For many years, embroiled in the welter of child-raising and relentless domesticity I was quite grumpy about the fact that Certain Men would do anything rather than change a nappy, take a toddler away for a couple of hours or clean the bathroom. "But you're so good at it," a Certain Man would say as he wandered off to tile a floor for three hours or so.
It wasn't until The Man left that I realised just how gender-specific the roles had been at our place. I never put out the bins or mowed the lawn. I had never used a cordless drill. I generally didn't even change a light bulb. In my mind I excused my lack of manly talents with the line, "but he's so good at all of that." Also I didn't want to mow the lawn, because who does? But then, he didn't want to clean the bathroom, because who does?
But over the last couple of years I have begun to tease out the pattern of our lives. Firstly we had very gender-specific roles because our parents did. We swore we would not end up blindly reflecting the lives of our parents, but that is exactly what we did. We became parents very young (we were both twenty two) and before long we were living their lives. He was out working to support his young family, I was home bringing up little children. We needed to conserve our small income so I did the bits that could be done with small children at heel - cooking, mending, home schooling, gardening, and he did all the bits that couldn't be done with a baby strapped to the chest - chopping firewood, gutting and rebuilding our bargain fixer-upper. There is nothing wrong with this pattern - it is very efficient and has been used for millenia because it works.
But like many modern families we had wanted something different. He had planned to be more involved with bringing up the children, we had planned to be partners in our daily lives, but then, we weren't. It was much easier to just coast along in out traditional gender roles. And once we were on different tracks it was so much easier to drift apart. He became more career oriented, I was completely family focussed. Again, none of this was wrong - he needed to concentrate on career because I wasn't earning, and I needed to focus on the family because he wasn't there on a daily basis. Both of us conceded that this was necessary. But it felt wrong to me. It wasn't what we had planned or wanted, but we couldn't stop for long enough to work out how to do things differently. Or we felt we couldn't.
In hindsight we had options, but all of them involved self-reflection and talking about how we felt (not our strong suits). If we had been determined I could have helped him build the house and we could have shared the child care. Then he could have been closer to the children and I could have become a far more practical person than I am now. As it was both of us became resentful trapped in our roles alone but didn't want to rock the boat because it seemed there was no alternative. And truly, The Man was much better at building a house, and I was much more calm and patient with the children. But I have just realised the true reason for that.
It takes thousands of hours to truly master a craft. At first you are really bad at it, and then you slowly get better by doing it over and over and over again. When we are young we are used to being really incompetent at all sorts of things as we start learning how to live. Then we become good at a bunch of things, mostly the things we have a bit of natural talent in, but sometimes just things we have to do. After we get good at a range of things it becomes unbearable to have to go back to being an incompetent beginner again. Plus, our perfectionist culture doesn't tend to reward adult failure.
The Man, who is an engineer, always liked tinkering around with tools, although he had never actually built anything until he started experimenting with making furniture for us out of wooden pallets and off-cuts, and then rebuilding our house. Natural interest plus talent plus necessity plus endless repetition made him an expert and should the bottom ever fall out of the engineering market he will be able to make an excellent living as general handyman.
I, on the other hand, possessed a useful pair of boobs that was the only thing that shut our first colicky baby up. Plus there were some equally useful hormones which attached me to the baby like duct tape. I have put in my thousands of hours of child wrangling, also read every parenting manual on the planet, and now, although small children aren't my natural forte interest-wise, I make a pleasant living hanging out with five-year-olds, because believe me, I know five-year-olds by now.
For me, unhandy as I am, the art of building was arcane and mysterious and 'impossible' for me to learn. For The Man, dealing with temper tantrums was overwhelming and exhausting. And yet, had we been humble enough to ask for help and guidance from each other, we could have learned. We would have learnt new skills, we could have learnt to be patient with each other, we would have become partners in parenting and building a house and life together. Instead we both felt trapped in lives that weren't quite right.
Now, I am not saying that we could have saved our marriage and that life would have been rosy had we chosen that different path - I just don't know. I think our differences lay deeper and were more intractable than that. I don't have regrets about the paths our lives have taken. The Man has a new partner who is a kind and positive influence on the children's lives, and I am happier than I have ever been, if still a little terrified of power tools. I do regret taking the safe and easy road though, and I am determined to take a more thoughtful, maybe more difficult, but certainly more rewarding route in the future.
I have discovered that I can indeed mow the lawn, although I have now given that up as I bought a new house with no lawn at all, and gave away the lawn mower. I can also take out the bins and change a light bulb, and today I used the cordless drill! The Boy showed me how it works when he was home at Christmas time, and today I charged up the battery and actually used it to drill some holes to add an extra shelf to the old sets of shelves I am currently using as a kitchen dresser. So far that takes the range of tools I know how to use to three. I can sand with the electric sander, drill a hole, and wield an adjustable wrench for a myriad of purposes. Very proud! Mind you, this man built an entire hobbit house with three tools (chainsaw, hammer and chisel) so I figure I'm just about there..
I am happy that my girls are getting to see a mum who is capable of having a go at most things, and willing to be very, very incompetent as I work out how to do very basic home improvements. I am also very happy to be at a stage in my life where I can look back at my many failures and say, "Oh well, I tried really hard and my intentions were good.. and that's what matters."
Tired, but determinedly cheerful mother of four. One grown up son (The Boy), one grown up daughter (The Girl), two girls at home, Rosy (16) and Posy (11). Trying to buy a little less, make a little more, live a little lighter, not mess up the children too much..