On the wall in our living room hangs a painting my husband, Steve, and I brought home from Ireland six months ago. It’s a picture of flowers and the ocean and would be lovely to look at if the picture hanger didn’t show above the top. I could ask Steve to fix it, but I’m afraid of becoming a cliché, the nagging wife. And the truth is, I once would have fixed it myself.
Before we married, I kept a tool kit, drill and ladder in a storage closet. The contents of the kit might have been a bit jumbled, but I always had my tools at the ready. I don’t remember what I bought the drill for, but I used it to install new curtain rods, drilling fresh holes.
After we married, my small tool collection merged with Steve’s large one and disappeared into the garage. “They didn’t just walk off on their own,” my mother used to say when we couldn’t find our shoes. That’s how I feel about my tools.
Tool-less, I found myself asking Steve to tighten a loose fixture or put together a small bookshelf. Before we moved in together, I assembled a complicated desk that I still use. I changed furnace filters and a tire, installed locks, and fixed a toilet (not well, I had to hire a handy man to redo it). I kept my computer working, hooked up a printer and downloaded a driver.
I drove from Colorado to Los Angeles, stopping only to pee and gas up, and to Kansas, with my two large dogs. After a neighbor showed me how, I re-lit the pilot light on the furnace.
A friend lost the key to her storage cabinet, and I jimmied it with a credit card. “You know how to do that?” she asked.
There were a few disasters. Trying to hook up an icemaker, I caused a small flood. “You remembered to turn the water off before you started, right?” my brother-in-law asked over the phone, when I called him in a panic.
“I gotta go,” I said.
A popcorn ceiling I sprayed on fell off like wet cottage cheese, covering my face and hair.
Still, overall, I was proud to be self-sufficient.
Now Steve changes the furnace filters, drives when we’re together and does all the home repairs. He’s my personal computer help desk. He opens jars and takes out the trash. Dealing with contractors has fallen to Steve, too. In some ways that makes sense. He built houses many years ago. In other ways it’s just a division of labor based on who is more likely to watch “This Old House.”
I think Steve would say he does all those things because he wants to take care of me. He cooks for me, too. (You might be asking, if Steve does all that, what do I do? Good question.)
I haven’t fallen into this pattern because it’s what I saw growing up. My father might as well have been allergic to tools. When it was time to swap storm doors for screens, my uncle came over. My mother wasn’t handy, either. She once lit a fire in the fireplace without opening the flue. Smoke poured through the house and the fire department axed their way through the front door, but not before walls, curtains and books were ruined.
I don’t believe there’s much a man can do that a woman can’t. So why let Steve do everything? The answer is that I enjoy being taken care of, and even more, the love it expresses. And yet I miss feeling competent. It seems no sooner did I say, “I do,” than my psyche started saying, “I don’t.” I don’t fix things. I don’t build things. I don’t get us where we’re going. Without meaning to, I began to embody the stereotype of the helpless female. A stereotype I hate.
In other ways, marriage has changed my identity for the better. I now feel part of a team, responsible to show up for Steve emotionally, financially and in many other ways. I lost flexibility — I won’t be teaching English in a foreign country or moving to a big city any time soon, though when I was single I entertained the thought of both — but gained stability. My roots here in Colorado, where we live and Steve has two sisters, have grown deeper. Because I value how we support each other and the stability of our life together, I’m not bothered by those changes.
I can’t say the same about my new dependency in our domestic life. Accepting help I don’t need embarrasses me. I wonder if I’m still capable of doing all the things I did when I was single, or if, leaving them to Steve, I’ve forgotten how. The journey from acting helpless to being helpless is a short one. Although I hate to think about it, the pragmatist in me knows Steve may not always be there, and I may one day regret having abandoned skills I need.
Steve began travelling for work recently, and I’m sometimes on my own again. It snowed and I turned the garage upside down looking for a shovel before I found one outside. At the risk of sounding pathetic, I confess at first I didn’t know where the trash bags were.
Whatever computer problems came up while he was away, I googled.
When my 60-pound dog, Rosie, cut her foot in the yard, I hoisted her into the car and drove to the emergency vet. I didn’t know I could lift her until I had to. Steve was flying back from Europe that night. On his way from the airport, he stopped at the vet, where I was waiting for the dog to go into surgery. He was exhausted and jet lagged. “You don’t mind if I go home?” he asked. “I got this,” I said. And I did.
A few weeks later I assembled a dog hammock. Though he was home, I didn’t ask Steve.
I’ve started keeping two screwdrivers in my desk drawer, a flat head and a Phillips. Before he leaves again, I may ask for a tour of the garage.
His trips force me to be more independent, and I’m glad. When he’s not traveling, he still cooks for me. And as for that Irish painting? One of us is sure to get to it soon.