As part of his book, The Guinea Pig Diaries, author A.J. Jacobs did everything his wife told him to.
In the course of all the life experiments I do for journalism, the most common theme of the e-mails I get sent is that my wife is a saint. These e-mails are sent by readers who are in awe of Julie for putting up with my biblical beard, or for tolerating the endless stream during my year of reading the Britannica. Often, they'll say that I owe her something for the suffering I've inflicted—precious stones, perhaps.
But a handful of readers have suggested that I need to pay Julie back by spending a month doing everything she says. She will be boss. I will be her devoted servant. It will be a month, they say, of foot massages and talking about feelings and scrubbing dishes and watching Kate Hudson movies (well, if Julie actually liked Kate Hudson movies).
I've laughed off the idea for a couple of years now. I won't argue with the thesis that Julie's a saint. But the experiment is... well, if I'm being honest, it's actually a pretty good idea. It does seem a suitable way to end this year of human guinea pig-ging, the honorable thing to do for my wife. Plus, it could be revelatory. It'll let me explore the tricky power dynamics of the modern American marriage. It'll allow me to study the Mars/Venus, Everybody Loves Raymond clichés about gender battles and figure out which are true and which are hogwash. Female Vs Male Brain: Is There A Difference?
When I told Julie about Operation Ideal Husband (or Operation Whipped, as my friend John calls it), she jumped for joy. I'm not speaking metaphorically. She bounded around the living room on an invisible pogo stick, clapping her hands and saying "Yay!"
When I told my friends, they all had the same joke: You're going to do everything your wife says for a month? How is that different from every other month in the last eight years?
Yeah, yeah. It's true. Julie is, in some ways, already the CEO of our family. Since I put her through such misery with my experiments, I tend to defer to her on most other matters—travel, food, clothes. Especially clothes. Chief Executive...Housewife?
I'm a terrible dresser. My only two criteria for clothes are that they be soft and loose-fitting. One of Julie's favorite jokes is to give me a dollar when I'm looking particularly disheveled. You know, like I'm a hobo.
So to use a clothing metaphor, Julie generally wears the pants in the family. But this month, I'll be washing those pants and ironing them. I'll be geisha-like in my obedience. I'll think of nothing but her happiness. I'll take over her chores. I'll be like an obedient eighteenth-century wife to my twenty-first-century wife.
I should make a confession, though: part of my plan is to be so compliant, she'll see that that's not what she wants. She'll learn to appreciate my occasionally insubordinate pain-in-the-ass self. That was the plan, anyway.
A couple of days before I start, I ask Julie to tell me some things she wants from me during this month. She lays down Gone With the Wind—which she's been reading for the last two months—and starts to talk. It's a good thing I brought a notebook.
"Well, let's start with the bed. No forcing me to the edge of the bed with your six pillows. Sleeping Together Vs. Sleeping Alone
"No waking me up when you come in at night by using your BlackBerry as a flashlight and shining it in my face.
"And movies. No talking during movies."
"No looking over at me during sad parts of movies to see if I'm crying."
I'm scribbling away, trying to keep up. It's kind of disturbing how easily this river of minor grievances flows out of Julie. One after another, without a pause, pinballing from one topic to another.
"No buying the first fruit you pick up at the grocery store.
"No wasting food. If the boys don't finish something, wrap it up and keep it for the next meal.
"No leaving books in random piles around the apartment."
She was in the zone. I have pet peeves, too, but I don't think I could recall them with such accuracy and speed. It's at once impressive and disturbing.
"No making fun of my family.
"No complaining about having to go to D.C. to visit Henry and Jennifer every year.
"If I ask a simple question like 'Is the drugstore open on Sundays?' and you don't know the answer, try saying 'I don't know.' Do not say 'It's a mystery that humans have been pondering for centuries, but scientists and philosophers are no closer to an answer.'"
Fair enough. I can see how that might get old.
"Go to sleep at a decent hour so you're not a zombie in the morning.
"Be more knowledgeable about our finances."
"No hovering over my shoulder and reading my US Weekly and then claiming you're not interested in that stuff."
"No putting things back in the fridge when there's just a teensy, tiny bit left."
"Wait a second," I say. "You just said, 'Don't waste food.' I'm getting mixed messages here."
"It's a fine line, but I think you can figure it out."
It went on and on, this list. What's happening here? Has the power already gone to her head? Or am I unusually difficult to live with?
