Dad reshuffles every priority but one

I sit on the airplane and pick lint off my black sweater (once again, some light articles were thrown in with the dark), and I think of my family back home. I've just left them to go on a business trip.

While I'm gone, my husband keeps up with the wash without complaining, but he doesn't check the kids' pockets for used tissues. The wash often has dime-size and smaller pieces of tissue stuck to it that need to be shaken off, then vacuumed up. Neither does he shake out the articles on the line so they dry flat and won't need ironing. A dried sleeve may be rolled up and wrinkled, a collar completely crooked. He never sees it.

Last month, during another of my business trips, he washed a flannel pillowcase that had covered a leaky feather pillow and got down and feathers all over the dark wash.

When I returned, I spent all my phone time with clear plastic tape wrapped around my hand, blotting feathers off clothing.

He crowds too much into a load, trying to get it done more quickly. The whites come out with little gray circles of dirt on them, the pattern of the washing machine tub.

"I don't have to do the wash anymore," he offers.

"It's fine," I reassure him, and I try to measure in my head how much work he creates and how much he actually accomplishes.

When I first starting traveling, he jokingly asked, "Aren't you going to make all my meals ahead of time and put them in nicely labeled containers in the freezer with instructions written on them?"

I smiled and said, "I don't think so."

When I'm away, my family often doesn't eat breakfast until 11 a.m., so consumed are they in early-morning craft projects. And then for breakfast it's macaroni and cheese, as it is for many of their meals.

"We love it!" they rationalize.

I have to give the kids a bath on the last night before I depart for a trip. They get "busy" at night while I am gone and forget to bathe.

On one of my five-day trips, it had also been five days since they'd had a bath. On another extended trip, they couldn't remember when they'd had one last. They usually wake up to the fact that no one has taken a bath since I've been gone, when they check the calendar for my flight's arrival time. They've even been known to take one in the middle of that day. ("Oh, horrors!" my son Bryce proclaims. "During daylight playtime hours!")

When I see their happy, waving arms at the end of the long walk from the plane, the first thing I notice is their beaming faces. The next is that their clothes don't match and look as if they have been worn the entire time I was gone.

I used to lay out pants and matching tops for every day I wasn't home, but I decided they should be able to manage on their own. Wearing the same clothes every day cuts back on the caregiver's decisionmaking (and the wash).

I next notice that my daughter, Sierra's, long hair is tied back in a scrunchie, with all the snarls and tangles clearly evident.

"Didn't you brush your hair the whole time I was gone?" I ask. She sheepishly shakes her head no.

"Didn't your father remind you?" Another shake no. They both "forgot."

My husband is neat, orderly, and organized to a fault with his own possessions. But when it comes to caring for the whole shooting match, some things fall through the cracks. I know I'll return to a disgusting bathroom. Our bedding will be haphazardly thrown over the bed, the blankets hanging down to the floor on one side and only a few inches long on the other.

Phone messages are another hardship for my husband. I put a clean sheet of paper by the phone, but most of the callers "spoke too fast or were too garbled." Their names look as though they were written in a foreign alphabet. I have to call each one and say, "My secretary-husband could not quite get your name."

I give the kids lots of cuddles at bedtime, also backrubs, an occasional foot rub, and I do lots of reading aloud. My hard-working husband, however, passes out as soon as he gets horizontal, despite his good intentions to read aloud. The children continually shake him to get another sentence or two out of him before he fades again.

I can also tell by the way the kids are yawning that bedtime was not a high priority when I was gone. Part of the reason there is no time to bathe, they tell me, is that they were putting on mini-skits, doing stand-up comedy, and even performing dance routines on top of the toilet seat, usually two performers at a time. They use the toilet seat as a stage, for it provides a clear view into the vanity mirror. It's not uncommon for them to be "brushing their teeth" for an hour when I'm gone.

Snack time before tooth brushing eats up another hour. They ask Dad for apples, peeled and thinly sliced, and whole carrots (the longest, fattest ones in the fridge - thereby taking the most time to consume).

I don't know if my husband is unaware of these innocent manipulations or if he simply does not care. Perhaps they all see Mom's business trip as a vacation from some of the rules. I also get a break. We all feel a little freer from the experience.

Life apparently goes on without all the order and schedules that I work so hard to put into my children's lives - much of it so that life will run smoothly and I can get everything done.

Routines are thrown to the wind when I leave them in their father's care. But I do feel very secure in leaving, knowing they are in good hands. My husband takes care of them in the most basic way: He loves them. That is most important, not lint on the dark wash.

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