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The Missing Mommy Gene

Robby and I are at our pediatrician's, Dr. Hapke. I can see we have a long wait in store; it's a good thing I thought ahead and stuffed a couple of Arthur books into my backpack. Scoping out the waiting room, I spot three of my son's favorite games. So though there are still two patients ahead of us, I'm undaunted. Amusing our 4-year-old is something I'm good at.

When our turn comes with the doctor, she ascertains that Robby has the flu, plus the beginnings of a secondary ear infection  -- just as my wife had suspected. I efficiently get the prescription for his antibiotic, have it phoned in to our pharmacy, and arrange a follow-up call to the pediatrician in a week. Everything appears to be under control.

Back home, I tell Carol that, yes, Robby does have the flu and an ear infection.

"When does the doctor think he can go back to school?" she inquires.

I have to admit that I forgot to ask about that.

She also wants to know: Is he still contagious? Can he go swimming Thursday? How many days before he can resume full activities?

It seems I didn't get any of those answers either.

"But here's his antibiotic," I volunteer, brightly.

Carol rolls her eyes, ever so slightly. Not a criticism. Just a look.

Similar to the look Robby gives me when I'm not right on top of all the information he feels a parent should be on top of. I know a lot  -- but somehow I don't know it all.

For instance, when I pick him up after preschool, I'll ask him if it was his turn to do the calendar today, if he enjoyed his pickle sandwich for lunch, whether that annoying Ian turned the lights out while he was in the bathroom. Fine so far. Then, I'll ask whether they're still singing "Listen to Your Mama!" in music. That's when I'll get the look.

"Dad," Robby tells me in that what-am-I-going-to-do-with-the-old-guy voice, "we don't have music on Thursdays." Implicit in his impatience is the assumption that Mom would never ask such a dumb question.

I also get the look when he tells me that Mrs. Leonard was helping out at writing day, and I ask, "Who's Mrs. Leonard?"

"Uh, I think she's Kyle's mother?" Robby answers, in a sarcastic tone truly awe-inspiring in a person so young.

The thing that mystifies me is that I'm not one of those hapless, just-off-the-train absentee dads, the kind who treats his kids as if they're foreign objects that came without instructions. I work in the house; my office is right upstairs. I see my kids all the time. I play with them. I play with their friends. My kids like me. Their friends like me.

So what gives? How is it that my wife knows important things I don't?

I can only conclude that when the built-in parenting kits were being distributed, some key paragraphs must have been omitted from the fathers' edition. Why the mothers got the better, more comprehensive version, I really don't know.

Whatever the explanation, it burns me. Just wait, I want to tell my wife, my day will come. One day Robby's going to want to know who takes the cutoff from the center fielder  -- the shortstop or the second baseman? If he should wear his cup and his jock over his boxers or under? If he's better off using a blade or going with an electric razor?

Wait a minute. Is that all I'm good for  -- jock stuff?

Well, no. I'm also the one who can get Robby back to sleep when he wakes up in the middle of the night with a stomachache or a bad dream. I'll lie with him for as long as it takes until I hear that steady, delicious breathing  -- and then I'll still count up to 200 for good measure.

I'm also the one who's there when Robby, having scooted under the table to retrieve a ball, is about to come up a bit too early and smack his head. I instinctively shoot my hand out between his skull and the furniture, averting disaster. It's the same as knowing just how high he can fly on the swings without going too high, or just how far I can toss him in the pool so that it's fun, but not scary.

And who can show him and his friends a better time in the yard? Whether it's one buddy or a bunch of them, whether we're playing on the swings or on the baseball field, I'll have them laughing and running around and falling on the ground like a litter of happy puppies. And I can tell that Robby's proud of me at times like those.

This line of thinking makes me feel a whole lot better  -- and a lot less contentious. Maybe the moms' parenting kit is state of the art, but I'm starting to think there was some pretty good stuff installed in the dads' kit too. I feel so inspired I want to invite a few of Robby's friends over so I can show them a good time. We'll start off by giving Kyle a call.

One small problem. I need to get Kyle's phone number out of the book.

"Uh, Robby?" I ask. "Would you mind telling me Kyle's last name? Just one more time?"

Hank Herman, a humor columnist for the Westport News, in Connecticut, is the author of Super Hoops, a basketball fiction series for kids.

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