When mom's away, the kids will play strip poker?

SUSAN REIMER

September 28, 1993|By SUSAN REIMER

Have you ever noticed that no matter how late you call home or return home, when you have left the children in the care of their father, they are still not in bed?

Have you ever felt that you might stay out all night, return home at dawn and find the kids still awake?

So, as you might guess, I was not surprised to call home from work one night at 10:30 and hear the sweet voices of my children in the background.

"What are the kids doing still awake?" I asked.

"We're playing strip poker," was my husband's response.

(Long, uncomfortable pause here.)

"They didn't want to get undressed for bed," he said, "so I told them we were going to play strip poker and when they got down to their underwear they had to go to bed.

"Jessie came to the table in an overcoat and with shoes and socks on. She said she didn't think she would play very well."

Have you also noticed that when dad is in charge, the rules are different?

According to a study of census figures done by the Population Reference Bureau and released last week, fathers are the primary care-givers for 20 percent of the children in this country under age 5.

What the study did not show, however, is that fathers seem to have a lot more trouble in the areas of bedtime ("They didn't want to go"), clothing ("That's what she wanted to wear"), meals ("It was easier to go out") and social propriety ("That's the movie they wanted to rent") than mothers ever do.

One father I know sent his daughter to school in a nightgown because it looked like a dress. Another sent his little girl out the door wearing her petticoat on top of her dress so, as she demanded, the ruffles would show.

One father spends a precious morning hour with his preschoolers, who will be asleep when he returns from work, taking them out for Slurpees and bubble gum that has a free tattoo in it. Another takes his children to the pool every summer night his wife is away because it is easier than bathing them.

Still another father tells his 4-year-old son to be sure to pack a napkin in his lunch, and then fails to notice that it is a sanitary napkin. (The child could read, just not that well.)

It is clear that men don't share the standards we relentless mothers have established. I rent "My Fair Lady" and "West Side Story" to watch with my children. I talk about the origin of musical theater and the themes of race and class prejudice. My husband rents "Spaceballs," and he and the kids curl up under an afghan and laugh like crazy.

I sign them up for art classes. He sits at the kitchen table and draws whatever it is they want to color -- a jet plane, a basket of flowers, a cobra, a kitten.

Most modern fathers have been on the scene since the delivery room. We have asked that they be equal partners in parenting, that they do more than simply take the casserole out of the oven when mom is at card club.

They don't have the excuses our fathers had when things fell apart without mom around. They don't get to play dumb. They have to know that the amoxicillin is found in the fridge and not the medicine cabinet -- details which may have escaped fathers in the Robert Young mold, who simply came home at 6 p.m., slipped on the sweater with the elbow patches and snapped open the evening paper.

And modern fathers have the added burden of living up to the standards of us control-freak, professional mothers. We are more than willing to let dad share in the trials and triumphs of raising children -- as long as they do it our way. Our relentless criticism and niggling judgments can't make for a very pleasant environment in which to parent -- a trial-and-error proposition if ever there was one.

That charitable concession made, let me also say that I have never been among three or more women where fathering foibles have not been discussed in a kind of "I-can-top-that" manner.

But the men whom I have ridiculed here are the same men who take their children crabbing, coach them in sports, volunteer in their school library, build models with them, do flash cards with them and snuggle with them until they fall asleep.

And so, on the night when my children and their father played strip poker, I simply said, "OK. But when they want to play 'dress poker' in the morning, you have to deal with it."

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