What Being a Handyman Has Taught Me About Male Insecurity

Some guys feel really bad about the fact that they don't know how to hang crown molding.


When I was five years old, my two sisters, my parents, and I lived in a canvas tent on the side of a mountain in Western Montana for a month and a half. During that time, and with the help of our extended family, we built most of the cabin that would become our family vacation home. One of my jobs, which I took to with great enthusiasm, was to pound every nail that held the plywood flooring to the log beams on the second story. We barely got the cabin roofed-in in time for my dad to report to his new Army post, and, as I like to say, 40 years later we're still putting the finishing touches on it.

In the course of his career, my dad was an infantry officer, a military attaché, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, and an arms-reduction negotiator. At home, he was a wrench. Dude could fix anything.

Up until the time my parents were approaching retirement age, I can hardly recall a "professional" ever working on any of the houses they owned over the years. Dad built walls and sidewalks, installed woodstoves, laid tile, added electrical circuits and plumbing fixtures, fixed furnaces, and, at the cabin, ten years after it was first built, contrived an indoor plumbing system featuring an elaborate pump rig that sent the waste up the mountain to a septic tank. His only training in construction and mechanical work had been summer jobs on the railroad and growing up in a time and place where men didn't own things they couldn't fix. (My mom, a Montana farm kid, is no slouch with a hammer and saw, either.)

When I graduated high school in the suburbs of D.C. and "took a few years off" before going to college, it was easy enough for me to find work on a construction site and start swinging my hammer with the big boys on day one. I had been my dad's apprentice for years, after all. Later, when my friends came home from college over the summer and wanted me to get them jobs on the site, I was shocked to discover that some males grew up never having learned how to build and fix things. I looked on in horror as my foreman taunted my friend who seemed to be driving a nail for the first time in his life: "Aw, c'mon, sister! Why don't you just hit it with your purse?"

Since then, it's been 25 years that I've made part or all of my living as a carpenter and contractor, despite having earned a couple degrees along the way. I love the work, and, let's face it, the pay is much better than my "hobbies" (as my wife calls them) of teaching and writing.

For the past ten years, I haven't worked with a crew, but rather, have been doing smallish remodeling, repair, and improvement jobs that allow me to arrange my schedule around teaching or, more recently, taking care of my kids.

In interacting with my clients, who are, in general, not very handy around the house, I've been fascinated to observe the different strands of tension and awkwardness surrounding the process of ceding control of what was considered, not too long ago, to be the birthright and responsibility of a male homeowner.

When working with female clients, I've rarely noticed any signs of chagrin at having to pay someone to do manual labor. But the expectation that men should be able to perform the traditionally "masculine" work around the house still exists, to some extent, even if the social infrastructure doesn't; and sometimes the discomfort it causes is evident in conversations I have with men who hire me. Even if their own fathers were in the trades, my male clients, especially those who are younger than me, tend not to have worked alongside their dads, much less taken a shop class. They're more likely to have taken AP classes and played sports.

But believe it or not, I'm the last one to judge another man for not being able to hang a door or install crown molding. If he can hold down a job that allows him to pay his mortgage and hire someone to fix his house, I'm duly impressed.

Although I've worked for plenty of men who seem to be perfectly comfortable with the arrangement of using the money they earn with their own skills to pay for someone else's expertise, there are three reactions I've grown familiar with that suggest there's often anxiety about letting another guy do your "man jobs." The first is sheepishness and self-deprecation. I don't know how many times I've had men apologize to me for being inept at home improvements. I reassure them that hanging cabinets and repairing termite damage is not supposed to be encoded in their DNA. I've also been in the position of taking over a project that a man had started and then aborted once he realized he was in over his head. This can be particularly shameful and embarrassing to some guys. While I must admit that part of me sometimes wants to say, "It's okay, little buddy, Daddy's here now," all I have to do is think about the times I have called tech support, near tears, to try and fix something I botched on a computer, and my empathy is restored.

Another reaction I've become accustomed to is the assertion—which may be legitimate, but still comes off as defensive—that "I could do this myself if I only had time." In the worst cases, a guy will point out how easy the work he's paying me to do is. As much as this makes me want to go to his office and tell him how cushy it must be to sit around and process loan documents all day, I remind myself that he's only marking his territory, and I don't need to get wrapped up in his insecurities.

Finally, there is the very successful male client who lets me know repeatedly that he is very successful, and that matters of home repair are almost too far beneath him to even discuss. This archetype is less common than you might suspect, but I have run across him, especially in the tonier ZIP codes. A surprising trait of some guys who fit this profile is parsimony. They seem surprised that I would expect to be paid a living wage to do work that I've mastered over decades of practice. This attitude is certainly built on classism and general obliviousness as much as gender issues, but it's telling that I have rarely had rich women balk at estimates I've given them for work, whereas with rich men, haggling seems to be a necessary ritual.

Don't get me wrong: Most of my clients are just lovely to work with, and even when there are moments of gendered awkwardness, it's no worse than the kind one experiences in any social interaction. And the awkwardness is usually fleeting once they realize that I'm not judging them based on their handiness, just as I would hope they don't judge me for not having a desk job. It's clear, however, that even though boys these days usually have little opportunity to receive vocational education at school or elsewhere, there is still pressure for men to somehow have absorbed traditionally masculine skills by the time they are grown up. The same is true for women, of course, in that they are expected to be good cooks and housekeepers regardless of their backgrounds and professions, and are subjected to harsh judgment if they have to order in to throw an enchanting dinner party.

Our roles in the professional landscape have become highly specialized, and gender plays an ever-decreasing part in them. And yet, in our responsibilities at home, we often cling to the traditional notions of gender segregation and territoriality. As we make progress toward equity in the workplace and fair division of unpaid family labor, we would do well to distance ourselves from the gender expectations at home that developed centuries ago, before contractors, caterers, and housekeepers made them virtually obsolete.