The Emotional Labor Of Staying Safe While Female

A little piece of my ability to feel safe in the world was lost forever in those moments.

This article first appeared on The Refresh and has been republished with permission.


Warm amber light filtered through the trees creating a dappled pattern of light and dark on the road. The surface of the street was no longer smooth—I could never remember a time when it was. My feet had memorized every nuance of these back country roads that I had been traversing since I was a small child. My dad frequently had taken my younger brother and me for strolls after dinner. He pointed out the shape of the constellations, making zigzagging lines in the air when I couldn’t discern the Big Dipper. At six years old, I didn’t know what a dipper was — let alone a big or small one. I was more interested in what was at my feet — noticing the wildflowers that grew alongside our path, kicking small stones to see how far I could move them and sprinting ahead as I discovered the power my own body possessed to propel me through the world — even if only by a few feet. 

When I was in my mid-twenties, I gradually emerged from years of serious chronic illness that had kept me homebound and at times, bedbound. Chronic pain was a normal part of life. When my body had become strong enough, I discovered that exercise helped to alleviate some — but not all — of it. I was grateful for any relief. What had started from merely walking the short length of my parents’ living room had increased over time to me walking or biking at least a mile per day from the middle of April until Halloween when the weather got too cold for my sensitive system. 

After being stuck at home for so long, having the freedom to walk, lightly jog or ride my bike felt miraculous.

I never particularly wanted to exercise, but I wanted and needed its effects. There are people, like my father, who have bodies that are happiest when in motion. My body, perhaps due to the history of illness, is more than happy to sit in one spot and not move. But, as any physical therapist would impart, not moving is one of the worst things someone in pain can do. 

On that particular autumn day, I opted to walk briskly instead of bike. I wanted a slower pace and to enjoy the beauty of my surroundings — rolling meadows, a dairy farm with cows I said hello to off in the distance, the particular way the light falls at this time of year. I was only walking a mile — I knew that it wouldn’t take me that long. I had time to reach the half-way point where the road greets a more well-travelled road, turn around and make it back home before it was totally dark — or so I thought. There is something slightly misleading about how quickly darkness sets in in early autumn. My mind was still set on a summer schedule. I wasn’t ready to give that up, but the calendar had other plans.

I made it to the half-way point — past the cows in their distant meadow — and started the journey home as the sky was dimming. There were only intermittent street lights and I knew the way by heart. The darkness didn’t scare me. 

When the white van travelling in the opposite direction slowed as it passed by me, a chill passed through my body.

But, I wasn’t particularly cold. I had dressed for the early evening’s temperature. The van was only the third vehicle that had passed me on the empty stretch of road bordered by a sloping ravine on one side and a steep hill on the other. I watched enough Charlie’s Angels reruns as a kid to know that a slow moving van isn’t a good sign. As the van and I continued in opposite directions, I exhaled, but an uncomfortable feeling I couldn’t shake remained. At first, I questioned if I had just seen too many TV shows. But, I hadn’t felt strange about the other two vehicles that passed by during my walk. Something was off. 

I hastened my pace. I just wanted to get home. Despite having my cell phone with me, I felt vulnerable and like something was imminent. I couldn’t place my finger on what.

I wasn’t surprised when I glanced over my shoulder and saw that same white van speeding back in my direction. I had to make a split decision. I scanned my surroundings. There was nowhere obvious to go to. My legs had become strong, but I couldn’t outrun a van. The sound of the motor drowned out the crickets who had been serenading me. That man-made sound was all my senses focused on. The driver’s foot was on the gas; my feet struck the pavement harder and harder.

I leapt down the side of the ravine. There was so much underbrush and greenery that I wasn’t sure exactly where my feet would land, but it was my best option. Thorns scraped my ankles. I made it to a small pathway halfway down, laid down on the ground and rolled backward as far as I could against the side of the side of the sloping ground. Thorns that had missed my legs now dug into my back, but I was too scared to notice until later when I was plucking them off of my shirt. 

As the van neared where it originally had passed me, I saw headlights scan just inches from where I had flattened myself. I was grateful that I was wearing something dark and made sure to hide the reflective parts on my clothing. I held my breath as if that would hide me even more. I just wanted to be home. 

 

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Terror and adrenaline flooded my system when I heard the van’s side door open. I prayed to myself that no one would emerge. I was hidden, but just barely. If there were two people — as I suspected there must be given the timing of the van slowing and the side door opening — I stood little chance of escape. I am a petite person and I worried about my size being a disadvantage. The state I grew up in is known for its love of guns. If there was a weapon, I couldn’t bear to think of what could happen. 

It amazed me how quickly these thoughts rapidly pulsed through my mind. The speed of time’s passage increased and decreased simultaneously. It felt like forever for the van to leave. When it finally did, I breathed a short-lived sigh of relief. 

I don’t know the intentions of the van’s occupants, but I knew there were enough red flags that I had to take decisive action. I wasn’t going to wait around to find out what they wanted. 

No decent human approaches a woman alone on a back country road unless she is already in obvious distress and even then, it is best keep a good distance until she has had chance to respond verbally to an inquiry about her current state.  If something seems amiss, park your vehicle (this goes double if it is a van with no windows in the back) and again try yelling. If she can’t respond, it is wise to call for emergency help. 

Shaking, I no longer felt safe walking the rest of the way home along the road. Instead, I took the opposite of a shortcut, up a steep hill and through another meadow. It was someone’s private property and I felt awkward for trespassing, but the only thing I cared about in those moments was getting home safely.

