Freaky Fortnight

Nick Agger, 4, Weighs In on the Experiment
Watch as a husband and wife switch places.
Oct. 13 2009 6:40 PM

Freaky Fortnight

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Nick Agger, 4, weighs in on the experiment.

Last night when I got home, Nick couldn't wait to tell me about his day. He'd operated a plastic car with a "driving wheel"; he'd had a play date; he'd drawn pictures of bats. Oh, and he'd eaten three chocolate bars (snack-size, meant for Halloween) and two oatmeal raisin cookies. Everybody's been asking, "How do your kids feel about the experiment?" I submit the day's dessert menu as my response.

This morning I thought I'd try to get some real answers from Nick. I took out the video camera while we waited at the bus stop. First he had to get his coat on. We made an instructional video: the coat flip, a how-to. (The coat flip is a classic lesson in fostering preschooler independence.)

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Once his coat was on, Nick just went wild in front of the camera, doing Superman moves and yelling "poop." So on the bus I got out my notebook and a pen and transcribed a Q & A instead.

The first question was a leading one, but sometimes 4-year-olds need guidance.

Q: What do you think of the project? Is it good or bad?

A: Bad.

Q: Why is it bad?

The diplomacy of Nick's reply impressed me:

A: Because it's fun when Daddy picks me up [from school], but I still want you to pick me up, because I still want to see you and be with you, but it's good when Daddy picks me up, because I love Daddy, too.

The interview degenerated from there. When asked what he liked about the experiment, Nick pointed at my notebook and said, "Writing down these letters," and, when pressed to elaborate, said, "I just like poop." Then, like a skeptical subject of a magazine profile, Nick peered at the paper to make sure I was recording his words accurately, though he does not yet know how to read.

For most of the rest of the bus ride, Nick drew airplanes; after a while, he put his head in my lap. I suspect that what's most striking to Nick about the experiment is that Mike and I are snapping at each other more than usual. The stress level has changed, but his fundamental relationships with each of us have not. For our younger son, Will, it's different. Abruptly, I've disappeared from his days. Sometimes when I'm lying on the bed nursing Will at night he does things he used to do as a younger baby, like pawing my face as if learning it. I wonder how he's making sense of all of this in his baby brain.

As for my brain—and Mike's brain—last night there was a weird moment. Mike had the laptop open on the desk and I said, "What are you doing?" He said, "I'm going to check e-mail." In the past, Mike's e-mail world was as big a mystery to me as the Thursday nights he spent with his "brothers" at his college fraternity. But now I've been let into the building; I know the secrets of his man-cave. Yesterday, I'd read pretty much all of Mike's e-mail. (I don't get his personal notes—if you've been e-mailing Mike directly about my surprise party, the secret is still safe—but my e-mail address has been added to the Slate aliases that comprise a large part of Mike's inbox.)

I almost told Mike he didn't need to check e-mail, because all of the messages had already been downloaded into my brain. It wasn't that I was going to summarize for him; it was that I had a sci-fi feeling that because the e-mail was in my brain, it had somehow been CC'd to his. I spend my days doing Mike's job—which means I use my brain to process his information. And last night, for a brief moment, I had the sense that an actual mind meld had occurred. My brain was a server, and the information there would just migrate right over to his.

I suppose this is the way you feel in a successful job share: an option that corporations sometimes offer to husband-and-wife teams. (As well as to nonspousal pairs.) The idea is that a single job can be executed by two people, which is a desirable option if you prefer part-time work. On a policy level, job shares seem progressive, but I've always wondered how they play out in real life—or if they really play out anywhere but in columns about the work-life balance.

Yet a few weeks ago, when I mentioned this project to our family doctor, she told me that when her children were young, she and her husband, who is also a doctor, had shared a job, each of them working two and a half days a week. She was inspired to try the share by an essay she'd read in Real Simple. I tracked down the piece: "Ward and June R Us," by Rob Spillman, collected in the anthology The Bastard on the Couch (a response to a widely read anthology of personal essays called The Bitch in the House). Spillman wrote about his ingenious solution to dividing domestic responsibilities:

I proposed that we become Ward and June Cleaver—that we scrap our broken, resentment-laced egalitarian marriage and embrace the arrangement of that beloved retro couple of TV Land, where June does all of the domestic duties—shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundry—and Ward works full-time and comes home in the evening to entertain the kids, guilt-free and harangue-free. The catch? We'd alternate, on a weekly basis, who is Ward and who is June.

A perpetual swap obviously can't work for everyone; Spillman and his wife are both writers. But in their case, the flexibility of their work was part of the problem they were trying to solve. Because they were both available for every school pickup, every trip to the grocery store, they were constantly negotiating who should do what. Once some structure was in place, everything changed. Of performing domestic duties, Spillman writes, "I felt pride in a job well done instead of resentment in a job I had to do by default because I'd somehow wound up on the losing end of that moment's competition over career versus chores."

I liked the pop-culture levity that Ward and June lent to Spillman's approach. Which is as realistic approach to an unsolvable problem as any, I guess: You go through your week as the man in the gray flannel suit and on Sunday at midnight, you turn back into a housewife.