“When I grow up I want to save animals and put out fires with you, mama.”
That five-year old dream of the future melted my heart into a puddle and for a glorious split second I felt like I was truly winning at life.
“I would really love that, baby.”
The moment summed up everything about why I decided to become a volunteer firefighter.
When we were planning our move here, out of the city to a remote mountain valley, an old friend who happens to live one mountain range over encouraged me to join the volunteer fire department.
“It’s a great way to be physically active and get involved in the community,” he told me. “And plus, you guys have a badass female fire chief.”
My mind was blown by those last three words: female fire chief. The extraordinary power of those three words illuminated, in an instant, a possibility I didn’t know existed. A cascade of thoughts flowed into the newly gaping hole that was my opened mind. The town I’m moving to has a female fire chief. Women can be fire chiefs. There are female firefighters in my new town. I’m a woman. I could become a firefighter.
In that moment I experienced, first hand and in the most visceral way, just how much representation matters. I was a 44-year old self-proclaimed feminist. I’d spent six years diligently changing “fireman” to “firefighter” in countless bloody children’s books to make sure my kids learned that anyone could be a firefighter, regardless of their gender. But none of that mattered until that moment, when it finally clicked that I was a woman and I actually could be a firefighter.
Looking back, the deal was probably sealed right then and there. After our move I was so busy with everything – settling in and work and the farm and family – that there wasn’t room for much else. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that at some point I was going to take the leap.
Not only was it a brand new idea that I could be a firefighter, but there was also almost nothing cooler I could imagine trying. And one thing I’ve discovered as I’ve forayed deeper into middle age is that being fucking cool in my own mind is a pretty powerful elixir in this crazy world.
Not only that, but becoming a firefighter was just about the coolest things my kids could think of. I loved the idea of being cool in their eyes.
But the more I thought about it, it wasn’t just about having my kids think I’m cool. There was actually something much bigger at play. I realized that in becoming a firefighter, I was changing my children’s perception of how the world is. My kids will always know their mom was a firefighter. All their friends will know their mom was a firefighter. Any children my kids have will know that their grandma was a firefighter. There won’t be a reason for them to default to the term “fireman” ever again, because that simply doesn’t reflect their reality. I have fundamentally and permanently changed how they see the world because representation matters. And I be representing, yo.
Now of course there is a flip side to all this. Being a firefighter is damn hard. More than a year in and most practices are still a struggle. The language of nozzles and gaskets and supply line and adaptors is foreign to me, and just climbing into the enormous trucks in my full gear or using my gloved sausage fingers to operate my two-way radio is a major undertaking.
But I’m not giving up. Because representation also matters when it’s about the rest of my fire crew seeing a middle-aged mom with zero technical experience coming back week after week, doing my best and not giving up. It matters when I go out to a call and I’m visible to my community. And I can tell it matters to my badass female fire chief to have me part of the team and see me coming back and not giving up.
And it matters to me, because I am doing the coolest thing I could imagine, I’m learning incredible new things I never thought I would know, and I’m sticking with it. Sure it’s a struggle and I battle regular major doubts that I’ll ever achieve legitimate competence at the gig. But at the end of the day that doesn’t make me any less effing cool to myself or my children. My baby wants to grow up to be a firefighter with me, and I can’t think of a better achievement.
So my invitation to you, my dears, is this:
Think of the coolest thing you can imagine doing, and try it. And not despite your age, or your weight, or your gender or anything else, but because of those things. Be your baddest ass self, and see what follows. Do it for yourself, your kids, your community – because you deserve to blow your mind with the incredible things you can accomplish … and because representation matters.
What could you try?
Learning your favourite instrument
Starting or joining a band
Making a podcast or community radio show
Like the idea of exploring something new but need more inspiration to get started? I’ve developed a resource to help. Download the free guide to rediscovering your badass self after kids here, and find new energy, create space, and take action towards becoming the coolest person you know.
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