Home alone with the backbone of society

by Brian Clarey

It’s 7:30 a.m., cold, and the house is quiet again after the hard burst of activity that happens here every weekday morning. The ripping staccato of alarm clocks. The donning of school uniforms. Some criticism of breakfast, no matter what it is, accompanied by threats to not eat it. An assessment of the weather and assignation of appropriate jacketry.

The boys hop to the bus stop on the corner and my wife and I still cannot bring ourselves to let them wait for their ride unwatched.

We’ll usually allow ourselves a moment to be together with our coffee then, with Baby Girl propped on pillows as Noggin imprints on her brain, before a round of showers and wardrobe, a run to daycare and a mad dash to our offices.

But today I’m alone. My wife has been out of town all week, leaving the job of operations manager in this little nonprofit solely to me.

I’ve been making lunches, supervising homework, doing some light chauffeuring. I’ve been reading stories, keeping peace, soothing tears, enforcing punishments. I’ve been washing dishes – good lord, the dishes – and kicking the dirty clothes into roughly the same corner of the house. I’ve been getting my ass consistently and relentlessly beaten on a combat video game by a 7 year old.

And honestly, if it was more than a couple days, I don’t know how I would do it. I had to take a day off work just to manage this four-day stretch, and I still haven’t taken out the garbage, tackled that pile of laundry in the corner, paid a bill, shopped for groceries, made a bed or cleaned the cat box. I’m not even sure if I’ve fed the cats. And these kids need a bath.

I also haven’t gone to the gym, shaved, eaten a meal on a plate or worn a wrinkle-free shirt. Or, you know, written my column.

She’ll be back in like seven hours. We miss her.

I don’t want to turn this into one of those comedies of errors that reinforces the negative stereotype of paternal ineptitude, but the days have not been without their share of comedy – Baby Girl got her foot stuck in a Lego bucket, and I found out what happens when a child vomits in a public pool. (They make everybody get out of the pool).

Really this is a story about the work it takes to raise a family, the delicate balance struck between work and play and home and self, the constant physical and emotional maintenance, the times of stress and exasperation that come in between those moments that make it all worthwhile.

My wife has got our little non-profit running smoothly. My usual role is unglamorous. I have some titular authority, but my duties are mostly relegated to odd afternoon pick-ups, heavy cooking and a rotating Saturday itinerary. It’s tough enough for the two of us to tackle; if I had to do everything myself for an extended period of time, I’d surely go mad.

My own mother stayed home with my sisters and me until I was in the seventh grade, when she went back to teaching school. This was in the ’70s, and in my neighborhood just about everybody’s mother kept the house and family while their fathers took the early train into the city and a late one back.

Back then, we took a school bus home for lunch every day, ate home-cooked meals in our own kitchens and then went back for a afternoon sessions. Schools don’t do that anymore. It’s a huge waste of money, for one, but also there is nobody for kids to come home to at midday. Single and divorced parents, dual incomes, active lifestyles have left our homes empty Mondays through Fridays when the sun hangs high. Even mothers and fathers who set aside their prime earning years to keep the home don’t have time to iron T-shirts and keep up with the cycles of adultery and intrigue on daytime television.

It’s a whole new world out there for the American family, which in the 30 years or so since my mother used to make me grilled cheeses for lunch on Wednesday afternoons has seen some major changes.

But families – mothers, fathers, children, homes – remain as the backbone of the society we’ve created. We hold jobs and buy shelters to set up our little nonprofits. We use the schools and public playgrounds, log thousands of miles on the roads shuttling our little tax deductions around town, regularly redistribute our funds and continually reinvest in our companies. And we’re making a product: the next generation of entrepreneurs who will hopefully one day open up little nonprofits of their own.

Right now Baby Girl is marching around the house in Dora the Explorer pajamas and green rubber boots that look like frogs. She’s singing little songs to herself and peering at me from behind doorways, around corners, lugging around a small stuffed dog she calls “Kevin.”

She approaches me.

“I smell like candy,” she says.

This column is done.

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