"Your mama's on strike."
"No, she's not a dog either."
I grabbed the carafe and refilled my cup of coffee. This was not going to be an easy conversation. How do you explain to a 17-month-old with a vocabulary of a few score words, none of which are "Trump," "women," or "woke as hell," whose imagination runs on dogs and cookies and rubber ducks, and whose main hobbies are jumping and being bad at Mass that her mother has joined the resistance?
On Tuesday night—or maybe five years ago, which is what it feels like—my wife and I were talking about the National Day Without Women. What, we wondered, would it look like for a homemaker to participate?
"What if you went on strike?" I asked her casually. "It would be interesting."
"It sounds great," she said. "No cooking, no cleaning, you taking care of both kids. I'll just read all day in the bedroom and go for walks."
We quickly laid some ground rules, one of which was that nursing Daughter Number Two, who is three months old and doesn't take bottles, was a hobby, like stamp collecting or writing free verse, rather than a chore. Another was that, though the wind bloweth where it listeth, she should travel no farther than 10 miles from the house in case Number One or Number Two or—most likely—I ended up seriously injured in the course of our experiment in #woke domesticity.
The rest of the evening passed unremarkably. I went to bed at the usual time and slept the sound dreamless sleep of the ignorant.
My day began before dawn with a scream (or maybe two: when you're two-thirds asleep it's hard to tell where the noise is coming from). When I went to the kitchen I noticed that there was hot coffee waiting in the pot—apparently making it is another one of my wife's bizarre hobbies. Before I could even think about prayers or reading the news I was pulling Daughter Number One away from the power outlet under the dining room table while wiping spittle from the face of Number Two while—with the third arm that I'm pretty sure I had spontaneously generated by then—drinking my third cup of coffee. I didn't hear a peep from my helpmeet until around 9:00 a.m.
"So it's been three hours," she said, popping into the dining room, where I had assembled a kind of makeshift base camp. "On Thursdays you'd just be waking up. Where are the cigarettes?"
The life of a househusband is sort of like that of a character in one of those post-apocalyptic zombie movies where they live in a fortified bunker and try to keep the relentlessly kinetic but fine motor skills-challenged menace at bay. The first thing you do, assuming you don't find yourself faced with a full-on assault, is repair existing fortifications. By 10:30 I had added a layer of shirts and jackets to the exercise bike lodged between the right side of the couch and one of the bookshelves; one more box of books added to the gap on the other side was, I figured, more than enough to keep Number One away from the books and records and sharped-edged furniture in the living room.
Then it's time for skirmishes. In the first one, while I was dreaming of a smoke during Number Two's second nap, Number One managed to commandeer a kitchen chair, climb on top of it, and pull the digital control panel off our thermostat, leaving a miraculously unbroken semiconductor board and two (I hope) un-licked batteries on the floor. Round two was less dramatic but even more impressive: Scaling the top layer of a plastic tote full of old magazines, she managed in the course of a single dramatic somersault to kick the obstacle out of her way and tear the hinge off the top, spilling dozens of ancient New Criterions on to the living room floor. It was definitely her day, not mine.
In between these endless and exhausting pitched battles, the domestic soldier somehow finds time to enjoy rations (Cornflakes) and light R&R (reading a book with one hand) and even attempted parlay with the enemy ("Cookies?" "Cookies!"). What you don't really have time for is reflecting on the existential dimension of your situation. "Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die," as the poet said.
At 11:00 a.m. I had been awake for more than five hours and answered a record low of three emails, though a news item with my byline somehow managed to appear on this website. (I honestly have no memory of writing it.) When noon rolled around I still hadn't changed out of my bathrobe, much less taken a shower. On the upside, both kids were napping—but for how long? I ran into the bathroom, turned on the water, and started furiously applying shampoo to my hair before it was even wet. My hair was dry and I was nearly dressed in a time that would do U.S. Marine Corps cadets proud. Then I panicked.
The last time I woke up in the morning with a certain knowledge of where my belt was I would guess that Nancy Pelosi was speaker of the House and I had a female roommate. But under the terms of the provisional agreement with my wife even forced mental labor was, strictly speaking, verboten. I would have to proceed carefully.
"Honey," I said, walking casually into the bedroom. "You like fiction. Here is an interesting premise for a detective story. Suppose a man were to lose his belt. Where do you think a keen-eyed investigator would begin looking for it?"
"I think Sherlock Holmes would probably ask the man where he left the pants he was wearing yesterday."
"Well, now, that's interesting. But what if the man can't remember that. Where would the sort of man who doesn't know where his pants from yesterday are have been likely to put them?"
"I think," she said with a thoughtful pause, "that that sort of man would leave them on the couch and forget to look there and ask his wife, who did not put them there, where he could find them as if it were her job to know."
After the girls woke up I found myself feeling sort of boxed in. What was the point of putting on clothes if I couldn't enjoy the sunshine and fresh air and cool grass? A nice brisk walk to the CVS down the road for an iced tea would do us all good, I thought. So I did what my wife does and put Number One in the stroller and—with her help: I guess using weird contraptions to attach babies to people is another thing she would do just for laughs given unlimited free time—strapped Number Two to my chest.
For a moment I stood there, 13 pounds or so heavier, looking and feeling like the happiest moron in the world. I took a selfie and headed outside. As I opened the front door I saw my neighbor standing beside his car with the hood open. I turned back. We would have to remain content with opening all the windows and strolling around the living room instead.
There is no need to dwell further on these scenes of earthly misery. By 6:00 p.m. I was ordering vegetarian Chinese food and watching old Dave Chappelle routines on YouTube, dreaming of bedtime—for me and for the kids. My wife joined us for dinner.
"I just realized," she said, "that I've been on strike all day without telling you my demands. My work is my life. I think you know how tedious my job is and you appreciate it."
"Yes," I said.
"So I would say just one thing."
I held my breath.
"One day of the week I'm not going to do dishes."
I decided we could wait until tomorrow to talk about the fact that I don't even know how to turn on the dishwasher.