how to take care of tools.
When my ex first moved out, we had been living in our home for a decade, and though I did most of the yard work along with all the housework and child care, he had a few domains. They were the things I didn’t think I could do, such as setting up the modem and router or changing the furnace filter. I seemed to have forgotten I was my father’s daughter and knew how to approach certain chores.
Still, the first time I set up the new Internet service, I cried through the whole process. I felt so out of my comfort zone and was already distressed with a nasty divorce. It took me hours. It was as if I had never plugged anything in before and didn’t know how to deal with step-by-step directions. I was ashamed of my incompetence, but we had to have Internet service so I had to keep going, and I was too embarrassed to ask for help. I think most women go through some experience like this at the beginning of their life as a Solo Mom. In hindsight, it was a rite of passage; the Internet worked.
My ex was too focused on his own stuff to help much around the house, so there were lots of little things that needed tending. I waited till the gaps in the grout in the bathroom started leaking water in the basement before I tried to grout the tub and shower. I was barely making ends meet and could not afford to hire someone, so I went to YouTube and followed the instructions. It wasn’t pretty, but the leaking stopped.
Each time I faced one of my fears and tackled a repair or project, another of my beliefs that I wasn’t good enough, skilled enough, capable enough, or even worthy enough slipped off my back, and I watched it wash down the drain.
I started to feel better about myself. I started to see that I had an even bigger job than grouting the tub: that job was to teach my children. I wanted my sons to see that women were capable of doing repairs and yard work, and I wanted my daughter to see that, too, and not expect a man to take care of those things.
When the light switch/outlet in the bathroom shorted, I went and bought the part and then had my boys do the replacement. I showed them how the fuse box worked and how to match wires, and we did it. Next was replacing the kitchen faucet. By the time the thermostat needed replacing, I just handed my son the part, and he did it on his own.
Last year, I rented a floor sander and refinished the hardwood floor in one of my bedrooms. I also assembled a new entertainment center.
I guess all that confidence blurred my vision when I decided to hire one of my son’s down-on-his-luck buddies, Josh, to help me “weed” my front yard. I have a pretty big yard for a suburb. I took out the lawn 15 years ago, but the catmint and yarrow had been merrily growing everywhere for years. Josh and I started digging. We chopped and dug, filling a dozen bags with stems and roots, branches and dirt.
Then Josh got a job, and I kept digging and hauling and chopping—for more than 30 hours in two- to three-hour chunks. I am no spring chicken, so I had to pace myself. I dug and hauled with sweat dripping off my face and when the last of the summer thunderstorms rumbled overhead. My work gloves tore apart. I had scratches from trimming back the bushes and thorns from the prickly pear cactus that I forgot were under the yards of catmint. I got bit by something I never saw and had to take several days off while I nursed a swollen finger back to health.
Each cart of roots and dirt I loaded made me feel stronger. I felt capable and confident. I breezily ordered pea gravel to create more visual interest and to keep the catmint from growing back.
I met the truck on a windy Monday afternoon. A woman jumped out, and it felt like an omen. I had a tarp ready, and she poured 2.6 tons of pea gravel onto the street in front of my house. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had ordered too much.
Gravel is heavy, and I needed to spread it over hard-to-access spaces. I couldn’t use a wheelbarrow, I had to move it with a bucket, so I scooped five shovelfuls of gravel into the bucket, lugged it up the hill, poured it out, and spread it with my holey gloves. Then I repeated the process over and over. After two hours of battling the wind and stones, I put my tools away (thanks, Dad) and took a shower.
Over the next 10 days, I scooped and spread. My yard looked great. I felt strong. But what was I going to do with an extra ton of gravel? I raked and shoveled and picked between pavers in my backyard preparing for the gravel to surround my raised garden beds.
I might have been “farm strong,” as one friend called me, but I was also bone tired. A dear friend volunteered to help, and in about 45 minutes, we hauled the last half ton to the backyard. We were proud Solo Moms. We were strong Solo Moms.
As I face my next chapter as a Solo Mom, I have learned that I am stronger than I thought and more capable than I believed. I think we all are, my Sisters. When we become Solo Moms, we face things we never expected. I have not always handled those things elegantly or gracefully, but I found that with the right tools, I can fix more than my heart.
Thanks, Dad, for showing me the way.
Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.
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