When my wife is around, our three children won't let me do anything. I can't make them breakfast, can't get them dressed, can't read them a bedtime story or tuck them in or sit outside their doors as they wrestle themselves into sleep. "I WANT MOM TO DO IT," they all say, and if we like peace in the household, she does it. And when Mom is at work and I have kid duty, they'll always ask, "Where's Mom?" or "When is Mom coming home?" We co-parent right down the middle, alternating cooking duty and cleaning duty and chauffeuring duty, but especially at transition times, that means I am down in the kitchen doing dishes and feeding the pets while she's upstairs in the trenches engaging the kids.
Lately, though, we've found an antidote, a truth serum to get the children to admit I am a parent, too, a spontaneous strategy that has emerged from our professional lives and given new life to my position in the domestic hierarchy. It's called: Mom goes out of town. In these few days every four or six months, when Mom has to travel for research or face-to-face meetings or guest lectureships (she's a writer and teacher), I've discovered that the tables are turned. I don't become Mom (although the middle child, Jacob, during these interregnums will sometimes address me as "Mom, I mean Dad"), but it's as if the kids and I suddenly recognize we're all on the same team, and the sport is Surviving Mom's Absence. With the exception of the aforementioned occasional slip of the tongue, Mom is (possibly by some secret unspoken agreement) rarely mentioned, I get to handle all the tasks from which I'm usually shut out, and the kids talk to me as if I'm in the room with them -- which, by the way, I've been all along.
This sport had a messy start the first time Kathryn went away, when she had to fly across country for a job interview and I had to shepherd around the 4-year-old and the 7-month-old, and somehow this arrangement ended up in a clinic visit and stitches for the 4-year-old and an even wilder craving for the breast from the baby, but that is old news now. Now I know to get up half an hour early, make the children's lunches and myself a double dose of coffee, wake them five minutes earlier than usual in sequential order, oversee their various clothing and hygiene routines in the same sequence, and then get them en route en masse. As they march down the steps to the car with their bulging backpacks, their faces and mine are ablaze with mischievous all-knowing grins, as if somehow together we recognize that we've managed to confound the critics and commentators alike by making it out the door on time.