Mel and I were married just over a year when we discovered a mouse in the attic. We were both in our early 20s and living in a 1950s, 900 square foot, two-bedroom home in rural Provo, Utah. Behind us was a cornfield, and behind that, a hay field.
It started with a scratching. Then we began to notice mouse droppings beneath the sink, next to a container Mel used to store bacon grease.
“Ugh…” Mel said. “I can see his little snout print in the grease. He’s eating the grease. That is so nasty.” She shivered as if she felt violated.
“Get rid of it,” she said.
We both stood in the kitchen, examining the cupboard below the sink. I felt like she thought I was a mobster, or something. I mean honestly, what the hell did “get rid of it,” mean?
She gave me a stern look that seemed to say, “This is your job.”
I’d never killed a mouse, and yet somehow Mel assumed I was qualified simply because I was a man. She made a lot of assumptions like this early in our marriage. She assumed I could fix a car. I couldn’t. She assumed I could manage a budget. I couldn’t do that, either. I tried to hang a shelf in our kitchen on Mel’s request, but I got so frustrated, and swore so much trying to figure the damn thing out, she ended up calling her father to finish the job while I was at school. I think she assumed I’d feel bad about her father having to come and finish the job, but I didn’t. I was just happy that I didn’t have to deal with it.
I wanted to tell Mel that I didn’t know how to kill a mouse, but I didn’t know where to start. It was early in our marriage, and I was too self-conscious to say something that open and vulnerable, so I said something mean that I might have said to one of my guy friends.
“It’s just a little mouse. It’s not going to hurt anything. Stop being a pansy.”
Mel gave me a flash of anger. “It’s nasty! I’m not going to live in the same house as a mouse. No way. You need to do something about it or I’m staying with my mother.” She folded her arms. It was her, or the mouse.
“Ok. Ok.” I said. “I’ll figure it out.”
But I had no intention of figuring it out because I didn’t really know where to start. I assumed it was in the attic, or the walls. I had no idea how to get inside the walls and kill it, and I didn’t know how to get into the attic. I so badly wanted to be a strong husband. I had a deep feeling that I should, inherently, know how to catch a mouse. Catching a mouse sounded so simple, and the fact that I didn’t know how to do it made me feel like a failure. This happened a lot early in my marriage. I was afraid to admit that I didn’t know how to do something that a man ought to know how to do, so rather than admit it and search for help, I just tried to ignore the problem.
I assume Mel interpreted this as me being lazy.
A few days later I woke up to Mel shoving me in the night.
“What?” I said.
“Shhhhh” she said. “Listen… do you hear that scratching.”
Above us was scratching and squeaking sounds. The mouse was burrowing, or something, right above us.
“I’ve been up for an hour listening to that nasty thing. Why haven’t you gotten rid of it?”
I sat up in bed. Listened for a moment. Then I said, “For all I know it’s a little family of mice up there, living their lives, keeping to themselves, and only coming down once in a while for bacon grease. So I took the grease away. It’s just a matter of time before they will get hungry and leave. We just need to wait it out.”
Mel started hitting me in the back, “I. Can’t. Sleep. Not with that thing up there. No way.”
She went on, about how I should handle this. How it was my responsibility as a man to handle it. And with each statement, I felt like she was asking the question, “What kind of man are you?” I told her that I’d handle it, without any idea of what that meant, and she kept saying she was going to stay with her mother. When I think back on this moment, I realize that she wanted me to be as masculine as her father. Mel’s dad is a professional blacksmith. He could catch a mouse. He could fix a car, too. But at the same time, he didn’t get up in the night with his children, or do laundry, or change diapers. This is one of the more complicated things about the era of men born in the early 80s. I am expected to be as masculine as a man from the 50s, but also the kind of man that will live in an egalitarian relationship where all housework is shared equally. I can do the housework part, but that truly masculine stuff I’m no good at. But I feel like I should be, so it comes out sideways in feelings of insecurity.
Eventually, I turned on a box fan to drown out the noise, and we both fell asleep.
For one week we argued about the mouse. Mel made threats that she was going to stay with her mother, while I felt pathetic, and pitiful, not sure how to handle the damn situation, but too self-conscious to admit to it. Thinking back, there were a million obvious solutions to the problem: mousetrap, mouse poison, an exterminator. But my pride shadowed my judgment. I just kept hoping that the mouse would eventually go away. But it never did.
Eventually Mel came home one night with a mousetrap and told me she’d had a chat with a man at the hardware store. And when she said it, I felt like she was saying, “I had a chat with a REAL man.”
“He told me to put the trap down where we have been seeing droppings. Then bait it with something it has already been eating,” she said. Then she raised her eyebrows, and I felt like she was saying, “I had to do your job.”
Thinking back on this moment, so much of this was about me. Not Mel. I felt very insecure, and it caused me to interpret things as being mean, when Mel was probably only trying to help. So much of early marriage comes down to expectations and pride, and trying to figure out just how to be a husband and wife. Sometimes that means cooking a meal, sometimes it means learning how to fix a car, and sometimes it means admitting that you don’t know how to catch a mouse.
Finally I said it. “I just don’t understand what make you think I know how to catch a mouse?”
“It can’t be that hard,” she said. Then she paused for a moment. She could tell that I wasn’t right, but I don’t think she knew just what was wrong.
I went on, explaining to her that I’d never caught a mouse, but I feel like I should know because I’m a man.
“Why didn’t you ask someone how to do it?” she said.
I shrugged. “Because that would be admitting that I don’t know how to do it.”
I’m not sure if Mel got just what I was saying, but I think she understood that this was something deeper than she originally thought.
Mel set the trap, and I baited it with bacon grease.
The next morning, we woke up to a big fat dead mouse caught in a trap below our sink.
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, and a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His essays on parenting and marriage have been featured in New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Lucinda Higley