When some people hear the word “homesteader,” they jump to conclusions, some right, some wrong. Like me, you may have dispelled a number of assumptions and perhaps piqued some people’s curiosity. Despite preconceptions, this is not an antiquated way of life. Even though I choose to use throwback skills and good, old-fashioned hard work, I find certain aspects of homesteading way ahead of their time. Take raising kids, for example. Homesteading can get a bad wrap for being gendered, or worse, but I’d argue it’s just the opposite.
Here’s what I mean: How many people teach their daughters skills that, in some households and areas, would be considered for boys only—and vice versa? On homesteads, our girls often learn carpentry by building coops and shelters, and our boys learn to can a harvest and mend a hole by sewing it up. This is a normal day for many of us but a revolutionary way to raise children in a world that, even now, holds certain expectations. Our kids generally come up doing more hard work than other kids (at least where we live, though certainly not everywhere), learning unconventional skills, and developing an appreciation for animals—and a practicality towards them as well. I suppose it’s not the norm, but to us, it’s life. And I like it that way.
When my kids were fairly young, my father and I took them both fishing. This was, to me, a rite of passage. I started fishing with my dad when I was young, as did my sister. It wasn’t a “boy” thing to us. It was simply our life (although my sister was NOT a fan). We’ve fished every year since, and last year I looked down the bank of the Yellowstone River in Montana and smiled. There, right next to me, up to their waists in water, were my daughter, son, and stepson.
My parents were not ones for teaching us “girl” skills only. My father was determined that, even though he had all girls, we wouldn’t be helpless damsels in distress. I learned plumbing basics, how to change the brakes on my car, and how to change the oil. I learned to listen for a knock in the engine and how to strip paint off of a 1980 Cadillac Coupe de Ville (aka my Mack Daddy Caddy). Years later, all of these skills would be more useful than I ever imagined when I became a single mom, solely responsible for a farmhouse and two kids.
Because of this, I’ve never thought much about differing what my girl would learn versus my boy. They have equal chores at home, both help cook, and both scoop chicken poop. I grew up hearing stories from my grandmom about her and my great-grandmom’s duties on the ranch. They planted and harvested, plowed and cooked. They hunted and skinned, fished and washed. There were no lines, no boundaries for them. Then again, my great-grandmom settled on land in Wyoming when it was still very difficult for women to do so most other places. Wyoming figured that if you could last five years in that terrain, you deserved land ownership!
This year, my daughter will be driving. She will be trained the same as I was: change your own oil, learn to change a tire, change your own brakes so that no one takes you for a ride. Know what you’re asking for in an automotive parts store. If nothing else, the store clerks will be impressed, and you’ll feel good about it. In addition to that, she’ll learn how to filet a fish herself and how to milk a goat.
My boy will learn those things alongside his sister and stepbrother, taught by my dad and their stepdad. But he’ll also be called into the kitchen to make dough and pasta and will learn to knit, the same way his sister did.
There are no lines in our homestead parenting, not between girl and boy or who contributes what. In addition to my upbringing, I chose this life for another reason. It’s human, not relegated to sex or race. It’s because the life we lead brings a certain toughness with it, a toughness I don’t feel kids get in school anymore. Like many of you, I’d imagine, when I was a kid, life wasn’t conducted with kid gloves. We learned about heartache from firsthand experience and notes passed in hallways, not plastered on Twitter and Facebook. Life on a homestead or ranch teaches kids about tough decisions, unpopular choices, hard work, and its results. They see death, they witness pecking orders. They develop a resilience and respect for life, whether they’re boys or girls.
This weekend, while we all fish and put the roof on the chicken run, I will be thinking of our homesteading predecessors. I will be thankful that, while they may have maintained certain gender roles, they weren’t limited by them. Pioneering homestead women and men were far ahead of their time. I guess some things never change.
Although she’s something of a newbie homesteader herself, Michelle comes from serious pioneer stock: Her great-grandmother literally wrote the book. It’s this legacy, in part, that led Michelle to trade in her high-stress life for a home on the grounds of a Pennsylvania CSA farm. You can read her monthly posts on beginner homesteading with kids and more here in HOMEGROWN Life, and sometimes you can find her popping up in The Stew, HOMEGROWN’s member blog.
Photos by Michelle Wire