I must have looked like I just got beaned by an Olympic shot put to the forehead, because Julie softened.
"I love you," she says.
"Noted," I say.
The First Day:
"Good morning, honey! You look terrific!"
I'm really playing it up.
"Thanks, sweetie!" She's playing right back to me.
Soon after, she assigns me my first chore.
"Can you think of a third gift we can give your father for his birthday?"
Three gifts? That was my initial reaction. My reflex was to make some lame remark, like "Three gifts? Two aren't enough? What, was he born in a manger?" Instead I said, "Sure."
This is something I notice throughout the day. Whenever Julie says something, my default setting is to argue with her. It's (usually) not overtly hostile bickering. It's just affectionate parrying. Verbal jujitsu.
But at the same time, I know it's not good. You playfully bicker enough, and after a few years, it stops becoming playful.
I've got to reboot my brain. I've got to stop seeing conversation as a series of offensive and defensive moves. Marriage isn't a zero-sum game. It doesn't have to be boxing. Maybe it can be two people with badminton racquets trying to keep the birdie in the air.
I spend the day trying to suppress my me-first instincts. Every decision, I ask: What would Julie want? I start to cut the cantaloupe for my sons' breakfast, and stop. Julie once complained that I cut cantaloupes all jagged, like a graph of the NASDAQ. I couldn't care less, but it matters to her. So, a sharper knife and a smooth and straight cut.
Frankly, it's exhausting to check with my inner Julie every twenty seconds.
"You liking this?" I ask.
"Loving it. And it's great for our marriage. Right?"
The apartment's chilly, so Julie slides her hands under my shirt to warm them up. One of my least favorite of her habits. Two Popsicles on my stomach. I bite my tongue.
Mr. Mom: the Sequel
I rented Mr. Mom the other day, the early 1980s movie. It's the one with Michael Keaton getting fired and having to stay at home with the kids.
Every joke has the exact same premise: man attempts to use household appliance, household appliance goes berserk and sends off sparks. The domicile is a foreign and scary land to the 1983 male.
But things must be better in our enlightened twenty-first century, right? Actually, no. According to a recent New York Times Magazine cover story, women on average still do twice as much housework as men, about 31 hours to 14 hours. And here's the strange part: that ratio holds mostly true even if both spouses have full-time jobs. Even worse for women is the child-care ratio. Moms do an average of five times as much with the kids as dads. (Working moms do a measly 3.7 times as much.) This is the same ratio as ninety years ago.
I'd always figured I did my fair share of housework—or at least more than the average guy. But just to make sure, I asked Julie to list all the household chores she does. It's a long freakin' list. She does chores I didn't even know existed.
"I'll do everything in the house for the month," I said.
I've decided the key is to be aggressive, "proactive" as they used to say in business meetings. I have to be an alpha househusband. But there are dozens, hundreds of little chores calling out to be done. I'm overwhelmed. I spend two hours writing and the rest of the day reattaching knobs to cabinets and putting stray CDs in containers. To paraphrase the title of a bestselling book about modern-day women, I don't know how the hell does Julie do it.
[Editor's note: The month passes. He survives. We'll let Julie tell you the rest.]
This is Julie here. As part of being the obedient husband, A.J. asked if I would like to write the ending to get my point of view out there. Um, hell yeah!
This has been A.J.'s best experiment in, well, ever. For the sake of America's women, I hope this experiment starts a movement and other couples try it. Although if it does, I imagine A.J. will be hanged in effigy by the married men of America. Sorry, sweetie.
A.J.'s plan was that I'd eventually get bored of being in total charge and I'd be begging for his old self to come back. Guess what? That didn't happen. Maybe it would happen someday, but it would take a long, long, long time. I mean, husbands were in charge for thousands of years, right? I could last that long.
I do think that A.J. now appreciates me more. When I made the list of all the things I do, it was a revelation for him. I honestly believe he thought he was doing almost as much of the household management—that it was like 55/45 when in reality it was 80/20. I told him, it's going to be hard to get back to his old 80/20 ways now that the imbalance is so clear.
I do believe that the experiment was good for our marriage. It made A.J.—and me—realize that it's not always about the big gesture. Marriage is an accumulation of the little gestures. The little gestures are the ones that count.
From The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs. Copyright c. 2009 by A.J. Jacobs. Reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc.