Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
The minutes from an emergency family meeting my daughter called a few years ago read: “By a vote of 4 to 1, it is hereby resolved that Mom is banned from playing amateur electrician. Further, she must surrender the following so-called toys: the chainsaw, sledgehammer, and machete.”
How did we get to a place where my family was voting on my toy/tool collection? It all started in my 9th grade charm class.
For those of you who have been spared that particular slice of hell, charm class teaches young women the prim and proper way to sit, stand, and walk. In charm classes, a girl learns how to preserve her reputation and demonstrate that she is superior to the average girl her age, what they call classy. The major emphasis is on how to to attract and please a man.
The teacher stressed that our primary motivation in our relationship should be preserving the fragile ego of the man in our life. Men need to feel needed and strong, and their sense of self-worth is easily damaged by a woman who complains or who insists on doing things for themselves. A loving, nurturing woman builds up a man by asking him to do things, such as opening the lid of a stuck jar and praising him for his strength, or asking him for help with her coat and praising his manners.
I wanted to be loving and kind to the men in my life, and I tried to remember to let them open the door for me or to ask them for help doing things I was perfectly capable of doing. But I frequently forgot, and when I remembered I felt like a simpering fraud. Yet the ethic remained ingrained in my brain: Doing “guy work” results in men feeling emasculated.
Around the time I turned 40, my husband Pete was able to finally convince me that his manhood was in no way threatened when I did “guy jobs.” It coincided with a pinnacle of good health and created an almost child-like eagerness to do all of the things previously marked as men’s work.
It felt good to be able to fix things myself. I became virtually unstoppable once I discovered the holy trinity of making-it-work: bungie cords, zip ties, and duct tape. I also found out how satisfying some guy jobs can be. For example, clearing brambles with a machete can be more fun than kick-boxing. The rhythm of the whack-whack-whack is infinitely more addictive when you are actually mowing down things in your path. I was equally entranced with a chainsaw, and once I had turned a small sapling into firewood, I wanted to clear an entire forest.
Plenty of other women are competent at doing these jobs perfectly well, but my problem was that I did not magically develop coordination or the required upper body strength when I discovered these tools. There are a variety of ways to describe my relationship to the world around me: clumsy, spatially-challenged, or to put it in the words of my daughter: “The good news is that if you are ever kidnapped, we will have no trouble finding you. We will just follow the trail of broken things.” We have blamed an eye-condition called astigmatism, which made me see the entire world as a Monet painting for the first 12 years of my life. Adult ADHD can certainly have a profound impact. An alternate theory came from a therapist who told me that profound clumsiness is common among people who have been physically abused as children because they disassociate from their bodies.
Whatever the reason for my clumsiness, it did not improve with the addition of chainsaws and machetes. The first major incident was when I dropped the chainsaw and it tore the leather off the steel toe of my work-boots. The second happened when I was using the machete to cut down the stand of blackberries beside the garage. The building was set on the side of the hill, so that on one side the roof was no more than four feet off the ground. As my luck would have it, when I lost control on the backswing, the machete sailed out of my hand, through the air and landed on the roof of the garage. I found a ladder, hoisted myself up on the roof, and carefully following the beams of the roof worked my way over to the machete. I had just managed to grab it and was enjoying my triumph when my daughter’s friend dropped her off. There I was, standing on the roof brandishing a machete, yelling “Yeah! I did it!” My explanation for why I was standing on the roof with a machete alarmed my daughter more than the initial sight.
Fortunately, I never hurt anyone else or even myself (badly). And along the way I was able to pull of some pretty important jobs. I moved an entire family by myself, a job that included removing temporary walls we had installed and hauling away the resulting refuse.
One of the problems that developed was that the “Oh, wow, I can do guy jobs” quickly became “I am obligated to do guy jobs even if there are more appropriate jobs available and that I would rather do.” For example, when we were moving into a third-floor walk-up apartment, I felt obligated to carry as many things on as many trips as any of the guys. I did this against doctor’s orders and despite the fact that I could have been just as useful moving boxes into the appropriate rooms once they reached the apartment. I rolled my knee cap that day. Opportunity became an internalized obligation to do things that were not in my best interest and that did my family more harm than good.
But by the time that we bought a house described as “having good bones and enormous potential,” I had an established reputation for having too much enthusiasm and determination to do the tough jobs and too little coordination, skill, and physical ability. My family’s objections and concerns went unheeded as I claimed the most difficult jobs for myself.
The situation came to a head after I discovered mold growing behind a bad tile job on the wall of the master bathroom. It was yet another thing that the incompetent house inspector should have caught, and so when I took my sledgehammer to those walls, I was taking out my frustrations on more than just the shiny white tile. To give myself some credit, I should mention that I had on safety glasses, so the flying bits of ceramic did not damage my eyes even though they pitted my skin.
I ran into problems because while I was able to lift and swing the sledgehammer, I did not have enough strength to direct it well. One blow went afoul rather spectacularly, taking out the metal box that housed an outlet. It never occurred to me to wait until Pete came home and ask for help. In fact, having done the damage, I felt obligated to do the repair myself.
I had blown out the electricity in half of the house when my daughter stepped in and called an emergency family meeting. It was one of the first times that my children had intervened on my behavior and I was pissed. But in the years since, I have thought about that as the day I was jarred out of my rather immature and oppositional idea of feminism.
Radical role reversal for its own sake is not the answer. Yes, I felt powerful and chainsaws are a lot of fun. But at some point, I had to acknowledge that just because I could do something does not mean that I should.
I am profoundly grateful to be released from the gender ethic of charm school that required me to feign weakness and incompetence to build a man’s ego. But I hope that I have also let go of the oppositional phase of my feminism that compelled me to feign strength and competence to build my own ego. I want to be a differentiated feminist, one who makes decisions about roles not in accordance with or in opposition to cultural gender norms. I want to be able to make decisions based on what is right for me and for my family, even if that does mean giving up the chainsaw and the sledgehammer. The machete was a 40th birthday present from my son, and I’m keeping that.