Laurel Hermanson set her standards for perfection so high, even she couldn’t always attain them.
Not long after we were married in Chicago, my husband and I had a new tile floor put in our tiny condo kitchen. The contractor moved the refrigerator into the dining room so the tile could set. The next night, we tried to wedge it through the door between the rooms, but we couldn’t make it fit. My husband got frustrated and we gave up.
The following day I had an afternoon free, so I took the door off its hinges and moved the refrigerator back into the kitchen. I was excited to see his reaction, because I knew he hated dealing with that crap. But when he saw what I had done, he said, “You don’t need me.”
He wasn’t being a dick about it. He was being honest and vulnerable, so I assured him that I needed him in other ways. The truth was I didn’t need him for very much, other than husbandly stuff. I had been resourceful since I was a kid, persistent when faced with a challenge. My father joked that I had bulldog tenacity. I wasn’t a quitter.
The refrigerator incident wasn’t the first time I had taken over, but it was the first time my husband objected. We had lived together four years before we got married and we had struggled over the minutiae of daily life. We grocery shopped together but he hated it; every trip was miserable, so I took over. I liked to cook so I made most dinners. Neither of us wanted to sacrifice a weekend day to cleaning, so we hired a cleaning lady.
Some things we kept separate—sort of. He did his own laundry, but I washed sheets and towels. We opened a joint checking account after we married but kept separate accounts. Since he guessed his account balance by checking ATM receipts, I handled our joint account and balanced it to the penny every month.
We both had full-time jobs, and I was taking on more responsibility at work. I implemented a new software system and trained several people to use it, but I had trouble delegating tasks. If I had to waste time searching for errors, I would have preferred they were my own. I was a horrible supervisor, one who criticized others’ mistakes but rarely offered positive feedback. This is when a more clever person might have noticed a pattern, but I joked about being a control freak.
It wasn’t about control, at work or at home. A controlling person tries to manipulate people into doing things their way, but I wasn’t interested in other people. I wanted to do everything myself. It was no fluke that my father saw that tenacious streak in me as a teenager. For me, growing up meant trying to impose order on a chaotic life, striving to do everything competently and independently so I wouldn’t add to the chaos. I was a perfectionist.
When we moved to Portland, my husband worked a full-time job and I worked freelance from home. I loved being able to talk to my clients in my pajamas and set my own hours, but I also felt guilty. Because I didn’t get up and shower and commute to work, my contribution seemed somehow less than my husband’s.
I compensated by doing almost everything else. We had one checking account, and I balanced it weekly before paying bills. (I cannot overstate my love of online banking.) I did our taxes each year. I grocery shopped and cooked and kept house. I painted rooms and hung window coverings and replaced a cracked sink. My husband usually tended to the yard because he enjoyed cutting the grass and clearing weeds, but I sometimes did it myself.
I was in balls-to-the-wall perfectionist mode before our daughter was born, and I sometimes saw my absurdity. When I asked him why he never made the bed, he said, “You do it better.” What he meant was that he couldn’t live up to my bed-making standards, and he was right. (A contractor once asked if I’d served in the military because of how neatly all the beds were made.)
I was obsessed with keeping our kitchen counters clean, both to deter ants and to keep our coffee filters from picking up extraneous flavors. One night I pointed to something and said, “What is that?” He said, “It’s a crumb, Laurel. A common household crumb.” I laughed, and after that we referred to the crumb scandal when I was being overly obsessive.
Everything changed when our daughter was born. I suddenly needed my husband to do more, and for a while he stepped up. But once he went back to work and became immersed in the outside world, I was left feeling alone and incompetent for the first time in my life. I had no idea how to mother a fussy infant, and the frustration and exhaustion were overwhelming. We hired a part-time nanny who turned out to be a real-life Mary Poppins, and she helped take care of Gigi for three years.
I still ran a tight ship. I put away all of Gigi’s toys before each nap. I kept the house tidy and cleaned the kitchen every night. I installed baby gates and built shelves to keep things out of her reach. I did everything I could to impose order on the chaos of parenting. But it wasn’t enough to make my husband comfortable in that chaos.
There were shades of the crumb scandal in my approach to motherhood, but he couldn’t make me laugh about it anymore. When he couldn’t remember how to fix Gigi’s breakfast the way she liked, I said, “What do I have to do, make you a list?” And in another moment of honesty he said, “Yes. Please.” But at that point I didn’t want to have to take care of both him and our child. I was tired.
The last thing my husband and I made together was a Christmas card (photo above). I had a vision involving our dog and two-year-old Gigi. It was ambitious and I was determined to get the perfect shot, but when he became frustrated and angry, I flashed back to the refrigerator incident. This time, however, I needed his help. The dog and the kid were game, but he was not. I thought, Do I really want to beg for his help the rest of my life?
We split up when Gigi was 3. It wasn’t about crumbs or bed-making or Christmas cards. Those were symptoms of something bigger, the fact that we weren’t working as a team in life, in parenting. We were stuck in a fucked up power imbalance that was making both of us miserable.
I don’t think of him as the bad guy who didn’t do enough, nor do I consider myself a martyr who did too much. As a child I had no choice but to indulge my perfectionism, but as an adult I should have seen how it hurt other people. I don’t blame my ex. In fact, to a certain extent, I’ve become him.
I remarried a year ago. I met Brad, also divorced, after an unrelenting, year-long shitstorm that left me uninterested in taking care of myself, let alone anyone else. At first he was wary of becoming involved with a broken single mother, but we managed to find each other beneath our respective piles of rubble.
With the exception of a four-year marriage, he had lived his entire adult life as a bachelor. Not only did he know how to take care of himself, he also had skills that made my self-appointed handywoman blush. He was my renaissance man, equally comfortable writing fiction or day-trading, discussing philosophy or ’80s music, restoring old houses or cars.
He started taking care of me and Gigi. I fought it for a while, mostly out of habit but also out of guilt. Yet I was so tired of handling everything, I gradually relinquished control. I trusted him, and I stopped caring if things were done to my former standards. I had set the bar so high for so long that even I couldn’t maintain those standards.
He does all the “manly” stuff I used to do. He builds stuff and fixes things and has an impressive collection of tools. He takes my car for repairs (those he can’t do on his own), fills my gas tank, and once renewed my tags that had been expired for two years. He deals with the yard when he feels like it, but I don’t ask him to cut the grass when it’s tall, and I don’t do it myself.
He is a wonderful stepfather to our daughter. He sometimes feeds her shit I wouldn’t, but I’ve stopped complaining because someone needs to feed her and I’m not always in the mood to debate the nutritional value of macaroni and cheese vs. spaghetti with marinara sauce. He buys groceries and pays our bills, sometimes with his money and sometimes with mine. But there is no his or mine, really. It’s ours, because we’re in this together.
As far as cleaning and tidying and bed-making are concerned, I don’t give a shit anymore. We do what we can. I consider this a big step in recovering from years of OCD-ish behavior that didn’t improve anyone’s quality of life.
Brad was ready to take care of someone at a time I was ready to be taken care of. I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much I’ve needed him, how much I’ve let him do for me, but should I be? What is the point of a true partnership if not to take care of each other? I would do the same for him without question.
This situation isn’t sustainable, of course. I’m not comfortable letting someone do everything for me, and I will eventually step up and take over my share of the work. But we’ve always taken care of each other emotionally. I have helped him experience the joys of being part of a family, and he has taught me to relax amid the chaos of life, to be happy when things aren’t perfectly in order. Even tenacious bulldogs need to take a break and recharge once in a while.
Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. She blogs about almost everything at Grace Under Pressure. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.