From The Guinea Pig Diaries: To Serve With Love
How A. J. Jacobs survived a month of playing the perfect husband.
By A. J. Jacobs From Reader’s Digest
Originally in The Guinea Pig Diaries
The most common theme of all the e-mails I get—with the possible exception of those from Canadians who are furious that I once misspelled Wayne Gretzky’s name (who knew Canadians could get so worked up?)—is that my wife, Julie, is a saint.
Readers have said they’re in awe of her for putting up with the beard I grew for my book on the Bible and the endless stream of facts about, say, China’s opium wars during my year of reading the Britannica, and all the other nonsense that has come with my writing projects. Some people have even said I owe her something—precious stones, perhaps.
But others have said I need to pay Julie back by spending a month doing everything she says. As in, a month of foot massages and scrubbing dishes and watching Kate Hudson movies (if Julie actually liked Kate Hudson, which she doesn’t).
I can’t argue that Julie’s a saint. But the experiment is …
Well, if I’m being honest, it’s actually a pretty good idea. It’ll let me explore the tricky power dynamics of the modern American marriage.
So I decide to launch it.
When I tell Julie about Operation Ideal Husband (or Operation Whipped, as my friend John calls it), she jumps for joy. I don’t mean metaphorically. She bounds around the living room on an invisible pogo stick, clapping her hands and saying, “Yay!”
Julie usually does wear the pants in our family, to use a clothing metaphor. But for one month, I will wash those pants and iron them. I’ll be geisha-like in my obedience and think of nothing but her happiness. I will be an obedient 18th-century wife to my 21st-century wife.
Laying the Groundwork
First I ask Julie to tell me some things she wants from me during this month. She begins to talk. It’s a good thing I brought a notebook.
“Well, let’s start with the bed,” she says. “No forcing me to the edge of the bed with your six pillows. No waking me up when you come in at night using your BlackBerry as a flashlight. And no talking during movies. No looking over at me during sad parts 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.
“No buying the first fruit you pick up at the grocery store,” she continues. “No wasting food. If the boys”—we have three—”don’t finish something, wrap it up and keep it for the next meal.”
My wife is in the zone. I have pet peeves, too, but I don’t usually recall them with such accuracy and speed.
“No making fun of my family,” says Julie. “No complaining about having to go to New Jersey on New Year’s Eve. 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 tell me, ‘It is a mystery that humans have been pondering for centuries, but scientists and philosophers are no closer to an answer.'”
Okay. I can see how that might get old. Fair enough.
“Go to sleep at a decent hour so you’re not a zombie in the morning,” she adds without missing a beat. “No telling me when an attractive woman friends you on Facebook in a lame attempt to get me jealous. No putting things back in the fridge when there’s a teensy bit left.”
“Now wait a second,” I interject. “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.”
I must have looked like I’d just gotten beaned by an Olympic shot put to the forehead, because suddenly Julie softens.
“I love you,” she says.
“Noted,” I say.
The First Day
“Good morning, honey! You look terrific!” I say, really playing this up.
“Thanks, sweetie!” she responds.
Soon after these niceties, Julie assigns me my first chore of the day. “Can you think of a third gift we can give your father for his birthday?”
Three gifts? That’s my initial reaction. My reflex is to make some clumsy remark like “So two gifts aren’t enough? What was he, born in a manger?”
Instead I just say, “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.
I also know it’s not good. You playfully bicker enough, and after a few years, it stops being playful.
I’ve got to reboot my brain. Marriage doesn’t have to be boxing. Maybe it can be two people with badminton rackets trying to keep the birdie in the air.
So I spend the day trying to suppress my “me first” instincts. For every decision, I ask, What would Julie want?
Checking with my inner Julie every 20 seconds or so is exhausting, though. I start to cut the cantaloupe for my sons’ breakfast and stop. Julie once complained that I cut cantaloupes all jaggedly, like a graph of the NASDAQ. I couldn’t care less, but it matters to her. So I use a sharper knife and make a smooth and straight cut.
“Are you liking this?” I ask as she watches me.
“Loving it. And it’s great for our marriage. Right?”
“Right!” I say.
And bite my tongue.
Henpecking Through History
I reflect for a moment: If I’d tried this experiment a couple of hundred years ago, I’d have been breaking the law.
