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Dad Only

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.

What is most shocking about this Dad-only situation is that I make all the decisions. There is no mom to debate with over the various and endless choices of fashion, cuisine, afterschool endeavor, or nighttime activity that contravenes already agreed-upon guidelines and limits (or what is loosely known in these parts as "house rules"). When Kathryn's home, we sometimes allow the kids to play us off against each other, and we also use one another to gather as much information as possible and examine every alternative from each of our two vantage points before making any decision. When it's all up to me, I'm a lovable yet not benign dictator. I weigh the range of options, consult with the pertinent child, and decree. The freedom is exhilarating, the responsibility overwhelming, the outcome uncertain except for one amazing element: They accept it. They accept it when I say, No, you can't spend the afternoon with Ellis. No, you can't eat only french fries for dinner. No, you can't get on the Internet after 8 p.m. There is no one to appeal to -- I am judge and jury and appellate judge and appellate jury all at once; there is no other. This "no mom" stuff is freeing to both me and them, as if the debates Kathryn and I have sometimes entered into in front of them only unsettle their ground rather than advance their claim, as well as sap our own energy and weaken our resolve rather than helping us navigate the frighteningly complicated endeavor of parenting.

Of course, it helps that I'm lazy and willing to indulge them. Any days-long absence by Mom requires at least one takeout dinner from their favorite quick-fix restaurant, at least one rented DVD per child, and a one-gift-per-child spree at Walmart or Target or KB Toys, the trick being that the children must -- and I mean must -- agree on a single destination for the emptying of my billfold. When you have three kids across 11 years, even that degree of agreement is uncertain. But since I am the ultimate arbiter, since I can't consult beyond myself, since I refuse to go beyond the rather generous limits I set, they have no choice but to adhere.

It's shocking, really, to be temporarily in charge, to stare at their dubious but obedient expressions and know that they will actually hear what I say. I think that's what makes it so liberating and so successful: All four of us know my reign is temporary. Whatever I screw up can be reversed. Whatever injury is incurred, if I am careful enough, can be healed. And, of course, none of this could really work if Mom didn't come home, if we didn't know that at the end of this well-lighted tunnel is the even brighter light of her arrival, when she'll stride through the door with small gifts and a radiant smile and all that warmth that I couldn't possibly match.

When she does arrive, it is as if my ascendance has never occurred, and I'm instantly and appropriately and -- perhaps -- gladly relegated to a lesser role. As I roam downstairs paying bills and sweeping floors and emptying trash, while upstairs I can hear Kathryn mothering the children, I think I miss it and don't miss it at all. I only wonder which is more true.

Fred Leebron is the author of three novels, including In the Middle of All This and Six Figures.

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