Lessons Learned from Catharine Parr Traill on how to persevere as a woman

Please note that a version of the article appeared in the Star on Monday, Sept 28, 2020.

Navigating the Pandemic as a woman: Lessons Learned from Catherine Parr Traill

My family recently purchased the home of famous Canadian pioneer and author, Catharine Parr Traill. My fascination with “Katie” began the moment I saw the place. The giant maples told stories, as did the cozy house and the old iron fireplace that sits in the yard. We now boil maple syrup in that fireplace in the spring as she did. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has stolen from us nearly one million mothers, fathers and grandparents. I have channelled anxiety born of these times by reaching back to learn how others, such as Catharine, coped with such immense loss; the lessons offered and how resilience was practiced. 

My fascination with Catharine began when I learned about her unwavering commitment to writing. Letters she wrote home to Britain bristled with complaints about men who failed to fairly consider her writing. She faced misogyny at every turn while she wrote by candlelight as her family slept upstairs; this after another back-breaking day of the manual labour incumbent upon all women at the time. I remind myself of the challenges Catharine faced when, over 150 years later, there are still women wearing many hats. The life of Ruth Bader Ginsberg is instructive, with the many impactful feats she accomplished – all while a wife and mother – in tearing down misogynistic barriers for women that remain, tragically, so ingrained in our civil society. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women. Too many women have put their livelihoods and dreams on hold to care for their family in lockdown. A staggering percentage of women have lost work altogether in what has been called a ‘shecession’ (New York Times, May, 2020). Many women were forced to quit their jobs due to burnout caused by an inability to manage the impossible task of parenting, homeschooling, and working. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Catharine Parr Traill tell us that women occupy as complicated a space now as 150 years ago. Both women invite us to consider that female aspirations are important; not just to women, but to all of society, and for our next generation. They remind us women should always be afforded the right to have a choice in their pursuits; and that we have come this far on the shoulders of giants. 

So, how do women persevere when the world seems as dark and impossible? Again, we can turn to Catharine.

Catharine found beauty in the natural world and in the written word. She trained herself to become a gifted botanist and writer. She wrote through the raising, often alone, of nine children. She wrote when her house burned, the family relocated, her farm failed, and through the death of two children and her husband. She continued to write when she eventually settled in the Lakefield home, where I write this article.

Catharine openly expressed gratitude in her life. Gratitude in a time of hardship has been identified as one of the great coping mechanisms that helps to build resilience. We must afford ourselves permission to feel fear, anxiety, and sadness, as Catharine did, but we can add gratitude. Having a daily gratitude practice settles our physiological stress response, builds community and connection, and helps us to feel empathy (Harper, 2020). Catharine’s gratitude for new friends, the rugged Canadian wilderness, and her family, was a driving force in not just her success as a botanist and writer but in her survival. 

Autumn has always gifted me renewed energy. The air feels clean and carries with it a sense of new beginnings. I cuddle my children closer and I feel grateful. As I marvel at the riot of colour offered by the giant maples in Catharine’s yard, I feel her strength. I feel her determination, her optimism, and her sense of gratitude that reminds me of the wonderful, perpetual circle of regeneration and rebirth.

Special thanks to John Boyko and Tom Milburn for edits.

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