From their earliest incarnations, I was sucked in by the “reality” series genre in which two families trade mothers for a couple of weeks. In order to heighten the drama, the selected families must be not mere diametric opposites, but so different as to defy the laws of probability.We have seen rock and roll families v. fundamentalist Christian families, orthodox Jewish family v. redneck hillbilly families, vegetarian v. carnivorous families, and (most frequently) disciplined/ultra-neat/rigid families v. laissez-faire/messy/bohemian parents. In the end, regardless of the bitter arguments, the weeping and the threats of abandoning the experiment, both families are somehow better for having Seen A Different Perspective, and we are all reassured that however we live, even if we are circus clowns or orthodox jews, it’s all good.
An early episode featured a wealthy suburban family in which the father was a Japanese-American plastic surgeon and the wife a pretty blonde socialite type who appeared to have benefited from her husband’s professional expertise. This family “swapped” with an African-American family in which both parents worked long hours at hard jobs, and the kids”talked back,” ate junk food and listened to rap music. Rich family lived in a sprawling dream house with a pool, owned a second home by a lake, and ate out frequently and expensively. Poor family occupied a modest, single story home, and had clearly become adept at stretching a dollar. As the hour drew to a close, it became apparent that the producers had indulged themselves in a heavy editorial slant focused on the self-centered and vacuous nature of “rich mom” and the earthy, humble goodness of “poor mom.”
Even with my husband groaning “could it be any more obvious?” every few minutes, I was absorbed. I smiled when “poor mom” walked into “rich mom’s” room-sized closet and contemplated at least forty pairs of shoes neatly lined up on shelves, and I winced when “rich mom” attempted to bully her daughter-for-the-week into eating fewer carbs because she was overweight. Although I did not find “rich mom” particularly sympathetic, I confess that I felt for her when she discovered, on her first morning in her alternative universe, that there was no coffee in the house. I myself am capable of committing serious crimes when my first cup is denied or even seriously delayed. I could see it all coming, but it was still fascinating. I was also interested to note that no matter what surface differences there were, both families had essentially the same goals of health, happiness and success for their children, and both families were working, in their own way, towards reaching those goals.
I am now considering the discoveries that would be made during a less dramatic swap. If there were no cameras, no dramatic music to make sure we headed in the correct emotional direction, and no need to hook the interest of the average channel surfer, what would it look like if women traded families and households? Another woman coming into my house would probably find my husband charming and helpful, and my son basically well-mannered and appealing. On the plus side, my house is big and comfortable, there is a theoretical routine of cleaning, cooking and laundry, and I have built a schedule that allows periods of “mommy downtime” that I can use to write, read or work. On the minus side of the balance sheet, we have three cats and two dogs. It’s necessary to “cover” the door when coming in or going out of the house, because the dogs and one of the cats will almost always be waiting to escape, and the dogs don’t come when called. They have, unfortunately, been known to roam the city for twelve hours at a time before deciding to return home filthy and limping. Some of the animals are also accustomed to sleeping in beds with people, and insist on doing so; one dog sleeps under the covers in our bed.
Furthermore, my house always smells vaguely of animal, and there is always a thin layer of hair covering the carpet and furniture no matter how often I vacuum. There is no real floor on our bedroom because three summers ago in a fit of Bob the Builder enthusiasm I ripped up all the yucky carpet, planning to reveal the beautiful old floor underneath. There was nothing but particle board underneath, and until we can afford new flooring, we have particle board with rugs over it. We live in the midst of student renters who “party like its 1999″ almost every night except during finals and when they are passed out or home for the weekend. On the whole, I would classify our lifestyle as a complex blend bohemian, laissez-faire, and carnivorous, with notes of rigidity, neurosis, and spirituality, and faint hints of oak, leather and star anise.
While I am able to tolerate the chaotic elements of my own home life, there are many things that might make it difficult for me to survive two weeks in someone else’s house. I am not particularly fond of noise, and would become quickly psychotic in a household full of loud children, particularly if they were given to verbal or physical fighting. I would also fail to thrive in a home with more than one electronic noise source at a time. It is a well established rule in my house that if a stereo goes on upstairs, the television goes off downstairs. I am only good for about an hour of cartoon noise wafting from any part of the house, and become increasingly hostile in the presence of a child sitting dumbly in front of the television set for any length of time. I hate chewing gum, most processed foods, humorlessness, and apathy. I require morning coffee, periods of total silence, and gracious acknowledgement of my home cooked dinners regardless of quality. In fact, the more experimental and unappealing the meal, the more likely I am to sulk until someone thanks me for my efforts.
It now occurs to me that, in the unlikely event of a mommy swap, my family might be happier and better off with their new, probably more tolerant and relaxed mommy. They would be free to watch TV around the clock, snap their gum, eat canned hash, and generally disport themselves in ways that would lead to my swift and complete breakdown. They could have an orgy of noise any time they wanted to: the TV on in the living room, a CD playing upstairs, one computer roaring with synthesized race car engines and maybe that horrible tweedly Gameboy music to top it all off. No one would be bustling around picking up dirty socks, turning down the volume, or insisting that everyone come to the table for a meal with two servings from the fruit and vegetable food group. If the “new mommy” could stand the noise and the animals, she’d be on Easy Street, and no one would miss me for a while.
I could be persuaded to enjoy two weeks in the home of a family in which the parents were artists. Deep in the woods, with walls of glass, a pot-bellied stove and constant classical music, the house would be equipt with a vegetarian family, a well-stocked library, and no television set. I might miss watching “House” for a while, but I could get over it while lying on a well-worn leather sofa reading “Paris Match” in French and drinking espresso fresh from the machine on the counter. Besides a little Schubert, he only sound in the house would be the crackling of the fire, and the whisper of pages turning as I read, the (handsome and generous) father painted in his studio, and the (quiet, intelligent) children drew clever pictures at the kitchen table and fixed their own healthy snacks.
I’d miss my life, though. After a week or so, I’d be itching to jump up and fix a bowl of ramen noodles for Sam. I’d miss the comforting lump of beagle next to my leg under the covers, the rap music and engine noise of “Need for Speed” on the computer and especially the sound of my husband and son laughing as they played. I’d like to think that after a little anarchy (or martial law) my family would miss me too. We all want good things for our spouses and our children, but the little differences in how we make life “good” can add up to an infinite number of different lifestyles, tastes and choices. Like snowflakes, no two households are really alike, and I think there really is “no place like home….”