Life Swap: The Housewife and The War Reporter

I just finished my second residency last week and am in that space of dazed, inspired, exhausted and awe-struck that seems fairly typical of the residency portion of the low-res MFA. What’s that, you ask? Basically, it’s a part-time Masters program. Which is ideal for a full-time mother like me.

Over ten days, we writers (who’ve spent the semester sequestered at home) are brought together for an intense program of lectures, readings and workshops. We’re dazzled by the star power of our professors and guest speakers, which include Pulitzer Prize winners and MacArthur geniuses. That’s the awe-struck and inspiring part. The exhausted daze comes from the filled-to-the-brim days followed by French wine-soaked nights.

Do I look dazzled? My much-admired professor, Nathan Englander

A little background: I’m in NYU’s Creative Writers Workshop in Paris, where I live. The original plan was a low-res program in Vermont but I got knocked up with Baby #2. That, along with a husband who travels to precarious places half the year, made the 10-day semi-annual jaunts to Vermont logistically improbable. Thank god for NYU in Paris.

For any of you stay-at-home moms who want to Freaky Friday with your spouse—the Disney flick, not some kinky end-of-the-week thing—I wholly recommend a low-residency MFA. It will dust off your baby-addled gray matter and it’s only ten days twice a year. These aren’t the reasons to get your degree; this is what you tell your partner so he puts on his Mr. Mom apron with minimal fuss.

The residency is thrilling. I have an excuse to put on nice clothes and a swipe of mascara and I leave my house for something other than errands. I have a purpose beyond making milk with my body and entertaining-slash-educating a toddler and a preschooler. Nobody is clinging to my legs or whining for TV and not once do I think about what everyone’s going to eat, i.e. what I’m going to prepare, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (Don’t forget snacks!) There are no bedtime stories or songs because the author readings take place after the babies have already gone to sleep.

I’m free. Gloriously, selfishly free. And I’ve got the wine hangover—and resentful husband—to prove it.

Working hard with my classmates

To be fair, he only texted me the first three days of residency at 5:30 pm, the pre-witching hour of the kids’ dinner, bath and bed routines: “What time are you coming home?” “Not before 8:30, love.” “Oh. Ok.”

While I turned into a grad student, my world-traveling, former war correspondent husband became, well, me. He shopped for groceries, he cooked and even cleaned (!), he put our little ones to bed every night while he waited for me to come home.

By Day 5, he was snapping at me for leaving a dirty dish on the table or not sealing the poopy diaper in a plastic bag before tossing it in the trash. If I came back late after dinner with my classmates, he’d grumble about my “partying.” Finally I said to him, “Now you know why I can’t stand you, right?” “Totally,” he answered.

Childrearing is filled with “fuck you’s,” usually directed toward secondary caregiver (dad) from primary caregiver (mom). Fuck you that I have to get up five times a night to feed a ravenous newborn from my leaky breasts. Fuck you that our 3-year-old wants “only mama” to put her to bed every night. Fuck you for the saggy pouch formerly known as my taut belly. Fuck you for being able to remain yourself while I balloon into someone unrecognizable, a mother. And fuck you if you think I’m going to fuck you!

I say this unequivocally: Being a [good] mother is the hardest job ever. Because it’s not a job. It’s a lifetime sentence even, or especially, if you’re gaga for your kids. Sitting in front of a blank page is cake in comparison. Monsieur Maman over here would agree that a month-long embed in Iraq is nowhere near as exhausting as ten sleepless nights with a baby who’s cutting four molars at the same time. Especially since he cavalierly made the deal months prior, “I’ll take care of the babies while you’re in school. Sure, I’ll get up in the night. It can’t be as hard as you’re always making it out to be.”

He was right, of course. It’s harder.

Now that the residency’s over and the universe has more or less righted itself, we’ve gone back to our previous roles, more or less happily. After ten days, I ached to hold my children and put them to bed. After ten days, my husband just wanted to put himself to bed, but not before admitting, “I understand how much work you do and I really appreciate it. Full-time parenting is horrible. I think it’s actual hell.”

If all I get from my MFA is gratitude and empathy on the home front, I think I can call it a win.