This is what my living room looks like as I sit here and type:
We are in the process of tearing out all of the old carpet and linoleum and replacing it with hardwood. It is messy work and most of it falls on the capable shoulders of my husband. I help how I can but a healthy fear of power tools combined with a lack of physical strength renders my role to that of assistant. I clean as we go, pull out carpet, pull off baseboards, pull up staples from the floor and am an excellent go-fer. The larger more impressive work like cutting and nailing wood flooring is something I have never even tried. That is my husband’s realm and he likes this kind of DIY renovation and is very good at it. It wasn’t always like that though. Back when we were first married Mr. Flapper Pie knew nothing about how to use a nailer and miter saw let alone a hammer or screw driver. That was back before I introduced five little words to our marriage:
I’ll just ask my dad.
I cannot overstate how important those five words have been in my marriage. I came out of childhood with the very strong belief that my father knew EVERYTHING. I truly believed that if I couldn’t do it or didn’t know something then he would. No one ever told me that my father knew everything. It is the kind of belief that is learned through living it every day. As I was growing up my father really did seem to know it all. He could do anything and he was always happy to help me. To be honest I wasn’t, at the time, even aware how deeply ingrained this belief was. I never saw my mother in this light. But the importance of my father became very clear the day I entered marriage.
Mostly my view of my father is manifested in my belief that he can build, fix and troubleshoot almost anything around the house, yard and garage. Occasionally, I find myself assuming my father knows all about crazy obscure things like international tax law and genetic testing (which he has absolutely no knowledge of and can’t understand why I’m asking him). My father is in fact a very humble man. It is not that he tried to make me think that he was so amazing. It was just one of those subtle things that happened in childhood. But to this day it is one of the myths of my upbringing that I have trouble shaking and it factors into my marriage in ways I could have never guessed.
Early in our marriage I learned quickly that the worst thing I could say to my husband was, ‘I’ll just ask my dad.’ Those words were never uttered in malice or frustration. It was just my go-to response when something needed doing that I couldn’t do. My dad had always done things for me or had been the one to teach me how. The conversation with my husband might go like this:
Me: The shower head is leaking. I’ll just ask my dad to fix it.
Mr. FP: I will do it.
Me: Do you know how? Never mind. I’ll just ask my dad.
Mr. FP: (silent fuming)
Mr. FP: I’m going to install a new faucet in the bathroom.
Me: Oh, are you sure? I’ll just ask my dad to do it.
Mr. FP: (silently fuming)
And then Mr. FP would have the faucet fixed or installed within minutes (a new skill for him) before I could even phone my dad to ask. In this way I feel largely responsible for my husband’s DIY prowess. I am convinced that Mr. FP has become the amazing handyman that he is just so that I wouldn’t call my father to do everything around our home. And now, 18 years later, I get it. If he had suggested that he would call his mother every time something needed sewing or cooking in our house I would have been livid. I can do it. I am capable and goddamn it I will figure it out if I don’t know.
But here is where it gets interesting for me. I’m sure you’ve already figured out that this is divided along gender lines and stereotypical roles. In all honesty I entered marriage assuming that my husband would fill the same roles as my father had when I was a child. And when we were first married and Mr. FP couldn’t fill those roles I had no qualms about calling on my father to maintain those roles. I didn’t intend to learn to change a bathroom faucet on my own. The men in my life did that.
A number of years ago I mentioned this to my mother. She laughed because she had apparently launched very similar words at my father early in their marriage. My dad, like my husband, had learned to meet my mother’s expectations in spite of his father-in-law. And so the cycle continues. I can already see that my young daughters expect that their dad can fix and build anything. I am certain that someday one of my children will call her father to ask him to do something and will be baffled by her husband’s frustration with the situation.
And isn’t this how it happens? Isn’t this how we really pass down gender roles? It’s insidious. Our expectations are quietly formed as we watch the previous generation. I know that my husband and I are shaping our children’s expectations. I know that we don’t challenge traditional roles for them. No harm is intended and hopefully none is done.
My 7 year old daughter has spent the week following her father around as he nailed in flooring. She has happily done any small task that he would let her do. She announced to us that she wanted to be a builder when she grows up. Maybe she will be the one to challenge everyone’s expectations.