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It’s midnight and I’m lying on my basement floor and I am crying. The grime is digging into my face, and I’m twisting my hand up into the guts of my washing machine trying to get it to drain. I’m wet from the effort and the gross water seeping from my machine. And the person with me, guiding me through this, is the gentle voice of a YouTube DIY dad.
Everything is breaking this summer.
The first to go is the air conditioning. It starts leaking streams of water into the basement. I call a repair service and I’m put on a three-week waiting list. In the meantime, the representative suggests I try to fix it myself. “Usually, it’s just a filter problem or a leak.”
I call my brother, and he walks me through how to check the furnace. We try everything. Eventually, the verdict comes in. I need a new system. Then, it’s the dishwasher. I’ve been struggling to keep this one running since I moved in. All the wheels have cracked and fallen off the baskets, and even the repair guy told me to give it up.
And then all the other things. The leak on the porch roof. The siding still needed to be replaced after the derecho. The summer of breaking. Everything falling apart. I buy some power tools off a friend who is moving. I get buckets of screws. One night, I break down and buy a big orange tool chest to fill it with my pathetic circus of tools collected from the past few years and the new screwdriver set, which I need to assemble bikes.
I don’t own a lot of tools. I never have. I’m a woman, and in my marriage my husband had all the tools, handed down from his father or purchased for him over birthdays and Christmases. And even when I left him and moved out, people told me I didn’t want to fix things. “You don’t want to own a home,” my mom told me. “All that maintenance.”
But I rented and the house was still falling apart. Repairs needed to be done. Basement filling with water, crooked doors that let in ants. Leaking skylights. And they’d show up to fix it all eventually. And I’d have to remind them constantly through texts. “Hey, were you gonna get that leaky skylight? Or…” And the repairs would be half-hearted and the landlord would sigh, like somehow it had been my idea for him to have an investment property and maintain it.
I decided that a landlord was like having a husband, except I didn’t have to sleep with him. And I’d already left one and so, I left another. I bought a house. An old house. My brother, a civil engineer, who built his own dining room table and renovated his own basement, balked. “You are gonna have to learn to use a drill,” he said.
He wasn’t wrong to mock me. Last time he’d seen me use an electric screwdriver I managed to strip three screws before he stepped in.
I’ve been told I’m not good at a lot of things. Sports. Math. Being handy. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to question those narratives. Am I really bad at sports if I’ve run seven half marathons? Am I really bad at math if I run a small business? And being handy? Well, how would I know if no one has ever taught me?
My helplessness is not an accident. It’s who I was raised to be. A woman who could cook and clean, but not swing a hammer. That kind of bat your eyes, “Aw honey, can you fix this thing?” kind of woman. The Joanna to the Chip Gaines. The wife who does the design and the painting. The man who wields the power tools.
The world of power tools and repair has long been relegated to men. Even after the second wave of feminism in the 70s pushed to open up the tool box to women, by letting them take shop class in high school, or programs encouraging women to go into the trades, women still faced discrimination. According to Amy Bix, author of Creating ‘Chicks Who Fix’: Women, Tool Knowledge, and Home Repair 1920 -2007, points out that even then the advice for women learning to repair was ambivalent, encouraging women not to make men feel unwanted or unneeded. In the 90s, Bix argues that home repair advice for women exploded, but was deeply invested in sexualizing women using tools. And it was a personal feminism, not a political one. One that pushed an image of a girlboss wielding tools, while women in blue collar jobs faced discrimination. And even as marketers got wind of the new cash crop, Home Depot was settling discrimination lawsuits among it’s employees.
The home repair industry has shifted. Some marketing studies suggest that 80% of home repairs are initiated by women. And somewhere around 40% of American households are headed by women. But there's still a knowledge gap. Men are still 68% of power tool purchases. The knowledge of handiness is still passed down from man to man.
My personal helplessness was born of a political reality that would make me reliant on masculinity for sufficiency. But, not too reliant. Simply put, I would need a husband. But I couldn’t bug him about it. In 5 Love Languages, Gary Chapman advises a wife who’s asked her husband to finish a job around the house to never mention it again. I think about that woman, forced to need this man, forced to rely on him, but never able to mention it, or to vent her frustrations when the job failed.
My helplessness was specifically cultivated to cater to male entitlement. My helplessness learned in order to keep the balance of power.
But, I left that.
