A woman needs a repairman

I still want my husband to change the light bulbs and fix the leaky faucets. Maybe I'm not as much of a feminist as I think I am.

By Ayelet Waldman
Published June 20, 2005 7:45PM (EDT)

My husband's cousin Matthew died two years ago. He was commuting to work on his bicycle when he was hit by a car speeding through a turn. A few weeks ago his wife, Stacia, told me that one of the many things she missed about him was having a man in the house to fix a dripping faucet, put together an Ikea cabinet, change the batteries in the smoke detector. Matthew was killed the day before trash pickup, and that night the cans did not go out. The next week, as Stacia hauled out the heavy bins brimming with the detritus of a week's shiva -- paper plates, plastic cups, uncountable wads of damp tissue -- she realized that she was alone.

There was nothing traditional about those two. Matthew was as involved a father as I've ever seen. He didn't just change the occasional diaper, he assumed equal responsibility for the care of their daughter. Stacia is a massage therapist, a doula, and while I'm not sure, I'm willing to bet she'd call herself a feminist. Still, when it came to home repair, the division of labor fell along traditional lines. That's the way it is in my marriage, too.

I am an adamant feminist. It never occurred to me to take my husband's name when we married. I am a supporter of abortion rights, of equal pay for equal work, of the rights of women prisoners, of all the time-honored feminist causes, and then some. During the periods in my marriage when I chose to stay home with my kids rather than work as an attorney, it caused me no end of anxiety. Despite the fact that I knew I was contributing to our family by caring for our children, I still felt that my worth was less because I wasn't earning.

Even given all this, I haven't changed a light bulb in 13 years, since the day I met my husband.

Before I was married, I didn't consider my failure to manage even basic hand tools a feminist inadequacy. I thought it had more to do with being Jewish. The Jews I knew growing up didn't do "do-it-yourself." When my father needed to hammer something he generally used his shoe, and the only real tool he owned was a pair of needle-nose pliers. My non-Jewish friends had fathers who changed faucet washers (they knew what faucet washers were) and replaned sticky doors. My father hacked with a pair of needle-nose pliers at anything my mother was not willing to call a repairman to fix.

Now when something breaks in the house, I respond with the panic of my forebears. Every popped light bulb is a catastrophe, every leaky faucet spells if not the end of the world then surely the beginning of months of crack-assed plumbers hunched over my sinks and toilets, flushing my hard-earned dollars down their mysterious drains. It always takes me a minute to remember that my husband is not like my father. He's got a set of needle-nose pliers, even two, but he's also got slip-joint pliers and groove-joint pliers and pliers I don't even know the names of. When the faucet leaks, he not only knows what a washer is, he can replace it. Moreover, he enjoys the job. He hangs pictures, he unclogs toilets, he knows what to do when the computer flashes that scary little bomb icon.

Each time, after my initial moment of hysteria, I feel a wave of contentment, of security. I feel protected. I am a damsel in clogged drain distress, and he is my knight with shining plunger. It is uncomfortable for me to admit that for all the adamancy of my feminism, when it comes to this area of our lives, I want to feel sheltered and cared for. There is something seductive about letting go of this area of concern. Instead of causing anxiety, a dripping faucet now reminds me that there is someone in my life who can take care of such things.

When my husband goes away I allow things in the house to fall into a state of ridiculous disarray. I avert my eyes from the blinking oil light in the car, I prop a door closed with a chair until he comes home to fix the latch. I lie in the dark and listen to the toilets running, waiting for him to do whatever it is he does to make them quiet again. As light bulbs burn out, the kids and I just squint in the ever-increasing gloom.

When I was single and lived alone, I was perfectly capable of getting the ladder out and changing bulbs on my own. So what is it about marriage that has made me so dependent, and why, even witnessing the warning of Stacia's example, do I continue to allow myself to behave like some helpless 1950s sitcom wife?

Now that I am working again, this is the only area of our lives where traditional roles hold us in such sway. Otherwise our partnership is remarkably equal. My husband does as much or more of the actual floor-time of parenting. He cleans more than I do. He does all the cooking. Given this, and given that I am someone who takes equality between the sexes so seriously, shouldn't the fact that I seem to enjoy a certain kind of helplessness bother me? Feminism, for all that the word has fallen out of fashion, is ubiquitous enough that it feels vaguely shameful for a woman to want to feel protected.

My husband, on the other hand, feels no counterpoint to my feminist crisis. I am solely responsible for our finances, a job that, while many women do it, might be considered the traditional purview of a man. Yet my husband doesn't find it emasculating that he hasn't paid a bill in as long as I haven't changed a light bulb. On the contrary, he's relieved.

Perhaps my lack of concern with my home repair incompetence is nothing more than a vestige of that patriarchy I spent so much time reading about and demonstrating against in college. Maybe I'm not as much of a feminist as I think I am. After all, I stopped working and stayed home with kids for years, and neither my husband nor I even considered for a moment the possibility that he would do the same. Maybe I enjoy feeling inept with a hammer and a screwdriver because part of me thinks that's how girls are supposed to be behave.

But I don't think so.

I think this has more to do with the nature of marriage. In every union roles are assumed, some traditional, some not. My husband used to pay his own bills, I used to call my own repairman. But as marriages progress, you surrender areas of your own competence, often without even knowing it. You do this in part because it's more efficient for each individual to have his or her own area of expertise, but more as a kind of optimistic gesture. By surrendering certain skills you are affirming your belief that the other person will remain there to care for you in that way.

This kind of capitulation is not without its pitfalls, of course. Every woman who has given over the financial reins only to find herself divorced and penniless knows its dangers. Still, one of the wonderful things about an intimate partnership is the division of life, the parsing out and sharing of responsibility.

One of the tragedies of a lost love is the collapse of this system, and the confrontation of the ways we've allowed ourselves to become dependent. When I think of Stacia alone in her house, learning for herself the things that she once relied on Matthew for, my heart breaks. Stacia is a strong and able woman. Of course she can put together a cabinet or unplug a toilet. So could I, if I set my mind to it, and checked out a few books on home repair from the library. My heart breaks because this enforced proficiency is symbolic of Matthew's absence, of all the ways in which she and her daughter must do without the man on whom they would still rely if only fortunes were different, if only that driver had taken the corner more slowly.

I suppose that you could argue that this is precisely why we shouldn't give in to this seductive loss of expertise. You could even argue that we could view the end of a relationship as an opportunity to become stronger, to relearn or learn new skills. I don't know. I do know that I am not going to be picking up a hand tool anytime soon. I will continue to pay the bills; my husband will unclog the toilets. That is the way our marriage works; that is the bargain we struck without a word. My only wish is that I could take a page out of his book and refrain from feeling guilty about it.

Ayelet Waldman

Ayelet Waldman is the author of "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits," "Daughter's Keeper" and of the Mommy-Track mystery series. She lives in Berkeley, Calif., with her husband, Michael Chabon, and their four children.

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