Mom's away

If you think you've got the whole working-at-home thing down, if you think you can do it all -- work, field trips, meals, cleaning, laundry, haircuts, doctor's appointments -- then send your mate out of town for a week.

I had this humbling experience recently and found that standards fall when no one is around to watch. The house gradually becomes a pigsty. The kids wear holey jeans to school because Dad was too late and too exasperated to make them change. Phone calls go unreturned. Macaroni-and-cheese suddenly seems like a mighty fine supper. Competitive belching is acceptable after-dinner behavior.

Naturally, by the time my wife got back to town, everything was shipshape. I've got to keep up the illusion that I know what I'm doing around here. But I was forced to cast aside all writing assignments and work on the house for hours the day before she returned. She got home, marveled at how well things had been kept up, aned I beamed with pride. Then she went out of town again, and everything degenerated, according to pattern.

Is it the same for wives who work at home? At my sons' school, I see the stay-at-home moms in their J. Crew ensembles and their Buddhist calm, and I wonder what it's like for them when dad's out of town. Is it any different? Do things fall apart? Do they resort to giving their children spit-baths at red lights on the way to school? Do they dig deep into closets rather than do laundry, until they end up padding around the house in plaid shirts and jam-stained sweatpants and crunchy socks? Does an inordinate amount of their time become devoted to computer games and ESPN? I think not.

But you send mom out of town, and even the most organized dad soon will be ready to check "all of the above."

Without women around to impress, we men quickly lose the battle against sloth. It's a lot of work, keeping up the house and cooking and chauffeuring the kids, and there's almost always an easier alternative. Ignore the dirt (it'll still be there when I get around to it). Get drive-through fast food (the clerks don't care whether I'm wearing shoes). Skip Cub Scouts this week (I can't let the other parents see me like this).

Slothful Dad falls into a television stupor while it all piles up. He's slugging beer and flipping channels, alternating between three different basketball games and "Baywatch." Meanwhile, the unwashed kids are running around the house naked, eating cat food out of the can and setting fire to the dog. It's "Lord of the Flies" in suburbia.

Heaven forbid that the whole family go out of town and leave Dad home alone. That's happened to me a few times, and the devolution is rapid and severe. Within hours of the family's departure, I've become a cave dweller. All the window blinds are closed so I get no glare on the TV. I'm wearing rags. I'm scratching myself without checking to see whether anyone watches. I'm burping at will. There's filth beneath my bare feet and a dog lying nearby, gnawing a bone. It's a wonder I don't start playing with fire and painting primitive hunting scenes on the walls.

It all comes to a halt, of course. No matter how much of a Neanderthal the man becomes, he knows that eventually he'll have to return to the present. Clean the house. Stock the cupboards. Bathe the children, the dog, himself. The fact that this all will occur within hours of the wife's return is a given. What's the point of procrastination if you don't wait until the last possible minute? Then it's a frenzy, a whirlwind, a slam-bang race to the finish. Clean everything. Cook a meal. Pass out fresh clothes and bandages and toothbrushes to the troops, along with a final debriefing of "things we won't tell Mom."

And then Mom breezes in, flushed with happiness, and finds the place just as she left it. And she congratulates Dad on keeping everything so orderly. And Dad beams with pride, all the while wondering what's on ESPN.

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