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What fixing up a house taught me about single motherhood


This story has been updated.

It was my first day as a solo homeowner. It had taken years of renting and saving to get to this point, and I was electric with excitement. I’d finally done what my young daughter had asked for: I bought us a “forever home.” No more relying on landlords, asking permission to strip 1980s wallpaper, or feeling as though our home wasn’t really “ours.” This would be our space to customize to our delight.

Then I opened the kitchen cabinets.

During the home inspection, the cabinets were full. Sure, I had opened the cabinet doors, but I had never seen them empty before — and now that I could, I was horrified: The entire back wall of the cabinetry was green with mold.

My daughter, who has allergies and asthma, wound up in the hospital within 48 hours. While she was undergoing chest X-rays, I was online searching for a contractor to rip out my kitchen cabinets.

I had just put nearly all the money I had into a down payment. People warn you about planning for unexpected expenses, but needing new kitchen cabinets on day one wasn’t on my radar. Worse, once I ripped out the cabinets, I found that the whole wall behind them was also mold-filled and uninsulated.

“Shouldn’t we figure out why this happened before we replace the wall?” I asked the contractor.

“Don’t worry about it. They must have had a sink leak that they let go for a long time, but you’re not going to do that.”

Of course, dear reader, that’s not what it was at all. In fact, the “new” roof was leaking into multiple walls. A tree had gone through the roof during a hurricane and, rather than spend the insurance money on a professional, the homeowners had replaced it themselves. When they came to an exhaust pipe, rather than cut wood around it, they simply … skipped that area and put shingles on top of nothing.

But I had no idea of that for the next two and a half years, because that’s how long it took me to save up enough to pay for a new roof. In the meantime, I placed buckets in multiple rooms to catch the drips whenever it rained or snowed.

There were swarms of termites and ants, which had caused structural damage for years. Multiple pipes burst in addition to the smaller leaks. Siding fell off the house. The “new windows” the homeowners advertised were from 1986; and the “great boiler” broke down at least three times a season, usually on the coldest winter days. And there was a slab leak that eight plumbers couldn’t find.

The house had passed inspection, so the previous owners would not be held responsible for any of these issues. Although an attorney took on my case pro bono once he saw the extent of the damage, we got nowhere with a lawsuit against the inspector.

That left me digging deep to come up with the money to pay plumbers, electricians, pest control, general contractors and roofers.

My daughter was in first grade when we moved in, and I didn’t want my stress to become hers. We couldn’t have friends over for a long time because our house was such a wreck, but I was determined to fix it and make it safe. I worked as a ghostwriter and author nearly around the clock, taking on an excessive number of book projects because I was in constant danger of foreclosure. Many months we were down to nothing before a last-minute project payment arrived and saved us for another few weeks. It’s not that I was underpaid — I’m an experienced writer who gets paid well. It’s just that everything I had went toward whatever the current emergency was. Cosmetic issues were last on the list, while issues like mold and heat needed immediate attention.

Calling professionals all the time was too expensive, so I educated myself about home repairs through Professor YouTube. I learned how to fix my dishwasher, dryer, toilet and garbage disposal. I taped and spackled walls well enough for my contractor to say, “You really did that yourself?” I installed a new deadbolt and alarm system, replaced cabinet sliders, shored up shelving, installed blinds, caulked and grouted and spray-foamed and siliconed. I bought a pole saw to trim trees and a roof rake to mitigate ice dams.

Through it all, my daughter watched and sometimes helped. She had a working knowledge of power tools before she knew her multiplication tables.

Almost six years later, the emergencies have slowed down, though I still have a list of repairs to complete. And while I absolutely regret buying this house — and I’m not glad that I’ve had to push my body to crazy levels of sleep deprivation — I don’t regret the things this experience has taught me: that I am so much more capable than I ever thought. And I will do what needs to be done.

I’m not glad to have had all these problems to solve, but I’m thrilled that my daughter knows me as a strong woman who can figure out just about anything. She’ll learn the same thing about herself.

I like that she has seen me on ladders with a drill in my hand. She has never known the difference between “men’s work” and “women’s work,” because there is no such thing in our house. And it’s not all about work: I also like that she will remember the epic elementary school graduation party I threw for her in the backyard, and the way we painted art all over the walls of the storage room.

This house — this stupid, stupid house — is all ours. I’ve fought for it, practically rebuilt it, and made us both stronger in the process. We’re all still standing.


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