Five Little Words

This is what my living room looks like as I sit here and type:

jan,feb 078

My living room under construction

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)

OR

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.

Mr. FP working hard

Mr. FP working hard

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.

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5 thoughts on “Five Little Words

  1. I love this post..and that your daughter is going the ‘builder’ route. My hunch is that she too will believe that her dad can do everything (and perhaps also believe that she can too!)

  2. This is such a lovely thoughtful post. It is insidious how the stereotypes or the engendered expectations play out. Theory vs. Practice. I just asked someone to buy my boy socks, any color but pink. ha. Let us all hope life is grand enough to embrace all the contradictions to those ideas too.

    I also love your realization of how we say and believe and default too, how that can affect us. It’s one of the golden rules in our house, that I must be careful in a throwaway comment not to emasculate my partner, just as he has to be careful when he expects me to vaccum. I am still discovering these little detours in our relationship to this day.

    you know, my father, he thinks he knows everything and wishes I’d ask him more. I don’t ask cause I want to prove i’m capable, that he knew enough to have done a good job with me. and the cycle goes. ironic.

  3. I grew up in a family with traditional gender roles but never felt that I would be obligated to assume one or the other as I grew older. It was the system my parents worked out because it worked for them. But I didn’t think that meant it would be the system that I would work out with my own partner, and if I did I just assumed that it would be because it was just easier that way. But I suppose I’ve never really been challenged to think too hard about it, having never had to negotiate those roles with anyone other than myself, nor be conscious of them for children of my own.

    When I needed to hang pictures in my house, I called my Dad. When I wired the dimmer switch in my living room and thought I’d made a mistake, it was Dad who came down during a commercial break in the hockey game. When I had to learn how to drive, wash, buy, service, fix a car… that was Dad too. But when I had to furnish an apartment from scratch and needed help thinking about colours, I asked both my parents. If I need fashion advice, again both. But Dad’s the one who tell me when my purse doesn’t match my outfit. (No, I’m not kidding.) And Mom’s the one who taught me how to create and manage a budget. I don’t feel bound or defined by what I grew up with, but maybe I’m also just not thinking about it as deeply as I could.

    My niece, who I do think about in terms of what I’m passing on, well one of her most favourite things in the world right now is washing dishes. But I think that has less to do with who washes the dishes and more to do with water and bubbles, which at the moment are endlessly fascinating. 🙂

    Lots of food for thought. Thanks for sharing as always, FP.

  4. I adore this post. You’ve charted the way we adopt and pass down these expectations so brilliantly. I too grew up with a vision of my father as all-knowing and capable of anything– and I also grew up watching my mother lay her own brick patio, paint walls, build a lava rock waterfall in the backyard. It’s something both my husband and I have in common: this belief that we should be capable of figuring out how to do just about anything. Now my father loves to buy my husband things like a tricked-out chainsaw or leaf-blower for Christmas. And I can’t deny that I find my husband hopelessly attractive when we somehow knows just how to replace a certain gasket to fix a leak in the shower head.

    Like BeZ, though, I still catch myself in those little ‘detours’ in my marriage, expecting my husband to, say, take care of something involving a power tool (even as I would fume at his assumption that I take care of something involving a mop). My husband taught me how to chop wood, my father taught me how to change a tire, my shop teacher taught me how to use a table saw– and I try to remind myself of these things, that I’m capable (even though I prefer my husband to chop the wood, and I’m pretty sure he prefers to chop it for me).

    Your comment about your daughter, FP, reminds me of when my parents laid new tile in our house. My little sister must have been seven or eight, and she followed close behind with the box of rubber tile spacers, fascinated. She announced one night at the dinner table that she would like to be a ‘Tile-Layer’ when she grew up. Now she’s an art teacher, with a good head on her shoulders for figuring things out for herself.

  5. I love this! It struck me though, how it would never occur to me and has never occurred to me to ask my father to do any of those things – even though he would know how.

    I had this image of “prairie girl” given to me at a very young age (by my mother). The prairie girl is capable of anything and everything – bailing hay, milking cows, baking a cake, shingling a roof and so on. I very much wanted to earn the “praire girl title”. So I thought that I should be able to do and figure out anything and everything on my own if I only put my mind to it. So asking for help on anything just seemed alien to me because I was supposed to be able to figure it out.

    Which has often backfired because I assume I can figure out exactly how to say – paint a room with no manual and no instruction, and then find myself in a big mess with paint everywhere. It has taken me time to learn that maybe I don’t have a certain skill set or knowledge to do a certain task and asking for a little help would be good.

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