Working on this entry on Friday, I tucked my feet underneath me in Mike’s ergonomic chair; I hugged my knees to my chest. I’d gotten pretty comfortable at his desk. And at the end of the day, though I’d imagined cleaning everything up perfectly, wiping off the coffee stains, maybe leaving him a present, I departed hastily, e-mailing myself some documents I needed over the weekend, stuffing a printout of a memo into my bag. I left headphones plugged into Mike’s computer; I left a lunch bag in his file drawer. (Note to Mike: I don’t think there’s anything in there that will smell.) I shut off the lights and went to drink boxed wine in the DoubleX pod. I left as though I were coming back.
And now, a verdict is in order! Would I come back?
First, some reflection, by way of Deborah Garrison’s “Sestina for a Working Mother”:
The apprehension of what kind of day
It will be in the world of work, blissful without children
Trembles in the anxious and pleasurable pulse of the morning;
It has tamped her down tight and lit her out the door
And away from what she might have been as a mother
At home, perhaps drinking coffee and listening
To NPR, what rapt and intelligent listening
She’d do at home.
Garrison’s mother wonders who she might have been during unhurried mornings; I wondered who I might become in their “anxious and pleasurable pulse.” The idea behind this experiment was simply to inhabit the unchosen world. I’d see how it felt to spend a few days as a different kind of working mother; I’d see how it felt to be like Mike. Freaky Fortnight was a chance to role-play, and we approached it with the sunny sensibility of a Disney movie. But the moment we swapped, I got the jitters.
I was most uneasy about trespassing in Mike’s world. Sitting in his chair that first morning, I had a foreboding feeling that this experiment, rather than concluding with a smiley aphorism about walking a mile in another’s shoes (which would be bad enough), would end in regret. Or, worse, with the swift, harsh outcomes of folktales in which “family members exchange jobs with disastrous results.” (One of us might drown; the other might get stuck in a porridge pot.)
But not only were we spared misfortune, we actually had fun. I liked being at Slate. (There is no place from which I would have rather tracked Balloon Boy’s flight.) One night in the kitchen, I announced to Mike, “Being at the office is definitely easier than being at home.” Mike said, “You have to write that.” I said, “Yeah, but …” and added a ton of qualifiers. But now I’m just going to say it straight out, because it’s true: It’s easier! Every day I’d sit at Mike’s huge, white, T-shaped desk, and every day its span suggested the same thing to me: time. An office day is so long that within it you could take a transcontinental flight. Every day I was there, I had the luxurious sense of being in a child-free first-class cabin.
Of course, it was sad to look down at my children from 36,000 feet. Their lives felt remote. I saw Nick and Will for only slivers of the day. Yet I was spared the concerns of many working mothers. I never worried about the quality of my childcare: The boys were with either trusted baby sitters or their father. And I didn’t have to figure out how to use a breast pump in Mike’s glass-walled office.
So could I see myself going back to a regular job? Yes, I could—though being an editor means spending a lot of time on other work besides just your own writing, and the loss of my freedom (and my chance to fail) would be as significant a factor in my decision as motherhood. But saying “yes” feels cocky, like I assume that a job is something I can just snap my fingers and get. Jobs are scarce. And the cost of childcare comes into play: If I went back to work in an office full-time, we’d need a full-time baby sitter. We’d come out ahead, but not by much.
When Mike goes to work on Monday, I’ll have a warm family feeling toward his office, a little bit like the one I have toward Nick’s classroom at school. For my part, I’m going to revel in going to the grocery store. (Another note to Mike: The kids don’t eat the “jumbo” raisins because they look like beetles.) And when I pick Nick up from school, I have some explaining to do. We’ve been reprimanded—someone has been packing chocolate bars in Nick’s lunch box. “But chocolate bars aren’t candy!” Mike protested. “Um, that’s exactly what they are,” I told him. “I thought dark chocolate was a health food now,” he said.