It wasn’t the first time this particular brand of fear coursed through my veins.

When I was in first grade, my mom couldn’t convince the school to drop me off at the end of my street—the place the bus drove right by. Instead, the bus continued on, down a slightly sloping hill, across a one lane bridge and around a curve to the “official” bus stop where another cross street intersected. The only reason it was deemed official was because an older student had had that bus stop for years — but that student no longer even took the bus. He must have either moved or had alternate means of transportation because he never showed up at the bus stop.  It was just my six year old self. 

My parents either walked with me or drove me to the bus stop in the mornings — it was out of their line of sight. My mom hated having to wake up my brother who was a young child, but she did it, plunked him in his car seat or stroller and off we went. My mom usually met me at my bus stop in the afternoon. Seeing her filled me with a kind of joy and relief.

On a particular Spring day, the bus arrived fifteen minutes early. No one was there waiting for me, so I decided to start walking towards home. I figured I would soon see my mom pushing my brother in his blue stroller as he clung to his Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal. (Where M went, Winnie followed.) 

Suddenly, I heard footsteps hitting the pavement behind me. The cadence was fast and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I turned around and saw a man in jogging clothes running towards me. The red sweatband that trisected his forehead and receding hairline flashed brightly in my field of vision. Up and down, up and down. He obviously was out for his run, but his trajectory seemed off — when he saw me, he sped up and didn’t alter his course to give me a wide berth. 

I decided that he had a good idea: run! I cut across open space and around a pond. My feet sunk into the earth still damp from the previous night’s rainfall. I heard the man call out to me.

“You better run, little girl, or I am going to come and get you.”

A little piece of my ability to feel safe in the world was lost forever in those moments. I knew he was telling the truth. 

With the lower corners of my open jacket flapping in the breeze I created, I ran faster and faster. My backpack thudded against my small spine while the metal of my Snoopy lunchbox — the one I was so proud to select myself because it had comics on it that I could read while eating  — kept hitting the side of my left leg. I felt the power that fear could bring as I mourned the loss of peace that only safety could offer. 

I started crying when I got home. My mom was just getting ready to leave to come meet me. She was livid when she heard what had happened and again, tried to get the bus stop changed. Again, to no avail. Instead, she got there a little early every day to wait for me. As a stay-at-home mom in the 1980s, we all were lucky that she had that ability.

Finally, in second grade, I had a new bus driver. She had permed brown hair with golden highlights. Her hair stuck out a few inches from her head, as was the style. I would hate to have seen her monthly hairspray costs. I was amazed at how put together she looked at 7:12AM. One morning, she saw me hurrying to my faraway bus stop. When I boarded, she greeted me with the same luminous smile that she flashed to every child she picked up. 

“Why were you walking down the road?” She asked.

“Because I live at the end of that street,” I responded, pointing.

“You do? Why am I picking you up all the way down here then? I go right past your street.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. My mom tried to tell the school that. But, they said I had to walk down here.”

“Well, that’s just stupid. I am going to start picking you up at the end of your street. Wait there for me tomorrow.”

Just like that, the bus problem was solved. The problem of the jogger — who was a distant neighbor from another street — was never solved. As the years went on, there were whispered stories about his strange behavior. All I cared about was avoiding him at all costs. 

When someone gives you evidence that he or she might not be a safe person to be around, believe it the first time and to whatever degree you can, act accordingly.

One of my good friends has a birthday soon. She is training for a marathon and frequently runs outside. Like me, she loves nature and enjoys the scenery. We started exchanging birthday presents years ago and it’s a tradition that I still very much appreciate. The farther into adulthood I’ve gotten, the less common it has become for me to have gifts to open. And, I really like the process of selecting something for my friend that I know she will like. Sometimes, it is just nice to receive something tangible on your birthday to be reminded that you are celebrated by the people who care about you.

This year, I found myself searching online for “safety items for female runners.” I was surprised at the anger I felt that this category even needs to exist. Fifteen years after I hid myself along the side of the ravine, this is still an issue society hasn’t made a lot of progress with. My amazing friend should be able to focus solely on her sport without other worries.

Many of the safety tips directed to women are not practical — or even logical.

At the top of the list is to never go anywhere alone — as if it were always possible to have a buddy available who maintains your same schedule and who wants to do the exact same thing you do. The adult world doesn’t work that way. Sometimes, people exercise because they want to decompress and recharge from the world—not because they want to be social. Never running after dark is another popular suggestion — one that ignores that not all women have the freedom to dictate their work schedules. Women who are stay-at-home parents of young children can’t just drop everything and leave the kids while they go out for a run.

People who have never been crime victims also love to suggest mace, pepper spray or weapons. These may be useful in certain circumstances, but they also give a false sense of security and may be used against you. Attackers have plans. Staying calm, keeping your wits about you and focusing on escape and survival is key. Nothing should distract from that. 

Years ago, I gave up strolling along some of the wide open roads I grew up loving in exchange for riding my bike, in exchange for feeling a little safer. As a child, I looked forward to adulthood so fervently that my mom frequently told me not to “wish my life away.” I assumed that being an adult meant having agency about where you went and what you did—that at least in small ways, you could follow the course of your desires. But yet, as an adult woman, I’ve often found myself making decisions in response to choices others have made that have impacted my sense of safety. I know I’m not alone in this. Most women I know have at least one story of having to alter their plans, their paths or their desires just to keep themselves safe. This form of emotional labor can be burdensome. 

I still wish for a world where all people were afforded the same freedom to choose what they run towards, not what they must run from.


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