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.