Emily's Other Parent Is Missing

TIM BAKER

September 14, 1992|By TIM BAKER

I'm a single parent again. Ten days ago my wife abandoned me and the children. I have full custody. She hasn't even come back to take them off my hands for a weekend. She just packed her bags and left town. And she won't be home again until Thursday night.

Two weeks. It's not that bad. I can make it. By now I'm an old pro at this.

My wife started leaving me with the kids in 1984. At first, she went away to school several times a year -- for two or three weeks at a stretch. The program was an important part of her professional training. She has now graduated, but she still goes away once or twice a year for workshops and seminars.

The first time she left us, Emily was only 5. As the weeks went by, my younger daughter and I developed an independent relationship. It was based on a common bond. We both missed Mom terribly.

She and I whispered together about the different reactions her older brother and sister had. Abigail was 13. At that age she was glad to have her mother out of her hair for a while. Richard was 10. In the fifth grade. Engrossed in his friends, basketball, Magic Johnson. Emily and I told each other a secret joke about him: He hadn't even noticed his mother was gone.

Looking back, I can see why that first trip went so smoothly. My mother and father helped out. My mother-in-law lent me her housekeeper, a wonderful woman who had taken care of my wife when she had been a little girl herself. I went off to the office every morning secure in the knowledge that my children were well cared for. When I came home at night, a hot meal was waiting in the oven. All I had to do was put it on the table.

I work at home now. My mother-in-law has passed away. Her housekeeper has retired. So for the last five years I've done the cooking myself when my wife has gone away. I've driven the kids to their soccer games and remembered their dentist appointments.

It's hard being a single parent. It isn't all the extra work that wears me down. I can do the car pools. You get into a routine. In fact, for years I've done a lot of these things when my wife's at home. But when she's away, I don't like parenting by myself. It's lonely lying awake in bed on Saturday night, knowing that one of my teen-agers is somewhere on the road. No one for me to worry with. Waiting alone to hear the front door slam before I can allow myself to fall asleep.

The annual experience reminds me that parenting is a team job. I need my partner around to do it well. The two of us have complimentary parental skills. I'm good at one-on-one basketball the driveway after dinner. Or checking math homework at night. And I can handle the kids' legal problems. But I'm a terrible nurse.

I hate it when I'm holding the fort alone and one of my children gets sick. If Emily wakes up coughing in the middle of the night, it scares me. I don't know what to do. The next morning I can't figure out whether to keep her home with me or send her off to school with some cough drops.

It's hard making these decisions by myself. I wish I had another adult around with whom I could talk it over. It's frustrating because I'm not sure what I should do. There's no one who can quietly suggest I reconsider a tired and hasty first reaction. If I lose my temper, there's no one to step in and take over. I never get a break. No time off. Not even if I've had a bad day.

I've learned a lot in nine years of periodic single parenting. But it has never gotten easy. Things have changed. Abigail and Richard have grown up and left home. So this time it's just Emily and me.

She's 13 now. Thinks she's 18. She's difficult to handle, even when we outnumber her. Can she go to another slumber party? You just went to one last weekend. She starts to argue with me about it.

We've had some real battles while her mother's been away. No, you can't go. Mom said I could. The magic words. ''Mom said.'' They blend together until they sound like some Arabic incantation -- ''Mummsed.'' An appeal to the genie -- the other parent who will soon come home and rebalance the ballast in this ship.

Over the years we've developed some tricks to keep ourselves on an even keel while my wife's away. One time -- Emily must have been 6 or 7 -- I jokingly told her I was going to make up a report card and give it to her mother when she came back.

Big mistake. I forgot all about the idea. But when my wife walked in the door, Emily proudly presented her with a report card of her own -- one in which she had graded me! Meals -- C. Bedtime stories -- A. Television permission -- D. I got my worst grade for the times I'd lost my temper: ''Madness -- FLUNK!''

When my wife comes home, our unbalanced family world will right itself. Emily and I will both laugh and tell her mother how terrible it's been. I'll complain about the dirty towels she's left on the bathroom floor. She'll tell how many nights in a row I ordered pizza instead of cooking.

Emily and I have a lot of experience at this. She and I both know we can make it. We only have three more nights together. Piece of cake. After all, we've done it so many times before. But the two of us have already begun to watch the calendar and count the days.

And once again I think about the millions of real single parents. They can't work at home. No help. Not enough money. No grandparents nearby. They raise their sons and daughters by themselves. Valiantly. Month after month. Year after year. Alone.

I salute them. So many of them handle it all so well. I don't know how they do it. I don't think I could. I don't see how I could be the parent I want to be if Emily's other parent wasn't ever coming home.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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