Poems & Essays

05 Feb

The Little Engine That Couldn’t

General/Column 2 Responses

One evening fairly recently my husband and I came to a head about that figure of utmost importance in the American landscape: The Little Engine That Could.

“It’s a boy,” said my husband.

“No, it’s a girl,” I said.

“It wouldn’t be blue if it’s a girl.”

“It’s blue, and it’s a girl. I’ll prove it.”

I opened the book. As I read how the little engine chugged, puffed, and ding-donged happily along, I scoured the page until I spied what I was looking for—the pronoun she. The little train was a girl.

Ah-ha! I was right! (Well sort of, that female train was the one that got stuck, not the blue engine; but the blue engine proved to be a girl, too.)

For a refresher, what happens in the story is that one girl engine is packed full of toys and dolls and clowns—and also with apples and milk (and even spinach for dinner, smart female train). But she is so jam-packed that she runs out of steam (quite literally). Then, three male engines come by and do not help.

If we are giving the male engines the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they do not understand the demands of the seemingly insignificant toys and dolls and milk and spinach. After all, they often do not see the toys and dolls strewn across the floor (for the thousandth time) right after they have just been picked up (for the thousandth time). Or perhaps the passerby males don’t understand that spilt milk, if it is breast milk that you’ve painstakingly pumped for days—or weeks—is worth crying over. Male hormones, after all, are not chugging up at the beginning of the month and chugging down at the end of it, all year long.   Male bodies are not puffing out 30+ pounds to grow a baby, and then their bodies are not huffing out 30+ pounds trying to lose the weight after delivery. Most males do not hear the doorbell go ding-dong in the middle of the day, just as a bumbling toddler figures out how to climb on top of the play set (not into—on top of), and so whoever’s at the door has to wait while the dog barks ferociously and the baby tumbles to the ground and you scoop him up, crying (the both of you) and just as you pull open the front door, the pot of water filled with macaroni for lunch boils over. These are not big things. These are little things. Seemingly insignificant things. But they are so many and so constant that it is not uncommon to feel like the little train that stops “with a jerk” and cannot “go another inch.”

There is a reason why the train that breaks down is little. There is a reason she is a girl. There is a reason the train that helps her is a little girl, too.

C.S. Lewis once said, “Friendship … is born at the moment when one (wo)man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .” (“Wo” added, for often the tale of woman is like man, but with a bit of woe.)

There was a time before I met my husband when I’d sworn off men all together. When men, true to their train natures, did not have my best interests at heart, and so they left that heart broken down on the tracks.

There was a time last year when it was freezing cold and dark all the time, and my three-month-old son still wasn’t sleeping, and we had just moved to D.C., and the only person I talked to regularly was Lady—our dog—who wasn’t even a person, but had to get upgraded in species status because of the depths of my loneliness.

There was a time just last month when all I’d worked for in my writing career appeared to be lost. Four years of work, lost.

For all of my female friends, and all the female friends I do not know yet, I wish I could be there with you on the day when you stop with a jerk and cannot go another inch. Much has changed for women since The Little Engine That Could was written in 1930, and much for the better. But one of the tragedies of modernity is isolation. Our metaphorical trains don’t necessarily break down more often than any other generation; but they can stay broken longer. And I think, in part, this is due to perceptions.

Though I remembered that The Little Engine That Could was a female, I misremembered her story. I thought that she was carrying the toys the whole time, and then she just willed her way up the mountain. But that’s not what happens. A different female engine breaks down, and then the little blue engine comes along and helps her.

It is as if, between the lines, you can hear the blue engine say to the broken down engine, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”

The load is heavy. The terrain goes up and up and up. No single female engine can do it alone. But we’re not meant to. We’re meant to carry the loads of our friends.




Kerry Anne Harris received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2015, where she received the annual Doris Betts Award in Creative Writing in 2014 and again in 2015. She is currently a stay at home mom and blogs about motherhood at aladyandababy.wordpress.com. Some of her shorter essays have been published on parenting websites such as Great Moments in Parenting, and she has also been featured on the Mom Bloggers Club.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Would you like to join the discussion? Feel free to contribute!

  1. Shannon

    September 2, 2018 at 1:11 am

    This is a wonderful description of being a mother.

  2. Caitlin

    September 2, 2018 at 4:56 am

    The prose is lovely, and clever. I’d love to read more of her work.


Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Misnaming February 5, 2018 The Stranger I Call M… February 5, 2018