When the daddy cat’s away, the mice will play . . . and the mommy cat’s life will suck

These days our family of four feels like a well-oiled machine. Of course, that means we go flying off the rails when we miss out on scheduled maintenance or when fuel is in short supply.

About six months ago, Ian and I learned through the family grapevine that his father and older brother planned to travel to Ecuador this March as a sort of R&R-meets-male-bonding expedition. When we asked why he hadn’t invited Ian, my either incredibly savvy or extremely lucky father-in-law replied, “I didn’t want to put that kind of burden on Gail.” If he’d suggested Ian join them, I probably would’ve shot the idea down as a terrible imposition on our little family. But put forth in this unassuming, considerate way? Well! If there’s one thing I have more trouble resisting than a challenge, it’s the opportunity to appear magnanimous. “Of course you should go!” I said, fully intending to enlist help from my mom or mother-in-law for the far-off trip. “Really?” my husband asked, “maybe there are things I just can’t do anymore, now that we have little ones.” In retrospect, the menfolk must have been in cahoots. There’s no universe in which I can turn down the opportunity to disprove an implicit naysay (“I can handle it!”), gracefully rise to the service of others (“I want to do this – for you!”), and defend my children against aspersions (“The kids don’t have to hold us back!”) all in one fell week. “Pack your bags, Papa!”

As the trip approached, my vision of assistance from a beloved visitor disintegrated like rice paper in an Ecuadorian rainforest. It turned out my mother-in-law would be traveling abroad, my mom suffered from sciatic nerve pain, and most of the girlfriends who could have helped me planned to be at Viv’s godmother’s baby shower in an impossible to reach corner of the country (go ahead and try to plot a trip from Seattle to Annapolis without using two each of plane, train, and automobile). Still, I approached the week of his absence with very little foreboding. I’d get to chat with my sister on the phone after putting the kids to bed! Read instead of watching bad TV! Sleep without being awoken by snoring! I mean, I’ve got the kids most of the time anyway. Just an hour and change more than usual each day plus a weekend. Sure, we’d miss him, but how bad could it be?

Bad. It could be very bad. It seems the entire city (including my children) conspired to teach me a lesson in humility. It started with a whisper, a little tickle at the back of my throat. Within twenty-four hours of Ian’s departure, the three of us morphed into hacking snot zombies. My babysitter asked for a raise. I got my period. A play date taught Vivi a whiny cadence so grating that an online dictionary could simply link to an audio file of it for the term “obnoxious.” Stuey bit me, hard. Two play dates cancelled. “Family Day” at the Gates Foundation featured a crafting project made entirely of asphyxiation hazards. My now-overpaid babysitter cancelled. The woman who cleans twice a month asked for a raise. The replacement babysitter cancelled. Stuey headbutted me in the nose. My step class instructor cancelled. You get the picture. Because I was up with the kids at least twice a night and awake for the day starting just after four each morning (thanks to the stuffy noses), these fairly standard hiccups seemed more like projectile vomit.

Alas, I powered through. During the actual seven and a half days of single parenthood I found myself too busy to worry about accomplishing anything, too overburdened to fall apart, too tired to nap. Each day I fully depleted my energy stores, one evening falling asleep at a record-breaking 7:20 p.m. In the moments when I ran on whatever is left after you burn fumes, the universe tossed me emotional power bars like this email from Stuey’s godmother: “You are a fucking saint. How do you have such a sweet calm house after being alone all week? Congrats.” Getting that one felt like jumping on a mushroom in the original Super Mario Brothers Nintendo game. (You know, after being harassed by all those evil little decapitated eagle heads?) Suddenly I rebounded from complete “game over” depletion to a bigger, stronger version of myself. (Though never like grabbing the feather in Super Mario Brothers 2; definitely didn’t get enough energy to fly.) And that’s how pretty much every day went. When my little WWF trainee shot me a double-row smile post headbutt, I wiped the blood off my nose and grabbed some ice. I swallowed my disappointment at having to exercise in 2013 rather than 1996 and hopped on the elliptical instead of in step class. The backup replacement babysitter came through. I managed.

When all was said and done, we had one rejuvenated daddy; two happy, healthy kids; and an empty shell of a woman. The surprising part is that the two weeks after he returned were much harder than the seven and a half days he was actually gone. It was like having sore muscles. Emotionally and physically, I toughed out the exercise and didn’t feel the pain until days after the fact. I used up not only my reserves of sleep and patience, but also my maternal optimism. You would think that I’d be uplifted by handling the week with fortitude as well as realizing how very much my husband pitches in when he’s home (getting up with the kids at the crack of dawn every other morning, giving me ten minutes to perform my toilette alone, bathing the kids while I clean the kitchen, reading them stories while I vacuum, etc.). Somehow, not so much. I felt fragile and weak. Each simple request from the kids seemed like a demand for something I couldn’t possibly be expected to provide. I’d just recovered from my post-part-him-from-boobs depression, and now I felt about as listless as ever.

And then ever so slowly, I replenished my reserves with little bits of sleep and a whole lot of gratitude from Ian. “Gail did an amazing job!” Nibble on power bar. “You’re the best wife I can possibly imagine.” Stomp on mushroom. “How about I sleep on the couch tonight and you crank up the noise machine so that we can ensure you get at least one night of totally uninterrupted sleep?” Grab feather.

After just one sleepless night, I think sending Ian off to Ecuador was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done; a good six-hour stretch later and I’m confident his experience, memories, and break were worth it. Of course, I’ll always hold the week against Ecuador. I’ve never really had a grudge against an entire nation before (too young for Cold War allegiances). But Ecuadorians? Clearly a homewrecking bunch.

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