If you checked in last week, you may recall that my husband had just offered me the deal of the century: one month, completely kid-free, so that I could focus all my attention and energy on writing my dissertation proposal.
Of course I took him up on his offer, at which point he began planning what he called his month of “Urban Camping.” He ended up deciding to spend the month in Huntsville, Texas—my hometown — and also where my parents and my sister’s family live. Once they arrived, Brent piled the kids into the car and scoped out apartment complexes. He talked to several apartment managers until he found one willing to rent an apartment to a middle-aged guy with three kids for one month–just one month. Then he took the kids to Rent-a-Center and let them pick out whatever furniture they wanted and they rented it by the week. They chose a tacky faux suede sectional couch with an enormous matching chaise lounge. The girls decided the couch and chair were so great they wouldn’t even need to rent beds. Then they selected a tacky dinette set, a big TV (by our standards), a shiny black entertainment center and a queen-sized mattress (Ew! Yes, we rented a mattress). In short, they picked out things we would never buy and were positively gleeful when the furniture got delivered to their dingy, student apartment that, unfortunately, got really hot in the afternoon.
They spent the month doing I-don’t-know-what. They saw my parents and my sister’s kids fairly frequently, but not as much as I thought they would. They used their apartment lease to get a library card (they were Huntsville residents, after all). They saw a lot of movies. They spent a lot of time at the university student union, where they played videogames, skeeball, ping pong, and pool. They ate at Golden Corral—a lot. They washed their laundry at the apartment laundromat.
And I wrote my dissertation proposal. I kept strange hours—writing until late in the night if I was in the groove and then sleeping in until ten. I went to a restaurant for lunch or dinner every day because I was desperate to interact with other human beings! I sometimes called Brent to complain that I was lonely and whine that I just couldn’t work one more minute. It was hard to stare at my computer screen all day long and into the night. He must’ve smiled as he listened to me, but he never said “I told you so,” because he’s nice like that.
He sometimes called me, totally aggravated by how stinking hard it was to just go get a Diet Coke from the gas station if he wanted one. He recounted to me how one kid couldn’t find her shoes and the other kid lost one of his shoes and then two of the kids started fighting and then he got to the gas station and realized he’d left his wallet at the apartment and then someone started crying and . . . all this by 9:00 a.m. And all he wanted was a Diet Coke, dammit. I smiled as I listened to him, and I probably did tell him so because I’m petty like that.
The girls missed me—sort of—but it was hard for Stuart, who was only 2 at the time and was used to having me around. He cried a lot and refused to touch water (and this was Texas in the summer, so swimming was a must). He went on a tear with some scissors and cut a bed sheet, his own hair, and two of Brent’s brand new shirts. I talked to them on the phone, but he was too little to really talk and behaved strangely when I showed up to visit one weekend. That made me feel bad, but it’s not like I had abandoned him to the stork for a month. He was with his dad, right?
When the month was up, they said good-bye to the rented furniture, moved out of the apartment and came back home to the real world. I didn’t finish my proposal, but that hadn’t been the goal. The goal was to work on it and work I did. But, more important than my dissertation proposal (which did eventually get completed), we each got to sneak a peek into the other’s world. I got to see what it was like to be holed up in an office—nothing standing between me and a deadline except for, well, me. He got to see what it was like to be holed up with the kids—nothing standing between him and bedtime except, well, 16 hours of kid time.
Neither of us was happy with the division of labor during the Urban Camping month. I didn’t like going all day without talking to anyone. Much to my surprise, I didn’t like working all day and night long! I didn’t like not seeing the kids or Brent all day, every day. I missed reading to them at night and snuggling with Stuart. Brent didn’t like spending all day every day with them. He didn’t like not having any time for himself.
So even though we’ve never gotten back to that original 50/50 arrangement, we keep working on finding a balance that works for both of us. We go through periods (usually according to university semesters) where one of us works more and the other picks up the slack with the kids. For example, I worked this summer; he took care of the kids. He’s working more this semester and I have more family responsibilities. If we were to average it out over 14 years, I’d put the division of labor at 70% me, 30% him. (Brent thinks it’s about 65% me, 35% him.) We often joke that we would both like to switch places–I’d like to be able to work more and he’d like to be able to be home more. But, neither of us wants to stick to any arrangement for too long. We get antsy and like to shake things up, I guess.
This role-shifting seems to work well for us, but it’s only possible—I think—because we’re both in academia. Has anyone else had any luck with this? Has anyone else given urban camping a try?