And then I bought a house, because at least if things were going to fall apart, I’d be the one letting me down. Once I told a boyfriend who often promised to help me with projects but never did, “I spent a long time asking men to do things for me they never intended on doing. If you aren’t gonna do it, just say so. But I don’t care any more.”
There is no real guidebook for a woman alone in her home. No one threw me a shower. To give me pots and pans. The ones I’d left behind and couldn’t afford to replace. No one to give me hammers and socket wrenches. No one told me about furnace filters or gutter cleaning or caulking. There was only me and a house and a vast gap of knowledge.
Hanna Ingber wrote about this for the New York Times, writing about her own post-divorce home repairs, noting, “I have always thought of myself as a strong, independent woman. But getting divorced made me realize all the things I didn’t do and had been relying on my husband for.”
Our narratives about single women, single mothers in particular, fetishize their helplessness, their struggle. Men are always coming to save them in our stories, making them whole. Even Ingber’s essay, she writes wistfully about no longer doing it all alone.
But no one is saving me. No one, except the gentle, genial dads of DIY YouTube.
The first week in the house, I came home to the sound of rushing water from the basement. Something was wrong with the washing machine. I called my dad, sobbing.
“Oh, you just need a new connector hose,” he told me. “Just check YouTube for a video.”
I did. And I did it.
And that’s how I ended up on the floor of my basement. The washing machine backing up and refusing to drain, with my daughter’s volleyball uniform inside. I knew I couldn’t get it fixed that day. It had to be done, and I knew I could do it. I had YouTube.
It’s the secret knowledge of fixing things. Of repair. Of power. Of tools. Of independence. And it’s right there, all on YouTube. A friend tells me she’s relied on YouTube because she’s queer and lives with her partner in a small town. “I love knowing I can fix things without risking someone coming in and judging.”
I’ve experienced some of those judgments. Repair men, standing in front of me, asking me, “Is it just…you?” Or, “Do you need to talk this over with…someone else?” Or the less subtle, “Where’s your husband?”
I have a ton of clever answers to those questions that I never use. Because they’re in my home in the middle of the day, and it’s a dance of power now. Will I make them angry? And yes, I am alone. And yes, they know it. And no, I don’t know what they know.
But I do now. But watching these videos, I don’t feel condescended to. I’m not being sexualized, or mocked. The videos give me safe distance to google questions and accept advice without feeling I owe this person anything in return. In the world of transactional heterosexual relationships, the YouTube explainer dad only needs a view, which I’ve given.
It’s just a person, a human, explaining to me, another person, how to fix the broken things, and I am so grateful.
I’ve watched hundreds of these videos now. Showing me how to replace a screen, put in a wall anchor, find a stud. The calm voices of all these dads just showing you how to clean the dryer vent and replace the hose. The best of these videos usually have poor image quality. The angles are weird. Sometimes the voices drone on and on about which brand of screwdriver is best for the job. But mostly they are efficient. They promise self-sufficiency with just a couple simple turns of the screw, and a gentle, “See, wasn’t that easy?”
But every hammer in the hand of a woman, helps her control just a little bit more of the world that tries to control her.
So many of the cultural anxieties about single women and independent women and divorced women and women without men is that women won’t need men. That whatever knowledge or power a man has, he must hold onto because he will be made irrelevant if that is gone. And I joke with my friends about this often. But in these past two years, I have been more alone than I ever have been in my life. With the pandemic, and the days my children are gone, I am alone in a way I have never felt. It’s vulnerable and exhilarating and sometimes exhausting. It’s taught me to learn to love my own company and it’s forced me to become self-reliant in a way I’ve never been before.
Paradoxically, my newly learned self-sufficiency makes me realize how deeply we still need one another. Am I really doing it alone if I have these YouTube dads genially explaining to me what a clamp is? It’s a vision of a masculinity I’ve never experienced before. No one is screaming. No one is disappointed in me. Wanting more of me. Telling me I can’t do it. It’s just gentle instruction and the pleasure of fixing something.
This space is still contested. Women are still discriminated against in construction jobs and in technical fields. There is still work to do. Still repair on a national and systemic level. But every hammer in the hand of a woman, helps her control just a little bit more of the world that tries to control her.
I fixed the washing machine after three tries. And I think, this winter, maybe I’ll try renovating the laundry room by myself. Well, kind of by myself.
Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email, sent on Wednesdays, which includes interviews, essays, and original reporting. The Friday email is a weekly round-up of dinguses, drinks, and links. On Monday I have a subscribers-only open thread where we discuss politics, food, dogs, our bodies, and more.