When Mom's Away, Dad Will Pay

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, April 24, 2005

"Go have fun, don't worry about us, the kids will be fine. You deserve a break," I told my wife, and she flew off to Jamaica, cruelly abandoning the family and ensuring that for eight days our children would essentially have no parent.

She would be doing yoga poses in Negril, becoming one with nature, as I would be stuck at home, becoming one with Domino's. The one consolation for me was that this would represent an enormous entry on my side of the ledger. She had tried to stipulate that the trip not be a ledger item, and I had "agreed," but we all know the ledger is not subject to negotiation. The ledger is omniscient. Nothing can escape its eternal gaze.

I am not incompetent in the domestic arts, but eight days as Solo Dad proved to be a learning experience. About halfway through my tenure, I discovered that the objects strewn all over the house had failed to move. They were stunningly inertial. What had been cast down on Sunday remained there on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Since the children were never going to pick anything up, I realized that it was up to me to learn once and for all how to ignore the debris.

When you're Solo Dad you must train yourself to look but not see. Discarded garments, shoes, hair thingies, unread and unsigned school forms from the principal's office, Barbie slippers, half-eaten bagels, empty Blockbuster video cases, cigar stubs and so on must become indistinguishable from the grain in the floorboards. If someone's toddler is in the house and finds a cat treat and starts to eat it, just offer the kid some milk. It's all very simple if you believe in your debris.

By Friday I noticed that the clothes weren't laundered. The laundry has always been done on a regular basis. It's not entirely clear how that happens. I open drawers and find clean clothes, neatly folded. I'm pretty sure this is all done through miracle fibers. You wear a garment, toss it in the hamper, and the miracle fiber apparently manages to clean itself and fold itself and then transport itself back to your drawer. But the system broke down, the fibers stopped working, and the kids complained about the lack of clean clothes. I told them (as any sane parent would) to fetch clothes out of the hamper. If you look at most "dirty clothes," they look sufficiently clean. When I was a kid it was perfectly acceptable to wear the same pair of pants every day for weeks. Wear bluejeans long enough, and they not only get a little stiff and dirty but on the tops of the thighs they begin to shine. (The reader thinks: He really knows his filth.)

For any man who becomes Solo Dad for an extended period, it's important to remember that "holding down the fort" simply means keeping the kids alive. Yes, the kids may forget to do the occasional book report, and may never actually bathe, but you have to have the courage not to care. You have to avoid the common mistake of excessive parenting. As a culture we don't give our children enough responsibility for their lives. They should make the hard decisions about which cartoons to watch. They should decide whether to eat an entire sack of pizza-flavored Goldfish crackers or switch to the cheddar-flavored Goldfish.

Work is tricky, however. One option is to call in sick, which arguably is a very accurate description of being a single parent. "I've come down with a case of children," you could say.

My own week went pretty smoothly, because I have an employer who doesn't require that I come to work. I did a lot of "telecommuting," which means "talking to your boss on the cell phone as you drive your kids to piano lessons."

A week spent shuttling kids around made me think of the assertion by the president and many others that "a marriage is between a man and a woman." Clearly by that description a marriage is understaffed.

A family needs at least three parents and ideally four or five. I know that might annoy some conservatives, but Heather needs at least two mommies. And many times I've looked at all the dysfunctional things around the house--leaky faucets, peeling paint, creaky floorboards--and thought, "This house needs a man."

Mostly a home needs a civilizing force, an aesthete, an artist, a supervisor, an enforcer of standards. A boss. I can pretend to be a boss, but I know I'm just a temp. It's her house.

You learn a lot about a person when she's gone. You want to say to her: Wow, you do so much more than I realized. I'm sorry I'm such a dork that I never say thanks. I hope you're having fun.

Wish you were here.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company