Freaky Fortnight

What I Learned From Swapping Lives With My Husband
Watch as a husband and wife switch places.
Oct. 23 2009 7:06 AM

Freaky Fortnight

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What I learned from swapping lives with my husband.

The exact moment I felt like I was back in my old life was 3 o'clock Sunday.

Returning home for lunch, Nick and I discovered a fat green caterpillar in our refrigerator's crisper drawer. We tore a leaf off the broccoli from which we assumed the caterpillar had come, put the leaf and caterpillar in a plastic tub, and started to make cookies. Midway through, I discovered we needed baking soda; at the same moment, Will woke up, way too soon, from a nap; the caterpillar, which by now had a name, George, disappeared, causing distress; Nick lay on the floor of the foyer and refused to budge; I yelled; I zipped all of us into rain gear, wrangled back-arching Will into the stroller, and, as I opened the door of our apartment, felt a familiar disappointment in myself for being both exhausted and enraged. Right, I remembered. Long days with young children. This is what it feels like.

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I can't say this was a good feeling, but I can say it's good to be back. The first post-switch weekend had the whirlwind, catch-up, all-consuming feel of a weekend in a long-distance relationship. I did things like stare into Will's eyes and ask him to make animal sounds.

Monday morning I walked the few blocks to the shared writers' space where I work. Like a country girl corrupted by her trip to the city, I kept some of the habits I developed at Slate, opening Twitter and Facebook in tabs in my browser the moment I took my seat. It was nice to be back in my own office culture, such as it is: People tapping away at laptops. Being in the writers' space is sort of like swimming laps in a pool: Though you see your fellow swimmers only when you come up for air, you're connected by the similarity of your experience. For a couple of hours I felt a little aimless—the one who keeps stopping at the wall to adjust her goggles. But soon enough I felt lucky to rejoin the freelance realm. I was in an office for only two weeks—not long enough to feel trapped. Still, perhaps because I'd spent that time evaluating a "real job" as an actual possibility, I now felt as if I should enjoy my freedom while I could.

One weird thing was that I was worrying more about my children. You'd think it would be the opposite, that I would have been more anxious in Manhattan. But physical proximity has a deleterious effect. In Manhattan, the geographic distance made it easier to completely disengage. There was no chance I'd walk out to get a coffee and run into Will with a babysitter; there was no chance that the passing ambulance was screaming up the hill toward our building. Also, the office was some place I had to be, whereas my own work can feel more optional. When I'm near my children, I have a nagging feeling I should be with them. Not because I'm the best person for them—their baby sitters are focused and playful—but because I imagine myself to be their fiercest protector.

A lot of people ask, So, how was the experiment? The first thing I say is that the public aspect was nerve-wracking. The second is that it was "really intense": Freaky Fortnight felt urgent and compressed, like a movie that had to come to a resolution in 90 minutes. The last thing isn't surprising, but it's important: I have a sense of Mike's world and he of mine. The stories Mike used to tell me about work took place on an empty soundstage. Now there's a set in my brain and a mood: I know what it feels like to be a character in Mike's day. I understand the function of the props: For instance, Mike's e-mail is sort of like a doctor's pager. If he checks it before breakfast, he's not seeking reassurance that he's still an important person in the world—he's just being responsible. And overall, we learned that another arrangement is not out of the question. Someday Mike may be the free-range parent, and I could be the office one.

What if we both worked in an office? When I wrote about the likely reality that the cost of full-time child care would cancel out the money I'd earn at a full-time job, several people pointed out that you have to make such calculations over the long term. ("Can you tell I read The Feminine Mistake?" e-mailed one friend.) The point is that even if you only temporarily drop out of the work force, your losses compound; if you stay in, though the cost of child care may be crushing at first, eventually your children will be in school—eventually they'll be out of the house—and you'll go back to making gains.

And, yeah, I agree with this. That's partly why I've continued to freelance over the past several years. Because freelancing—that's my work. Over the fortnight, I heard from many mothers who work from home or otherwise outside a traditional structure. Yet this in-between position often gets left out of the work-life conversation. Sometimes when I read that stuff, I feel like I did as a child, when, on Sesame Street, they showed the city on one side of the TV and the country on the other. The suburbs, where I lived, did not appear on the screen. So here's my shout out from the suburbs of working motherhood! I'd argue that pursuing poorly paid freelance work is as practical a course as pursuing poorly paid full-time work. Especially in this depressing economy, it's just as important to be nimble, to know how to work for yourself, as it is to seek safe haven in a job that may disappear.

OK, that's my work-life soapbox moment. And that's really it on the subject. When I returned home Monday, Will was waking up from a nap. He and I ate cheese sandwiches and grapes and took the bus to Nick's school. We had a little time beforehand so we played on the playground. Quality of life offense: A woman with a Dunkin Donuts bag threw crumbs at pigeons, creating a The Birds effect every time a child approached. At school, Nick presented me with a cardboard sculpture (held together by a "gun that glues"). We bought some milk and got back on the bus. Will sat on my lap, and Nick leaned against me.

We were stuck in traffic, but it was late in the afternoon, and the delay felt restful and nice. When I was in my 20s, I sometimes felt like I was losing hours of my life in an office. Even in a stalled bus, I never feel that way with my children. Like I'm falling behind? Yes. Like I could be a better mother? Yes. But not like I'm losing time. Being with my children feels in a way like my own work.

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