The week the men went back to Mars

January 13, 1998|By Susan Reimer

I HAVE WRITTEN before about our friends, Joe and Susan, and their children, Paul and Joanna, and the happy tangle of friendship, car pools, child care and sports that knots our two families together.

Each member of my family has found a soul mate in this family, and we spend so much time in each other's company that we have talked wistfully about how much more efficient it would be if we lived in the same big house.

The drawback would be that Susan and I share the same name, as do my son and her husband, and the comic confusion that already results would only be worse if we were all under the same roof. Either everyone would answer when called, or no one would.

But at least Susan and I would not spend so much time collecting and returning clothing, sports equipment and toys left by our forgetful children at the wrong house.

Recently, however, Susan and I stumbled on a living arrangement we like even better: The men leave town and the women move in together.

My husband covers sports for a national newspaper, and in an uncharacteristic display of generosity and a willingness to complicate his working life that cause me to doubt his true identity, he invited Joe and Paul to join him and our son in Lake Placid, N.Y., for a week while he wrote about the Winter Olympics ski trials.

Susan and I could not have been more supportive.

Looking back, I am ashamed of how supportive we were. We should not have clasped hands with our daughters and danced like that. I am sure our gleefulness was misunderstood by the men we cherish so.

After helpfully, if somewhat hastily, tossing all manner of warm clothing in the trunk of their car, we bid the men farewell and rushed back into the house, where we proceeded to bring out the fine china and crystal and plan graceful meals.

Susan and the girls prepared exotic hors d'oeuvres, poached salmon, wild rice and desert while I made my usual culinary contribution by choosing the movie to watch after dinner.

While sipping wine and sparkling cider by candlelight, Susan, the girls and I decided that the cave men may have been right after all. The women should stay at the cave and refine the home economics skills of the young girls while the men took the boys far away to hunt, or whatever.

At night we built fires and watched movies. In the morning, we slept late and brewed tea and ate bits of fresh fruit for breakfast.

Meanwhile in Lake Placid, life for the boys was less a winter wonderland than an East German sports camp. While my husband plied his craft, Joe herded the boys from one arctic activity to another -- skiing, snowboarding, skating. At the end of the day, the men gathered to eat red meat and french fries.

Back home, Susan and I were indoctrinating the girls with MGM musicals starring Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. I took the opportunity to repeat my mother's sage advice: "It is as easy to love a rich man as it is to love a poor man," and Susan rented "How to Marry a Millionaire" starring Marilyn Monroe.

From what I gathered after the men's return, while the girls were reading classic fiction at night, the boys were watching television, picking calluses off the bottoms of their feet and discussing their bathroom habits in great detail.

I think I have made my point.

But not long into their absence, Susan and I began to feel guilty about how much we enjoyed the refined and simple days and nights that were possible in the absence of men. Susan worried out loud that we were not well suited to be the mothers of teen-age boys.

I defended our contentment by saying that there were very few points where the lives of mothers and teen-age boys intersected and that the best we could do was encourage them to spend as much time as possible in the company of men.

As difficult as it is for us, mothers must refrain from orchestrating this time and from commenting on it. We have to stop trying to make our husbands into good mothers. From what I have seen, what passes between sons and fathers, men and boys, is beyond our comprehension anyway.

In her book, "When Mothers Work: Loving Our Children Without Sacrificing Our Selves," author Joan Peters writes:

"It is easier for men to take on the nurturing of children than for women to give up some of it. The greatest emotional challenge for women is to allow men to nurture children in their own manner."

Our children's happiness, Peters concludes, does not require that mothers sacrifice their own, but that they accept the fact that someone else -- the fathers -- can do just as good a job sacrificing their happiness for the well-being of the children.

And if the men can do this out of town, so much the better for the women left behind.

Pub Date: 1/13/98

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