All through the brutal Midwestern winters I endured during elementary and junior high school, I wielded the then-marvelous power of being one of the first kids to know if any given day was to be christened a snow day. For a time, my dad was the superintendent of our small-town district, so when the forecast looked reasonably Arctic, the power to decide whether the monolithic process of school would even happen that day — a power that, at the time, seemed roughly equivalent to that of Thor — resided in our house. If the phone rang before 6 a.m., it meant I could safely flick the off-switch on my alarm clock, sleep for a while and wake sometime later for a very big day of snowballs and Tetris.
Not to sound like one of those tiresome “everything was better about X when I was a kid” people, but when I was a kid, everything was better about snow days. The phrase itself was a code word for hours of maniacal fun, for compulsory playtime, for a vacation day illogically deposited midweek, for a meteorologically blessed block of time in which you were compelled to do nothing at all because even if you had a destination, you probably couldn’t drive to it. One 5:45 a.m. ring of the phone meant the day had exploded into a rainbow of possibility. By startling contrast, when my children’s school last week buzzed my phone four times — twice to report an initial two-hour delay and twice to report “Never mind, it’s gross outside and we’re bailing” — my response was more like this: OhfortheloveofPete.
In our house, snow days mean one thing: Cancel everything, the boys are staying home with me. My wife holds a health-care job that includes such outrageous requirements as “being present for surgeries,” and I have a job that involves drinking coffee in slippers and writing cantankerous essays at 8:15 in the morning, so it’s not exactly as if snow days cause a search for some parity-seeking compromise. On this most recent occasion, she was long gone before I got up, although she did make coffee.
This, of course, both stinks and is 100 percent agreeable, understandable and proper (and also, it stinks). Of course, there shouldn’t have been school, what with the ridiculously low wind chills, and the frozen bolts of rain streaming down the bizarrely twisty streets in our neighborhood. No one wants to send their kids out into Hoth, and no one wants buses out on unsalted country roads. But also, and at the risk of hammering home a point: OhfortheloveofPete.
I don’t feel good about this attitude. When you’re the stay-home parent, snow days offer boundless opportunities for dedicated kid time. They are a chance to play with the Christmas haul, to dust off some of those dinosaur-excavation kits in the closet, to make a fresh mess in the living room, to build numerous and diverse forts, to arrange all the Hot Wheels in the proper spots in their garage, and to make at least one steaming batch of hot chocolate. But exactly none of this happened, because the kids were upstairs watching “Phineas and Ferb” while I was downstairs writing cantankerous columns about snow days.
When you’re the stay-home parent, the first few hours of the snow day are spent cramming in as much of the day’s work as possible, not unlike a Florida-bound tourist attempting to shove his life into an overhead compartment. The kids will be up soon, so I have (makes calculations) 75 minutes for emailing! Pitching! Pop-Tart heating! Interview rescheduling! Honey Nut Cheerios-slurping! Wondering if that noise upstairs is the kindergartner fumbling out of his bed, and if it is, how long can I plop him in front of Netflix before he gets all needy about breakfast? Trying to figure out if the eighth-grader can babysit for the morning while I go to Starbucks to approximate some degree of a work day since the chances are very good they’ll spend the morning playing “Mario Kart” anyway! And then, generally, more emailing.
Of course, I acknowledge being incredibly lucky that a snow day involves only this relatively paltry degree of adjustment. But if you’re the stay-at-home parent, the one who’s assumed to be handling the domestic role, even if you know it’s the only logical arrangement, even if you know your wife’s patient probably would like his surgery done today, even if you know you’d rather not have whale shark-size school buses slip-sliding all over the roads, it still feels like a burned opportunity, a day that won’t be used to its potential. Instead, my attention will be pulled in at least three directions: older son, younger son and whatever blinky thing on my computer that demands my attention. I wish this piece had a resonant end to it, some lesson or insight I glean from staring wistfully into the carpet of glittering white in the front yard, something more than wondering if this is what my mom felt when the phone rang at 6 a.m. But, alas, it doesn’t.
On the plus side, the boys and I got in an awful lot of “Mario Kart.”
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