You see those hands? Those are the incredibly capable hands of my beloved partner and mother of our child. They are rugged, capable, and skilled in a way that my hands have never been. For most of our marriage, she has been the one who has taken on the lion’s share of the fixer-upper work around our various homes. It’s taken me seven years, but I’m actually okay with that.
When we first started dating, I made a valiant attempt to “wear the pants” in our relationship, not because of any particular skill on my behalf. Truthfully, she’s always been better with her hands than I have. At the time, I was a firefighter and while I didn’t completely buy into the typical male/female relationship stereotypes, I definitely believed that my role was to be the caretaker and “fixer-upper”. It’s taken seven years of marriage and almost eleven years of relationship to figure out just how wrong I was.
I grew up in a typical middle-class Canadian household, unlike many of my peers I don’t ever remember a time when we went hungry and my parents are still together (40 years through better and worse). My mother always believed strongly in feminism, and instilled me with egalitarian beliefs throughout my life. I can’t say I’ve always believed that women were just as capable as men, but I’m thankful to be able to say that I have been able to keep an open mind to allow for my views to change over the years.
My dad is a fantastic man who loved working with his hands. I can still remember first watching and then working alongside him in the garage of the Victorian-era house I grew up in. We moved cities when I entered high school, and I became involved with extra-curriculars and then work, and there just didn’t seem to be as much time as I grew up. Dad did the lion’s share of the work around the house because mom ended up commuting to work everywhere we lived. As a minister, dad was able to walk to work every day, and was home to meet us as we got off the bus from school. Mom was a teacher, which meant that she was out of the house much earlier and home much later because she often had a twenty to thirty minute commute each way. Later, when she went back to school to get her Masters, dad became a single parent for days at a time so that mom could go to classes at a University a couple of hours away.
Through my adolescence, teens, and early twenties, I found myself occasionally thinking of things as “Men’s work” and “Women’s work”. Many of the antiquated phrases of sexism made their way through my mind: “Women just aren’t built for that”, “Men and Women are physically different, so women can’t do some jobs.” I won’t try to justify my beliefs at the time except to say that I was incredibly ignorant.
I was still buying into some aspects of toxic masculinity when I met my partner. I still believed that it was my responsibility to do the traditionally “male” tasks around the house, and by default that meant I was expecting her to cook, clean, and look after our daughter when she would eventually come along. I never consciously expected her to do this, but by buying to the theory of masculinity that says the man has to do the physical labour, I was relegating her to the other things that need to be done in the house. Ultimately, this was to the detriment of our relationship and my own well-being. It also didn’t allow her to bring her full strengths to our marriage.
As time would go on, and things would not get done, my partner would get frustrated with me, and then I would get frustrated with her for what I thought were unrealistic expectations. Eventually I would get frustrated with myself for not living up to her expectations. This caused a severe spiral in my mental health because I felt that I wasn’t deserving of her, which meant that I was continually feeling depressed and anxious about the things I hadn’t done. Instead of expressing gratitude and appreciation when my partner completed a task that I hadn’t gotten around to, I became bitter and defensive, taking it as an insult on my masculinity. More than once I accused her of emasculating me by doing something that I thought was my responsibility.
Things began to change when she was diagnosed with Hyperemesis Gravidarum, also known as morning sickness from hell. We called it the “Twenty-Minute Lease” because she got to keep food and water for twenty minutes and then had to give it all back. In an effort to just keep her alive, I put all of my energy into making sure she was as healthy as possible and to keep her from as much stress as I could. She gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, and then was plunged into the hell of post-partum depression. These were dark days for us, but also the point where I started to change my opinion of what it is that I, as a male, should be doing.
Fast forward through some of the most challenging years, some of which we lived together, others which we lived apart. Ultimately, we took a huge gamble and rebooted our life together. I declared bankruptcy and we moved halfway across the country to start a new life on the prairies. As we settled into the rhythms of this new life, I began to understand that my beliefs about toxic masculinity meant that I wasn’t truly honouring my partner in the way she deserved to be honoured. By demanding that I do things that she was better at, I wasn’t following our vows of “for better or worse”. I was always doing the things which she was better at and as a result we were both doing worse.
Over the last year, my partner and I have had some challenging conversations. Many of those have pushed my understanding of what it means to be a man in 2019, and how my unspoken beliefs about masculinity have been harmful to her. As a result, how I interpreted masculinity was also (and would continue to be) harmful to our daughter. While I thought I was being progressive, my own form of masculinity was just as toxic by not letting my partner use her strengths to help move our family forward.
So, I’ve taken off the metaphorical pants in our relationship. My wife is infinitely better at most “handy” things around the house, though she still lets me swing a hammer or an axe from time to time. She graciously asks me for my opinion and lets me give her unsolicited advice while politely ignoring it. By taking off the pants, I’ve allowed her to use her strengths and freed myself up to use my strengths. While she works on our house, I work to make sure we are fed regularly and have even managed to step up my cleaning game. We are both happier because we are able to use our strengths for our family’s benefit on a regular basis. As a result our family is stronger and our relationship is stronger.
Masculinity is not a problem in and of itself, but our interpretation of masculinity can be very problematic. I saw it regularly in the fire service where men were expected to fill a stereotype that isn’t a healthy interpretation of masculinity. I see it in many places online, particularly in some of the darker areas of the web. The only way to fight toxic masculinity is to provide healthy examples of non-toxic masculinity. There are dozens of examples available of non-toxic masculinity, and the more light we shine on them the more we can help men find examples of non-toxic masculinity.
My interpretation of masculinity is not complete by any means, and will continue to evolve as I grow older. I also know that my interpretation isn’t for everyone and there are many others which are equally as valid. For us though, it works. I’m happy to let my wife wear the pants while I work barefoot in the kitchen. Anytime she wants a “sammich”, she can just yell at me.