What I Learned About My Relationship Watching My Wife Remodel Our Home

When either of us discovers something that brings a sense of accomplishment, of completion, of worth, the other gets out of the way.

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This past autumn, my wife of 16 years installed a new floor in the living room of our house and then, once she was done, installed a new floor in the rest of it. This, I assure you, is not something I realized was in her skill set. I knew about her choir-worthy singing voice, that she could draw, that she could play saxophone, that she ran marathons, and that she enjoyed jumping out of planes. I simply had no idea she was a skilled contractor. Never came up on date night.

I cannot overemphasize the degree of to which she completed the project herself, without the slightest whiff of my help or input. She exhumed our original 20-year-old carpet, which by its look appeared to have spent most of its life beneath a carnival. She demolished the former baseboards, in a particularly exciting evening of violent crowbar action. She measured angles, trimmed boards, worked around the fireplace and stairs, made sure the hardwood seams matched.

She would be in the garage firing up the miter saw to make hideous screeching baseboard-cutting noises until 11 p.m., while I stayed inside, quietly nervous about the number of neighbors calling the cops on our god-danged racket. Occasionally, she’d grow frustrated with some misbehaving plank, decamp to the hardware store, and return an hour later with some heretofore unseen-in-the-family apparatus like a miter saw, or handsaw that was designed to slice baseboard from the bottom and looked for all the world like something medieval surgeons would use on a particularly stubborn femur.

Organizations, teams, militaries, all operate under the assumption that each individual member plays to his or her strengths; Kris Bryant, for instance, would be a subpar relief pitcher and probably a lousy organist. 

And during this month of renovation, my roles in the process were clear: 1. Clean up; 2. Keep the kids occupied and, when necessary, fed; 3. Make sure everything’s paid for, and; 4. For God’s sake, don’t fucking break anything.

These are the roles as we’ve defined them in our home, and they function spectacularly. I imagine they seem curious to the Home Improvement demographic and my dad, who required a good five or six years before internalizing that though she worked in the health-care industry, my wife was not a nurse. But these roles didn’t develop as part of some in-house compromise, or some lightly subconscious power struggle. It’s simply the natural order of things in our partnership. I am terrible at this stuff, and she’s not only good at it, but enthused about it, compelled to it, prided by the activity and the visible result. Something about demolishing parts of our house and re-assembling them in upgraded form appealed to regions of her brain that aren’t activated by daily work, and the fire that lit when she talked about these projects was not only remarkable but basically unstoppable.

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This was not a problem, as I never had much experience with this stuff anyway. To say I am not handy is bring shame upon the family of the word “handy”; my preferred method of home repair usually involves pretending I have urgent business in a South American country until someone else handles the problem or, if I am tricked into remaining in the same house as the broken object, do something like throw a wrench at it and hope it accidentally strikes the problematic part. Once, when faced with the prospect of a garbage disposal that sounded like it was attempting to liquefy a sock full of marbles, I spent 45 minutes Googling “garbage disposal repair” before waiting for my brother-in-law to show up and remove what appeared to be a drowned hamster from 1952.

When either of us discovers something that brings a sense of accomplishment, of completion, of worth, the best results come when you hand over the crowbar and get quite out of the way.

This is true: The sole role I was allowed to play in the reflooring of my home was the slide-and-lock process of actual floor installation, one that I performed with perfectly adequate skill, owing mostly to my being nervous that my wife would see the seam on my boards was 1/16” wider than the seam on hers. The traditional dynamic, in short, was destroyed long ago, and it’s saved us an awful lot of time and effort.

Organizations, teams, militaries, all operate under the assumption that each individual member plays to his or her strengths; Kris Bryant, for instance, would be a subpar relief pitcher and probably a lousy organist. This would be a simple matter of staying in my lane, if it didn’t have the second and equally powerful effect of being a way for my wife to indulge her own strengths, her own interests, to engage in work that doesn’t often come up in her non-nurse job, to contribute, to be empowered, to admire and take pride in her finished work. I do that with words, she simply does it with something more tangible and enduring.

I’m sure one day she’ll come to resent all this. Especially because now I’m like, “HONEY, THE TOILET NEEDS FIXING, CAN YOU COME DO THIS?” while hanging out in the kitchen making the kids chocolate chip waffles. But until then, it’s indicative of a lesson we should have learned sooner: When either of us discovers something that brings a sense of accomplishment, of completion, of worth, the best results come when you hand over the crowbar and get quite out of the way.

 

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