It’s 6 o’clock in the evening. I’m standing at the window of our Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment, pressing my head to the child-guard bars and staring down seven stories at women in office clothes returning home. They have white blouses, BlackBerrys full of urgent messages, and purposeful post-subway strides. I have marker on my shirt, an iPhone brimming with posts to the Park Slope Parents e-mail list, and two children at my feet.
My husband, Mike, appears in the stream of commuters. He’s the tall one, in khakis and blue sneakers. “There’s Daddy,” I say, and my 4-year-old son runs to the window and says, “Where?” and I say, “There, right there.” All of a sudden, we hear tinkling music; we see a swirling vortex of sparkles. With a genie whoosh, I am transported to the sidewalk. I find myself in clicking heels, returning home after a day at work. Mike finds himself lousy with fairy dust, standing in the children’s bedroom, home after a day at home.
For the next two weeks, Mike and I are trading places. Each day I will get on the subway and go to his office at Slate. He will hang out in Brooklyn with our two sons: Nick, the 4-year-old, and Will, who’s 1. I will do Mike’s exact job—edit his writers, banter with his co-workers. Mike will do my exact job—take care of our kids, try to squeeze in work time. It’s a Ward-and-June switch, with a contemporary update. In our regular lives, Mike’s Ward wears Vans and is home in time to help with bed and bath; my June owns a single apron, pilfered from an organic grocery store, and has a part-time baby sitter so that she can write. What we are doing is more like switching the balance. Mike will become the parent who’s mostly at home, and I will become the parent who’s mostly at work.
We talked about this switch for months before we actually decided to do it. Mike was reluctant. Not because he didn’t want to stay at home with the kids but because he didn’t want to write about staying at home with the kids. We’re both 36, young enough to early-adopt new technology but old enough to have a firewall about personal revelation. Also, parenthood is not a neglected genre, and we are not interesting figures on the margins whose stories have not yet been told. We fulfill many stereotypes. We live in Park Slope, we shop at the Food Coop, we have a collection of unusual baby carriers. We are easy bait for the judgers. So I understood, and shared, some of Mike’s hesitation. I tried to act as if I didn’t care whether we went through with this. But the truth is, I was looking forward to it the way you look forward to a trip. An office is motherhood’s clichéd vacation spot, our breezy tropical island.
I liked to imagine myself on the subway in the morning. I’d emerge from the train in my one dressy skirt. Up on the street, the air would be crisp. I’d order a coffee from a cafe in which people were wearing outfits that were connected to trends in fashion. Back on the sidewalk, I’d have the Mary Tyler Moore cap-toss feeling. I say so much about the journey because, honestly, the commute is mostly what I imagined. The pictures I had of the office were vaguer. I just knew that I’d dispatch Mike’s work with little effort. My co-workers would find me witty. In short, I would shine.
About this triumphant fantasy, I felt guilty. There it is: guilt. The defining condition of modern motherhood. Or is that anxiety? This seems like something feminism can tell us. And I should say here that my level of expertise on the subject of feminism is low. Sure, I’m obviously feminist, in the same way I’m obviously liberal. But this isn’t an ideology that has framed my life. I went for months reading Caitlin Flanagan’s essays in the Atlantic before it dawned on me that there was something retro about her perspective that many of my contemporaries found maddening. (And something about mine that they would have found pretty dense.) The incendiary line that many women remember from those pieces is, “When a mother works, something is lost.” I, too, remember this line, which struck me but did not provoke my outrage; to me it was more like a suggestive, uneasy moment in a short story about family life. I wondered in what ways this statement might be true, and I wondered about the converse: What is lost when a mother doesn’t work?
I didn’t quit an office job when I became a mother. I had already been freelancing as a writer and radio producer for several years when our first child was born. My desk was already two feet from the bedroom. I stayed home because I was already there, but also because I wanted to. Not out of some sentimental, you-don’t-get-those-years-back impulse. It was more reflexive than that. Being a young mother—it was a stage of life, like high school. High school was one of those things smart people weren’t supposed to like. You were supposed to be grumpy and superior and yearn for college. But I liked it. Motherhood was the same, something that, on some level, smart women aren’t supposed to find completely satisfying. But this was my stage of life, and—my work circumstances being what they were—it just seemed natural to embrace it. Not staying home with my children would have been like not going to prom.
But not continuing to write would have been like not going to college. So when our first child was a few months old, we hired a part-time baby sitter. I had an unusually hard time handing my son over to the sitter; after all, I didn’t have a boss, and there was nowhere I had to be. Shouldn’t I have been able to work with my son at my side? (I kept picturing Gwyneth-as-Sylvia writing poems with the baby behind her in a playpen—conveniently ignoring the unhappy ending in the kitchen.)
But eventually I got used to the sitter, and, in the years since, I’ve been working on a novel, as well as on the occasional magazine article or radio story. Some of the work gets calmly completed during the baby-sitter hours and some more frantically on the margins: taking a reporting phone call at music class; doing an edit while breast-feeding. In general, I’m happy with the work I’ve done since having children, but I often get really mopey about not having done more. Or about not having earned more: With the exception of the year I received a movie windfall (a modest one—”that’s TV money,” sneered the agent), my work has not even covered the cost of child care. Which is humiliating, and imprudent. Also, when I take on a big assignment, I handle my family life poorly: I keep the laptop open at all times and ply my children with DVDs and animal crackers and, when Mike gets home, wonder melodramatically whether this arrangement is worth it at all.
Sometimes I really do wonder whether it would be better, like the one-generation-older female novelists whose Q&As I Google (see Alice Munro, Tessa Hadley), to make total peace with my stage in life and either write during naptime or just wait a few years until both boys are in school full time. Or the opposite: Maybe it would be better just to have a job. It’s funny how sometimes when I thought of this experiment, I felt as though I would be swapping lives with one of the women walking home from the 2/3 train, trading for another version of motherhood—when really I will be switching with Mike.
So here we go. I am ready to edit stories. (I worked as a magazine editor in the ‘90s—a bygone era of a single deadline each month and galley proofs.) And Mike is ready to look after the kids. Each day, we will write, Facebook, and tweet about our experience. And at the end, there will be a scene in a Chinese restaurant where we get our bodies back.
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