Recently, I discovered an unacknowledged design principle that may be just as ancient -- and certainly more widely practiced, particularly in households with children. It's called Far Away. It's a masculine philosophy with the premise that the route to less work and responsibility is through furniture arranging.
I first came across the practice of Far Away at a friend's wedding a few months ago. I wandered around in the back of the church before the event, in search of a bathroom for my 2-year-old son, when I heard earnest voices through an open door.
"There's another thing I must tell you, something my father told me on my wedding day and his father told him," the father of the groom was saying to his jittery son. "It's about the marriage bed." My ears perked up, and I gently silenced my son. "When you move to your new house, it's important to choose the side of the bed away from the door. You won't know why right away, but once you have kids it will be very clear." I wanted to hear more, but my son ran down the hall.
I was astounded by the older man's words. My husband has always slept on the left side of the bed, which in two houses has been farther from the door. His father and my own father sleep on the far side. I began to see a pattern. Then, after visiting a number of friends' houses and asking about each couple's sleeping habits, I began to see a conspiracy. In almost every house, the man slept away from the door -- whether it was on the right or the left side of the bed.
This means, of course, that the woman of the family serves on the front lines during nighttime intrusions. Location being everything, it is Mom, right next to the door, to whom the children come in the middle of the night for water or comfort. It is Mom who is better situated to hear cries for lost blankies. It is Mom whom the children stumble across first in the morning to tell her the sun has come up or that they want to watch Zoboomafoo. All the while, Dad is strategically positioned to snooze undisturbed or to feign being undisturbed, which is the same thing.
When I expressed my suspicion of a conspiracy to my friends, at first many dismissed it. "I don't know who picked sides. It just happened," one mother of a 2-year-old told me. If this just happened, I replied, wouldn't I find fathers sleeping near the door about 50 percent of the time?
"He chose that side of the bed before we had kids," another friend with two young boys said. "That was in our other house. He couldn't possibly have known." But, I asked, who worked with the architect on the design of the new house, including the bedroom? Her face turned pale -- paler than it is normally from lack of sleep. Her boys wake her up on average twice a night.
I questioned my husband about his preferred slumber site. "I sleep better if I can hang my left leg off the bed," he said coolly. This from a man who could sleep soundly in a wheelbarrow. I told him I doubted he'd snooze any less deeply with a dangling right leg and accused him of manipulating the nocturnal order to his benefit. "The kids always want you at night anyway," he replied. Of course they do, I said, since I'm the most accessible option. The next few nights, I checked my husband in his sleep and not once was his left leg hanging off the bed. Just as I thought.
One of the only families I've found that don't adhere to the man-out-of-range sleeping practice is my sister's. Her husband sleeps closest to the door, and not coincidentally, he is the one who gets up with the kids. My sister goes around bragging that she's such a deep sleeper. I could be a deep sleeper too, I realize now, except for my proximity problem.
I asked my brother-in-law how he ended up on the near side of the bed. He was clueless. But after some interrogation, I traced it to this telling detail: He was so nervous on his wedding day, he said, he doesn't remember a thing about it. If his father did have the "bedroom" talk with him, he completely forgot it and as a result he's been waking upÉand waking upÉand waking up (all in one night) on the wrong side of the bed ever since. No wonder my sister claims she has the perfect husband.
As my friends and I considered the implications of what we'd uncovered, paranoia set in. What other areas of life were affected?
"How about the dinner table?" one mom e-mailed me. "My seat is closest to the kitchen -- I'm always the one retrieving drinks and whatnot." Aha! I thought. The scenario was identical at my house, and though my husband would never change sides of the bed, I certainly could shift my dinner seat.
The next day I moved to a spot that made us equidistant from the kitchen, and instantly, my jumping up from the table was cut in half. No longer did my husband have remoteness from the utensil drawer as the unspoken rationalization for not getting a clean fork.
I think this experiment offers hope that we can preempt men's covert avoidance measures. I propose a countermovement: Whenever possible -- whether it's when building a new house or rearranging the furniture -- mothers need to claim their rightful, and more restful, place in the home. And tell all those women you know who haven't yet settled down: When you're moving in with a man, choose your side of the bed carefully. Very carefully.
Jeannie Ralston is a contributing editor to PARENTING.