According to Stephanie Coontz in her fascinating book Marriage, A History, if the wife was the head of the household, the husband wasn’t just an object of contempt—he was a criminal. “A husband could be fined or dunked in the village pond for not controlling his wife,” she writes. In Colonial America, men sometimes “sued for slander if neighbors gossiped that a husband was allowing his wife to usurp his authority.”
In the Middle Ages, rural villages had charming rituals for those who didn’t discipline their wives: “A ‘henpecked’ man might be strapped to a cart or ridden around backward on a mule, to be booed and ridiculed for his inversion of the marital hierarchy.”
Coontz makes clear that for most of history, marriage was wildly undemocratic. Husband and wife were like czar and peasant, chairman of the board and receptionist. In fact, wifely obedience was pretty much synonymous with marriage.
So I would have been seen as a traitor to my gender. I tell Julie about my research and read to her from a 1788 poem by the Scot Robert Burns called “The Henpecked Husband”: “Curs’d be the man, the poorest wretch in life,/The crouching vassal to a tyrant wife!/Who has no will but by her high permission,/Who has not sixpence but in her possession.”
“You’re very lucky you weren’t his wife,” I say.
“Yes. Very lucky,” Julie replies. “But you’re not allowed to do that this month.”
“Compare yourself to other husbands,” she says.
‘Tis Better to Give
One of Julie’s guidelines for Project Ideal Husband is, naturally, that I should buy her flowers. I object that we’re in the middle of a fierce recession (I know, not very obedient of me). Flowers in New York are so expensive, I surmise, that they’re kept hydrated with water drawn from the fjords of Norway by specially trained geologists.
“It doesn’t have to be flowers,” she says. “Any gifts will do.”
I was a decent gift giver when we were dating. I gave books and soaps and cinnamon-scented candles. Then the presents trailed off. Maybe my gift-giving deficiency is genetic. My dad is still living down the gift he gave my mom for their first Valentine’s Day—absolutely nothing.
So I start bringing Julie a gift a day. Mostly no-foam lattes. But also DVDs and soaps and books.
I start to plan the gifts days in advance. I look forward to seeing Julie smile when I plop them on her desk.
I haven’t gotten any “jumping for joy” outbursts from her again, but when I present her with the autobiography of
Maureen McCormick, who played Marcia Brady on TV before a bout with drug addiction, she rubs her hands with glee.
Over the years, I’ve observed that behavior shapes thoughts.
My brain sees me giving a gift to Julie.
My brain concludes I must really love her.
I love her all the more.
Which means I’m happier in my relationship—if a bit poorer.
Mr. Mom, the Sequel
I’ve always chipped in and done my fair share of housework. But just to make sure I’ve got it covered, I ask Julie to list all the household chores she does.
“I clean up the kids’ rooms,” she says. “I set up playdates for our kids. I take them to their doctors’ appointments. I pay the bills. I get baby gifts for our friends …”
If this were a movie, it would show the hands of a clock spinning around, maybe whole calendar days flipping by. It’s a long freakin’ list.
“I fill the liquid soap dispensers. I wash our place mats. I get new ink for the printer.” On and on it goes. Finally, Julie pauses. “This exercise may cause a lot of trouble for you.”
I’ve been thinking the same thing. She does chores I did not even realize existed.
“Let me do it all this month,” I say.
“I can’t let you do that,” she says, envisioning, no doubt, the chaos that would descend in a matter of days.
Still, I give it a try.
The next morning, Julie says, “Okay, call the pediatrician and schedule the … You know what? I’ll do it. It’s faster.”
This is the problem. Julie is just more competent at a lot of these tasks. Or all of them. She is the single-most-organized person in the world. My wife actually tabs and archives all her magazines.
Okay. I decide I can master this domestic stuff too. I decide the key is to be aggressive, or proactive, as they say in business meetings. I have to be an alpha househusband.
I find out about a great cable-TV drama airing in two weeks. I type an e-mail to Julie: “Should we record it?”
Before I press Send, I pause.
The “we” in that sentence? That’s actually “Julie.” The true meaning of my e-mail: “Julie, would you record it?”
I delete the e-mail. I schlep into the living room and program the TiVo myself.
