I had an old dresser that I picked up years ago when I was thrift shopping. I bought it when I was still single, living in Louisiana, and needed minimal furniture. The dresser looked old with its dark finish, and golden eagle-looking drawer pulls, but was sturdy. I wanted to refinish it for years but never set aside all the time required for that project.
Earlier this year, I decided it was time to finally decorate our master bedroom. It’s hard to believe that we’ve lived in this house for six years now as of this June! But our time in this house has felt like a series of major life events occurring like rapid fire.
For approximately the first two years that we lived here, my husband was doing a 3-hour commute each way to work in Dallas three days a week. Mike would generally leave Mondays and come back Thursdays, but sometimes he also traveled out-of-state or abroad. So he wasn’t here for about half of the time in general, and then when he was, Mike was tired and playing catchup the other half of the week.
I worked our small business (digital marketing) from home and then officially started our nonprofit as well, which took a great deal of my time and effort as startups do. You can see a timeline with more details in our story here, but my dad got sick a year later. We moved Dad to Austin, where I became his primary caretaker and focused on little else. Then Dad passed away in March 2019, while Mike’s dad was declining as well. I slowly returned to writing my infertility book and started Little With Great Love as our nonprofit outreach. Then my Father-in-law passed away in July 2020 during the pandemic, which was gut-wrenching.
As an entrepreneur, caretaker, and grieving daughter, I’ve rarely had the bandwidth to take on more significant home projects. However, the energy that one of my roles (let alone the combination of them) takes honestly makes me feel like a boss in a week where I’ve hit my deadlines, cooked dinner most nights, kept the bathrooms and floors generally clean, and gotten to sleep before midnight.
All that to say, Mike and I collaborating on the first project in our DIY master bedroom makeover was a big deal! Of course, we all know that married life requires effort, especially regarding communication and compromise. But here are a few other essential things I learned about marriage through our DIY furniture restoration project.
Please Stand Down
Mike and I both are strong-willed. We both hold opinions about most things, especially how things should be done. But projects don’t have two managers for a reason–there will be a (one) project manager responsible for ensuring that all is progressing as it should. Having two people trying to manage the project flow can cause anything from tension to confusion.
There are times when people are open to suggestions and ideas, and others where they want you to just do what they ask. The key to knowing which time it is comes from listening and watching. Do they ask for advice? Are their actions revealing that they are stumped, need some assistance, and you could be helpful? Or do they need a little time to figure things out, and you give them space?
Having two bosses and no “workers” on the job will cause issues. I had refinished furniture almost 30 years ago, so it had been a long time. We were using a new orbital sander Mike purchased that I’d never tried before. Using new tools in a new process required that I stand down and learn from Mike. But there were also times for me to step up and show my expertise as well. This project reminded me that I must be willing to listen and learn more than I want to speak and plow ahead.
Less is More
If you know me in real life, then you know I’ve been given the gift of gab through my mother. But my mouth isn’t always used for good, regrettably. Here’s one incident during the furniture restoration that shows less is more.
We had sanded and stripped the base of the furniture upstairs. As we were preparing to apply the finish, we knew it would smell, so Mike wanted to bring the dresser downstairs. With all the drawers pulled out and the mirror detached, it wasn’t that heavy as it was bulky down a narrow space. Before Mike went down the stairs, he told me how he planned to move with the dresser so that I would know what I needed to do.
Somehow at the bottom, I became unsure of the next steps. Somehow, I also pinched my finger and was startled. Annoyed, I began sharing my discontent and issues with Mike as he tried to get the dresser in the right place. Amidst the ruckus of my reactions, Mike said something that hurt my feelings and left the room not wanting to participate in the project anymore.
An important thing I’ve learned in our marriage and working on projects is when I should be silent. That is hard for me. There are times that both of us have “demanded to be heard,” and trust me that that never ends well. I had to give Mike space at that moment, not chase him down and make sure he’d listen to how upset I was at what just transpired.
The space I gave, though, extended too long. So instead of having a cool-off period and then reconnecting to discuss it, I finished the first coat of finish on the dresser, cleaned up, and went upstairs. Then, angry and upset, I made a decision to sleep in the other room, and we’d talk tomorrow about it.
After moving my things to the spare room, Mike came up and realized I had abandoned ship. He came over to ask me what was going on, which I was flabbergasted about. I let him know what had hurt me. Then we used our words for good as we began to talk through our frustrations and apologize for our parts. He helped me gather my things, and I followed him to return to our bedroom.
Putting the Others’ Needs First in Projects & in Marriage
A big takeaway during this project was about caring more for Mike than about getting it done. If having to stand down and make amends wasn’t enough, we faced a more considerable issue shortly after we began stripping the wood. Mike had a flare-up of dyshidrotic eczema, which caused small, intensely itchy blisters on the palms of his hands and edges of his fingers. It’s extremely painful, and he needed to stop, see a doctor, get a prescription, and apply ointment to his hands a couple times a day until it healed. He couldn’t use his hands, which are the main things you use when restoring furniture.
I knew that Mike felt bad about the timing of his flare-up and that he wanted to help me. So instead of me just trying to press on alone, I put the project on pause. Sounds reasonable, but I’m not a patient person. So, moving my timeline from maybe two weeks to four was a challenge! Also, I only have one dresser, so with all my clothes being displaced, piled up in our media room looking messy, that also bothered me.
But marriage is all about putting the others’ needs first. Mike needed to heal more than I needed the project done. So we let the medication do its thing, and after a couple of weeks, he was doing much better. I pioneered finishing up the project but had his support when needed.
Humility Above All Else
If you’re working on restoring something, the core practice in the pursuit should be humility. Our flaws and failings are magnified when we’re out of our element, working with our partner on something we’ve never done before over days and weeks. If we want to be heard, be the leader, or push forward at the expense of others, then while we may have progressed in our project, we’ve digressed in our relationship. That is not a win in marriage.
Our patroness, Mother Teresa, provided some excellent, practical tips for practicing humility (see below). If I had tried these while refinishing our furniture, it would have gone much smoother (no pun intended). But the restoration process for wood is much like that of the human heart; it has layers upon layers built up that one needs to remove to make authentic progress. Once the pure base has been exposed, it can be restored to something more beautiful than its original make.
“These are the few ways we can practice humility:St. Teresa of Calcutta
To speak as little as possible of one’s self.
To mind one’s own business.
Not to want to manage other people’s affairs.
To avoid curiosity.
To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.
To pass over the mistakes of others.
To accept insults and injuries.
To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.
To be kind and gentle even under provocation.
Never to stand on one’s dignity.
To choose always the hardest.”