Teaching an old dog new tricks

by Melanie Epp

I grew up in a household where my parents frequently categorised tasks as ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work.’ In a family of five kids and two dogs, dividing work in a way that caused the least amount of fuss was understandable – necessary, even. For most of my childhood, I never even questioned it. While I peeled potatoes, folded laundry or vacuumed floors, my brothers would be outside shovelling snow in -30°C weather, raking leaves in the cool of fall, or taking garbage bags to the curb each week. I remember thinking, especially in the coldest days of winter, ‘I’m sure glad I’m not a boy.’

Those sentiments later changed when recreational activities were divided into ones suitable for boys and ones suitable for girls. While my sisters and I went to Girl Guides and gymnastics, my brothers got to play ice hockey, go fishing and shoot at the archery range. I found myself wanting to do those things too, but accepted that there were some things I just wasn’t meant to do.

Once I joined the workforce, I held jobs as a waitress in several local restaurants. There I quickly noted that most servers were women, and most cooks were men. That’s just the way it was, and I accepted it. I never thought to apply as a cook. Women just didn’t do that.

Then in my mid-twenties I did something radical – radical for me, that is. I took a job in restoration-renovation where, for the most part, I was the only woman on the jobsite. I had no idea what I was doing. I had never held a paintbrush (that’s men’s work), much less used a power tool. It didn’t matter much because most of the time I was sent off to sweep up messes, make little repairs, and move items to the truck. You know, tasks more suitable for women. Again, I accepted it.

As I grew older the world around me changed, but the ideas I’d been raised with stuck. Girls started playing hockey, and guys learned to cook. I told myself I was too old to learn and didn’t get up the courage to play hockey until I was 36.

It wasn’t until recently that I noticed I still divide tasks into ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’. Until recently, I had never lit a charcoal barbecue. I’d never used a power saw, and I didn’t know how to sharpen a knife. I couldn’t unclog a drain or hold a hammer properly. Not only did I not know how to do these things, but truth be told, I was a little scared of learning.

Once I realised what was really holding me back, I was determined to get over it. I lit the charcoal barbecue and grilled steaks for friends. I bought a miter saw, finally learned how to wield a hammer properly, and built raised beds in the backyard. I repaired an old chicken coop and built the hens a new walking ramp. What was once daunting was now exhilarating. But the excitement wasn’t coming from doing the task itself – although, I do love working with the new miter saw – it was coming from breaking barriers. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but maybe being old has nothing to do with it.

Maybe the dog just didn’t believe she could.

Melanie Epp is a freelance agricultural journalist from Canada. She writes about everything from potatoes to poultry, soil health to livestock production. But she’s happiest when she’s writing about farmers around the world – who they are, what they do, and how they do it. Melanie has been living in Belgium since 2014.







This article was published in Women in Ag Magazine 2022-1. Click here for an overview of the magazines. 

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