Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Ones Left Behind

“Honey, I have a business trip.” It is a phrase that sparks fear in the diaper clad heart of even the most stalwart of parents. My spouse dropped it on me a couple of weeks ago, but the reality of it didn’t sink in until he started to pack.

“You’re going away for how long?” I quizzed him again, squelching the panic in my voice.

“A week…I might stay the weekend if I can catch up with my frat brothers,” he said casually, as if the two extra days would have no additional impact on the spouse at home.

“Oh, that’ll be nice,” I said, biting my tongue until it bled to keep from screaming. I didn't remind him of the time my father went away on a business trip to Hawaii and didn't take my mother with him. He returned to find that she bought us the black lab puppy we had been begging for but that he steadfastly refused to get. I wanted my husband to know that going away on business trips and leaving us (and by us, I really mean me) behind could have serious repercussions.

But I’m, lucky. It’s not like my husband goes on business trips often, but when he does, it is a painful reminder of how (at least in our configuration of marriage, work and family) it really takes two to keep the balls we have in the air afloat. When David goes out of town, I’m out numbered. There are more children than adults. And I have discovered that two is an insufficient number of hands needed to juggle it all. When David goes on a business trip, inevitably I find myself forced into becoming a surburbanite Blanche DuBois, relying on “the kindness of strangers.” And by strangers, I really mean neighbors who cover carpool or co-workers who let you rearrange your schedule to get out earlier to pick up the kids or teachers who don’t report you to the Department of Children and Families because your kids are clearly not rested enough. Basically anyone who really has no reason to help me out with my temporary domestic labor shortage but does so anyway out of the goodness of their hearts or their desire not to see me end up on the evening news in one of those horrible reports detailing the exploits of a modern day Medea.

When David is gone, I go into survivor mode, which oddly, is a lot like my former (pre-marriage and kids) single life. In survivor mode, cereal is the meal of the day and the kids feast on it for breakfast, dinner and snack time. Thank God I can toss a dollar at them as they run (late) out the door so a hot meal consisting of something other than cereal and milk can be purchased at school. We devour cereal, the same cereal (or often variations of the too sugary sweet stuff) that no respectable parent would admit serving to their children. At least my kids haven’t yet figured out that they could put additional sugar on top of the Cocoa Pebbles (which I am sure would send them into a sweet induced frenzy followed by a crash of monumental proportions). We eat our cereal meals in front of the television, usually without napkins, sometimes without spoons, and any semblance of a bedtime disappears, replaced only by the vague idea that you better try to get some sleep so that the next day you don’t fall face first on your desk during a math test.

In business trip mode, standing outside in the rain, getting splashed with water and suds while helping me wash dishes in the sink and a cursory shower that lasts less than 30 seconds can all substitute for a daily, full scale bathing. If they can pass the smell test – in other words, not smelling too bad when they get ready for school in the morning - they will go to class slightly less scrubbed than on days when both parents are at the helm. We will arrive late for extra curricular classes, inevitably stumbling in after the lesson has begun and struggling to find a spot on the floor at dance class or an empty bench at piano. It’s just the way business trip survival mode goes. My kids actually like it. It’s an excuse not to have to always be on time, clean and healthy eaters. All the good habits I try to instill in them about how to negotiate life get tossed out the window as we just try to survive the week until the absent parent gets home. My husband’s version of business trip survival mode isn’t that much different except instead of cereal they eat endless amounts of McDonald's, their hair goes uncombed (unless another mother takes pity on them and pulls out a brush) and David forces the children to watch reruns of 1980’s sit-coms which make him reminisce about his teenage years.

As much as I hate it when David goes on a business trip, I like it too. I enjoy the freedom of survivor mode. The excuse to be the parent with the bad habits that I usually mock and scorn in others. I realize that I am who I mock. Just underneath the effort to try to balance it all, have well behaved, properly fed, squeaky clean children, I am the person who would be just dandy with dirty, hyped up, sugar stuffed monsters…at least for a few days. I can fall down on my job as a parent and if any one complains or comments, all I have to say is, “My husband’s out of town on business,” and they shake their head knowingly, absolving me of all my parenting sins.

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