I heard from a Helpful Husband the other day. To be honest, I heard from a hundred Helpful Husbands. Most of them wanted to give an award to my friend the Grateful Wife: an "Un" before her name.
I had written last month about a working wife who wanted her working husband to "share" instead of "help," to take over management and repsonsiblity of some of the workaday chores of their mutual children and home life. She wanted to say fewer "thank yous" and more "you're welcomes."
This modest proposal elicitied more response than anything I have written on the state of the world, immorality or immortality. So it goes.
The Heard-From Husbands fell into various and sundry categories. There were, for example, two dozen Division of Labor theorists. Some of them simply didn't believe in the notion of "sharing" per se. "Somebody has to be in charge," wrote one Oregonian. Others assured me that for every wifely responsiblity there was a separate but equal husbandly one.
The most remarkable of these letters came from a Handy Husband from Virginia who filled two pages with the list of things he did, for which his wife had "darn well better say thank you." It included car care, weather-stripping, plumbing, electrical wiring, insulation, floor-sanding and -- get this -- the building of a back-yard swimming pool.
I assured him that I though there was nothing wrong with the Division of Labor Marriage Concept. Although in most homes the baby gets changed more often than the car oil, he surely deserved an exemption. Then I asked him if he had a brother of marrying age.
The second set of men were the Economic Equity theorists. These tended to be dollar-for-dollar men, who tallied up the balance sheets of their lives according to finances. The most vivid Eco-Husband from California put it this way: "I earn 75 percent of our family income. If I did 50 percent of the housework, then I would be contributing 62 percent. This is unfair. As long as I am the chief earner, my wife should be chief homemaker."
I am sure that his household hears money talking in other equally charming ways.
Another large group of Heard-From Husbands felt that the Ungrateful Wives of the World had upped the ante on them. One man from Massachusetts was depressed when he read my column because "I know that the best I will ever be is helpful." Another from Illinois heaved, "It has taken me 15 years to become helpful and now you are saying that this isn't enough! I give up." A dozen or so wrote, like the man from Connecticut, "I recognize myself . . . ugh."
But the responses that intrigued me the most came from both husbands and wives and had to do with the much subtler problems of shifting responsiblities. They had to do with power -- and taking of and letting go of.
One long, hilarious letter came from a Minnesota wife of 17 years and read: "Four years ago my husband and I sat down and figured out a way to share. The first week he took charge of all the food and I couldn't believe it. He was doind it all wrong, which is to say that he wasn't doing it my way."
She went on at length to chronicle his "wrongs" -- like cooking brussels sprouts, a heinous crime in itself, and not doing the dishes until after he had relaxed with coffee.
When she confronted him with the list, "he told me that if he was going to cook and clean, he was going to do it his way and I had better butt out. I never realized how much I had invested in controlling these things and how much power I had over the real basics of life. It's taken me a long time to learn how to share."
A man who might have been her husband, except for the fact that he was from Atlanta, told his tale: "When my son was born, I had every intention of taking half-time care of him. But when I would change his diapers, my wife would come along and redo the pins. When I would feed him at night, she would to into the room after I was though and check on him. When I dressed him, she would say that his clothes didn't match.
"I decided that I had only two options: to get into a continual power struggle over the children or to let her take charge. I am now a 'Helpful Husband.' The irony is that I am writing to you because my wife put your article on my plate at breakfast this morning."
My various pen pals taught me that there is hardly an issue that goes deeper into our lives than who wields the vacuum cleaner. But they also reminded me of something else: sharing isn't just learning a new role. It's also letting go of the old one. It may not call for a grateful wife, but it does require a graceful one.