When Dad’s in Charge

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    She’s out there, somewhere, winging her way toward us.And now the two most beautiful words in the English language are flashing on the big board here in Concourse 3: ON TIME.

    Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t expect things to go perfectly.But I had a plan. As soon as Mom mentioned she was leaving on a ten-day trip, I began to map out my strategy for one-parent rule. Imagine the simple beauty of a single voice, I told my friends. Without Mom in the mix, we would have a clean, clear chain of command. Absolute veto power overriding the children’s notion of household democracy. No one touching the thermostat without prior authorization. Peace guiding the planets. Jupiter aligning with Mars.

    If only.

    It turns out ten days is a long time to serve alone as benign dictator, especially once I realized Mom had never been away from the kids this long before. Or from me, for that matter, at least not since that summer she spent in India. We weren’t married then – not even engaged – but I remember our goo-goo-eyed parting at the airport; the long, adoring faxes (yes, faxes) I sent to her hotels as she traveled; and the handmade sign I held up to greet her when she returned. Namaste, it said. That is, I bow to you. There is no other.We are joined always.

    But that was then. And Melrose Place was only in its first season. Now our airport goodbye is a rapid volley of back-and-forth reminders: Call me when you land. He could use a haircut. Remember the three-hour time difference. Please don’t let her dress like Paris Hilton. They both need to clean their rooms.

    Me: “We’re going to be fine.”

    She: “Just try to keep them alive.”

    The first few days, I try to stick to a few golden rules of dadcentric childcare that occur to me early on. First, pawn off the old leftovers on the kids. Great idea, except that the children prefer new chicken to old chicken; soon enough they refuse to eat any fowl that doesn’t come directly from Chick-fil-A.

    Next, use paper plates and plastic cups to minimize waste – a sound rule if we actually ate at home anytime after day three (see fowl, above). I suppose it would help if I used the state-of-the-art microwave/convection oven in the kitchen. Except that I only know how to punch the one button that reheats coffee and pastries in 30-second increments.

    Finally, I try to curb the retail feedings by dropping hints to friends that I am alone with the kids and need to be taken pity on. This works rather well, actually, and soon we begin roving around town in the minivan, itinerant beggars in the spirit of Oliver Twist, calling from the cell phone and hoping to be invited in for the odd meal or snack.

    Cracks continue to appear in the facade of my tightly controlled nation-state as the children, sensing opportunity in their mother’s absence, try rewriting the rules I’ve laid down.“But Mama lets us [fill in the blank here]!” they crow at every turn. Before long, the gentle, nurturing interplay between father and offspring I’d hoped for has turned into a series of fastballs aimed directly at my head. Without Mom here to provide a buffer, the kids’ endless, random questions exhaust the mind: Can I have a bikini? Is it gross to drink your own bath water? Can we buy green nail polish? Was Judas a saint?

    Thanks to Skype, the video calling service, Mom enjoys a portal into the domestic bliss she’s left behind. Via the laptop perched on our kitchen table, she peers at the scene and – how shall we say? – “provides valuable input” as I herd the kids into camera view. Apparently, Google Calendar contains items I must analyze, digest and respond to; I’m told that swim team and dance class crossed orbits the other day, and I completely missed the hand-off. The computer camera also tips her off to the general state of disarray. “The coffee pot looks awfully close to the edge of the counter,” she informs me from 2,000 miles away.

    Sensing trouble, she dispatches her mother to investigate.Nanny restores some order and discipline, and for a time there is harmony throughout the land. But why are the children so strangely quiet? It turns out they’ve conned their grandmother into revealing the TV’s parental lock-out code and have been roaming free and unfettered across the cable universe for days.As I sat blissfully unaware, Lucy managed to watch every Hannah Montana episode ever made (twice). Will, for his part, took in a horror movie where zombies claw their way out of their graves. And terrorize the prom.

    As the ten days near an end, I work to clean up the mess – and try to enlist the kids in a conspiracy of silence to ease their mother’s reentry. The laundry is mildewed from sitting in the washing machine for days on end. The kids haven’t bathed in a week. The kitchen floor is as gritty as the driveway. There’s a bad smell. We don’t know where it’s coming from. Let’s not tell Mommy, okay?

    Only this morning, Will poured blue Gatorade on his Honey Nut Cheerios just to see how it tasted. We let the dog out before we came to the airport – but did we remember to let her back in? Just keep everyone alive for ten more minutes, I think, as two new words – IN RANGE – flash across the concourse screen. Then the words change again – LANDED – and I think about the sign I held up so many years ago. We’re a long, long way from Namaste, my love. Now hear this, in plain, simple English:

    Mama, We Need You Home.