Yeah, I know. I’m a hero. But there are dozens, hundreds, of little chores to be done. I’m overwhelmed. One day, I spend two hours writing and the remainder of the day reattaching knobs to cabinets and putting stray CDs into containers.
To paraphrase the title of a recent bestselling book about modern-day women, I don’t know how in the world Julie does it.
The truth is, Julie is actually the sensible one in our marriage, the straight man to my wacky schemes. I probably overrepresent the conflict. Sure, fights happen in our life. But I don’t write about the hours of peaceful, contented existence we share.
Yet at 20 days into the Month of Doing All She Says, the power seems to have gone to her head. Her requests are coming faster, more abruptly.
“Change the batteries in the kids’ toys.”
“Clean out the coffee machine.”
She even snaps at me. Literally. One night, I ask her something while she’s watching Top Chef, and she answers me with three snaps and a wave of the hand, which is sign language for “Get out of the room now.”
She’s also e-mailing me daily to-do lists. One item on today’s list: “Put four Diet Cokes and four beers (any kind) in the refrigerator.”
I write back: “Thanks for allowing me to choose the brand of beer! You clearly have faith in my judgment!”
“You’re welcome!” There’s a pause. Then she writes, “This is the best month of my life. Let me make the most of it!”
Satisfying the Wife’s Appetites
I’m making chicken piccata for Julie—chicken with lemon juice, olive oil, and white wine. When she hears the baffling sound of me pounding the chicken breasts with a rolling pin, Julie comes into the kitchen. She looks surprised. Then skeptical.
“Is this going to be more work for me?” she asks.
“That’s what you say to me when I’m making you dinner?” I reply, appalled.
“You’re right,” she says immediately. “Thank you.”
In cooking my dinner, there is no Mr. Mom wackiness like there was in the 1980s movie starring Michael Keaton. The rice pilaf doesn’t explode all over the kitchen walls. The chicken breasts don’t send us to the hospital with botulism.
I light the candles, pour the wine, serve the chicken.
“No napkin over your arm?” asks Julie playfully.
Aside from the napkin oversight, I’d go so far as to say that my dinner is actually romantic.
“If you cook for me every night, we could have sex every night,” says my wife.
“I don’t want to have sex every night,” I reply.
“I thought all men did,” she says.
“All men who are 17,” I say.
One night near the end of the experiment, I am sitting at the computer when Julie walks in the front door.
“What time did the boys go to sleep?” she asks.
“Six-thirty. They were very tired.”
“Are you serious? Six-thirty?”
I like the look that is now spreading all over her face. It is a look of … surprise. Respect.
Shortly after that, Julie says to me, “You know, I think we’ve cut the sass in our marriage by about 35 percent.”
I agree with her. Since I have been saying nice things to her all month, she’s been saying nice things to me. Sure, it took a while for things to change. And Julie did actually snap her fingers at me—that’s true. But overall, we have moved into a vicious cycle of niceness.
Finally, Julie admits, “I think this has been one of the best months we’ve ever had.” She adds, “I’d like to thank the readers who came up with this idea. Although I’m still angling for the Year of Giving My Wife Foot Massages as a follow-up.”
And just like that, the experiment ends. My last task at the end of the month is to find all the missing pieces to the kids’ board games, a massive operation that involves bookshelf moving and rug lifting.
In the end, I see that this has been good for us. We’ve each learned to appreciate the other more. I’ve also learned the fine art of refilling liquid soap bottles.
I’ve even continued filling them. This extension of my diligence as a househusband has earned me “a big gold star,” as Julie puts it.
It’s not always about the grand gestures, we both came to see, but rather the accumulation of little gestures. The little gestures are the ones that count. So a gift of a John Legend CD goes—almost—as far as a necklace on a birthday.
Recently, when one of my readers met Julie, he asked her, “Why on earth did you marry A. J.?”
And she answered, “Because he makes me laugh, he cares so deeply about me and our kids, and he makes my days interesting. He also makes a decent chicken piccata.”
The Guinea Pig Diaries: MY LIFE AS AN EXPERIMENT, COPYRIGHT © 2009 BY A.J. JACOBS, IS PUBLISHED AT $25 BY SIMON & SCHUSTER, 1230 AVE. OF THE AMERICAS, NEW YORK, NEW YORK 10020