Freaky Fortnight

What It's Like To Be Back at Work
Watch as a husband and wife switch places.
Oct. 22 2009 5:03 PM

Freaky Fortnight

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What it's like to be back at work.

On Monday, I got first shower, shaved, and took the bus with Nick to school. My clothes were presentable. I had that "entering the public world" feeling again. Children act as social camouflage, and one benefit is that you can let appearances slide. Don't mind the stubble and the stained T-shirt, I'm with the kids.

After two weeks away, I thought being back in the office would seem like being back from a vacation. That was not the case. The switch was intense. I was reminded of those mornings when Nick was younger and would wake up at 5 a.m. I'd take him out of the apartment for a walk, a bagel, the playground, some stick-picking-up—and then go to work. You had already lived half a day, and there were your colleagues, arriving all fresh-faced at the office. They had no idea what you'd been through.

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Work was waiting for me, faithfully. The e-mails. The small emergencies. The queries from freelancers about Slate articles that they would like to write. Susan left my office a mess, but it only took about 15 minutes to clean up. I deleted a lot of e-mails. Funny how an interoffice e-mail even one day old is forever not worth reading. The hours went slowly, and the environment felt sterile after my time at home.

Still, though, it was nice. My colleagues were happy to see me, and you realize how the office provides a pleasurable buoyancy. A line from a favorite book, Anthony Powell's Books Do Furnish a Room, ran through my head: "[I]f you bring off adequate preservation of your personal myth, nothing much else in life matters." Here I was in my usual role of editor/father/Web surfer—the narrative of my life as I knew it was continuing.

Nick had figured out the switch and understood that I was "work Daddy" again. Will seemed instantly happier to have more of Susan, though we've grown closer over the fortnight. He shouts for me when I come in the door in the evening. That didn't happen before. During the switch, I would hear from dads who, for one reason or another, took full-time care of a child when the child was young. They had a stronger bond with that child compared with their other children. Fourteen days is hardly anything, but I see what they mean. I was learning Will's games, and he was having fun with me around.

I'd like to correct one of my bigger blunders in the series: when I wrote that I wouldn't mind staying at home as long as I had "a writing project to sustain me." I realize now that I had a Platonic idea of a "writing project" in mind. One that I could work on when Will was napping, or at night and on the weekends. But real writing projects involve deadlines, research trips, ready access to muffins, and—most crucially—the frame of mind to get the writing done. When I contemplated staying at home, I didn't fully account for the possibility that being with the kids could become mentally as well as physically all-consuming. That I wouldn't be able to switch into work mode whenever I had a free moment. Two weeks is not enough time to truly experience that.

What has changed? Well, I can't complain about the office anymore—Susan just thinks I'm crazy. "Everyone there is so nice, and you work with great writers, plus you can pick up the phone and make reporting calls any time you need to." Fine, but that doesn't mean I still can't complain. Weirdly, I've been missing the boys both more and less since I've gained a better idea of what they are up to. "Gee, it would be nice to be in the park right now" alternates with "So glad I'm going out to lunch instead of dealing with nap time right now." There is also less of that "locked-in" feeling, that my life is going to be the same way for the forseeable future. Just briefly sampling Susan's experience shows that our parental roles don't have to be permanent.

Throughout the two weeks, Nick and I were able to chat in an easygoing way that's hard to pull off on the more-frenzied weekends. He's trying to figure out the world and makes lot of assertions, such as, "A billy goat could eat the Empire State building. It's true, you know." One of my favorites is his stern belief that: "A thumb is not a finger!" At first, I tried to correct him. "Actually, a thumb is a finger." But he didn't care. He was right.

That's sort of how I feel about the bigger questions swirling around this project: the work-life balance, the gendered roles of parenting, the mesmerizing power of the ceiling fan. Each family is its own little cult. You cobble together a belief system based on your judgment, intuition, traditions, and interactions with one another. Sometimes this may lead you to set off a flying saucer in your backyard. Other times, it may lead you to decide that Mom's job is more promising than Dad's, and he should stay at home. In your world, a thumb is a finger. In my world, a thumb is not a finger.

When we started this project, I wrote that I was nervous, partly because I was uncertain how much the switch would really matter to me. The work/life balance is one of many child-raising issues that men can sidestep (starting with actually giving birth to the child). Men get credit for staying at home. Men get credit for going to work. Women get criticized no matter what choice they make. Since having kids, it's Susan's life that has felt the major stresses and strains. The issue looms larger for her.

The final revelation—the last one, I promise—of Freaky Fortnight is that men should speak up about family stuff, too. I am extremely fortunate at Slateto have a flexible and family-friendly office, but I heard from dads who work in clock-watching, ultracompetitive, family-hostile places. They would like to spend more time working from home, helping out at home, and simply being around—but can't. Some office cultures are unredeemable, but it shouldn't hurt to make it known that hey, there's this other side of my life that's important, too. The more of us that do that, the less freaky a dad at the playground on a Tuesday morning will seem.

OK. I know you're busy. See you at the swings.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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