Shared Times While Dad's Away

MY husband has been out of town on business for a week. He's returning tomorrow, and I privately wish he'd stay away a few more days. Not because I don't love him, but because I'm having such fun cocooning with my three children.

My husband isn't gone excessively, maybe six weeks every year. But each time he goes, my children (ages 8, 4, and 1) and I settle into a pleasant rhythm of intimacy.

At daybreak, I bring the baby into my bed for his morning nursing. My older son joins us, filling the space where Dad usually lies. At breakfast, the older two take turns putting out place mats, napkins, and silverware - Dad's chores.

We follow our normal school and work routine, but the evening mood is different. Dad doesn't come home at 6:30 with his spirited burst of energy, eager to share our days. Instead, we slowly ease into a leisurely round of baths, television, stories, homework, and bed.

We start earlier and never get set back by Dad's chance delay at the office.

On the weekend, we plan our special outings. I'm daunted by three young children and no structure. My adult priorities get pushed aside to explore new playgrounds, see a kid movie, or scout out a new museum.

By evening, we're exhausted and tumble into bed with a lighter heart for the good time we've had.

Partly, this is the lack of competition for Dad. When he's away, my attention zeros in on the children. They fight less and are more willing to accept my rules. Perhaps they understand there's no bargaining with one boss.

Poignantly, the children grow up while their father's gone. The VCR gets unplugged, and my son helps me reprogram it - two novices learning together. My daughter watches out for the baby while I shower. My son makes his own breakfast.

We're joined together by missing him. The phone rings. We're expecting his call, and all three of us dash to a receiver to be the first to say hello.

After Dad's been gone one night, my four-year-old daughter is already asking how many days till his return. And my son is secretly creating a construction-paper book of jokes - a gift for Dad.

Tomorrow, we'll meet Dad at the airport. He'll be tired after an eight-hour flight and a five-hour time change.

He'll walk off the ramp - shoulders pulled down by briefcase and luggage, his clothes rumpled - beaming broadly at us. The kids will run to him, and I will feel a light-headedness overcome me.

He is my ballast. Our cocooning is an illusion, dependent on his return.

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