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When DIY becomes D(on’t)IY

DIY should feel empowering, but it’s become another thing I expect myself to do just because I can

When I was 5, my parents bought a house in Santa Rosa, California. It was a small bungalow with faded, peeling tan paint and not a lot else going for it. We didn’t have much money then, but we had enough for this house. So my mother, an interior designer by trade, rolled up her sleeves and got to work.

The first thing to go was that paint. She scraped and sanded and primered all day on a tall ladder. I have memories of her coming to play with me with paint splatters across her face like freckles. When she finished, the house was a perfect lilac. She planted fruit trees and put a trellis next to the sidewalk. The last time I drove by the house, it was still the same shade of purple.

When I think about being a homeowner, that’s the memory that sticks out to me. My mom sweating on a ladder, wielding a paintbrush. My mom has moved to and rehabbed countless houses since then, but I never hear her sound so proud as when she talks about that purple house and all the hard work that went into it.

After eight years of living in an apartment, I’d amassed a long list of things I was excited to DIY when I finally bought a house. I’d retile the bathroom, put in new light fixtures, try my hand at stenciling, repaint every wall until it could never be mistaken for a rental. Paint would stain my clothes and my hair while I blasted Sarah McLachlan out of the open windows on a balmy summer’s day.

My husband and I bought our first house three years ago and I’ve checked most of those items off my wish list. We’ve repainted almost every room of our 2,400-square-foot home. I stenciled the walls of the guest room and dining room by hand—at least 24 hours of work. I repainted the gazebo and then reroofed it with some help from my in-laws. And I did feel accomplished. I felt proud. The home that I’d seen in my head when we made the offer was a little closer to reality. (Also, it’s easy to relax when your body is so exhausted you can barely move.)

But my head pounded from paint fumes (the windows of our 1930s house had been nailed shut so the previous owners didn’t have to deal with changing out the storm windows) and my back felt immovable as a board from hours sanding or holding a paint roller over my head. I started to wonder whether that homeowner’s pride was because it was done or because I’d done it myself.

I come from a long line of staunch Midwestern stock, many of them farmers, and it feels like cheating to pay someone else for a job I can do myself. Shameful, even. I think of the money we’d save. I think of the fact that because I write for a living, my schedule always looks wide open “a few weeks from now.” I knew I usually wouldn’t make more money working in the time I’d save by paying someone to do a job for me.

My search history is clogged with DIYs. Can you change out your kitchen backsplash by yourself? How many rocks do you need to build a retaining wall on a hill? Is reroofing your gazebo with cedar shingles so hard that you really should just give up and use asphalt tiles instead? The internet’s answer to these queries seems to be: You can do anything if you set your mind to it and have a free weekend.

When I asked the internet whether I could remove the asphalt from what I was told was a “small” section of my driveway—a little more than 100 square feet—people on message boards said they’d never pay someone to do a job so easy for them. One blog post showed a photo of the author, a small woman, happily hand-hammering pieces of her driveway and disposing of it one bag at a time. This was a simple task, the internet said. You just needed a sledgehammer and some elbow grease. Okay, maybe a jackhammer wouldn’t hurt. Okay, maybe a truck too, if you actually wanted to dispose of all that asphalt when you were done. I started feeling skeptical. After three years I’d finally caught on that what was an “easy weekend project” for someone with expertise and a full tool belt often took me a lot longer.

The proliferation of DIY should feel empowering. Anything a professional can do, you can do… almost as well… eventually! But it feels like one more thing that I expect myself to do just because I can. I want to be my mother up on the ladder painting her heart out. It’s easy to conjure up that memory and forget she was often working two jobs at the time and raising a small child. She and my father got divorced a few years after we moved to that house. It’s easy to overlook that she might have been happier doing things other than pushing herself to the brink painting the exterior of a house by herself.

After a few weeks of feeling like I’d let someone down by doing it, I hired a team to remove the asphalt. There were five men in safety-orange vests. They held jackhammers and pickaxes. They wielded a contraption roughly the size of my lab-mutt that looked like a chainsaw attached to a row of knives. Another machine was so big it came with an enclosed seat for its driver. It took them three hours to finish this “small” job.

When the asphalt was gone, I bought trees and plants. I dug holes and spread compost and mulch where there used to be nothing but rocks and tar. I watered my new plants and watched the chickens scratch in the dirt. I’ve never been prouder of any DIY project than the one I didn’t make myself do alone.

Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon.