Every summer the kids go spend a week at Grandpa’s. It’s good for them: They learn to fish and appreciate Abbott and Costello. It’s good for Grandpa, too: He gets someone to share his mud pie and mow his lawn.
But mostly, it’s good for my husband and me. We take full advantage of our offspring’s absence by vowing to pursue distinctly adult pleasures, avoiding Go-GURT and playground sand at all costs.
We go out at night and stay out later than we need to—later than we even want to—just to wallow in the freaky freedom of not having to check in with a sitter. Or we stay home, eat Brie for dinner, and watch R-rated movies at full volume, ecstatic in the certainty that no one will stumble in saying, “Mommy, that prison rape scene woke me up … ” We plan marathon sessions of wild monkey sex but never get around to them because, frankly, our mojo has so long been attuned to the family schedule that without the threat of being walked in on, the deed loses some urgency.
But it’s okay. Because by about the third day, we realize—with appropriate shame—that what we want most is not to savor the privileges of adulthood; it’s to behave like infants.
You see, when our kids are around, we are role models. Reluctant role models, even poor role models, but role models just the same. Under the omnipresent, hyper-vigilant gaze of our still-pliant children, we strive to be exemplary human beings: discreet, prudent, diplomatic, and other terrible, unnatural things.
We don’t even realize we’re doing it; we’re simply in the habit of returning the grocery cart to its rightful spot, ignoring the cell phone when it rings in the car, eschewing a second helping of dessert …
Then suddenly we realize no one’s watching us—that we needn’t, for the moment, be paragons of personhood. The relief! It’s like squeezing into a skin-tight dress and sucking in your stomach throughout a loooooong soirée and then finally, rapturously, letting it all hang out when the party’s over.
Only, at our house, the party’s just getting started. My husband and I begin leaving clothes on the floor and dishes on the table. We devour cupcakes for breakfast and gargle beer with lunch. We cuss—at the dogs, the poor telemarketer, and the nicely dressed religious solicitors at the door. We squander sunny days sprawling sloth-like on the sofa, denouncing exercise of any sort, and having conversations like this: “Remember pot?” “Yep.” “Where would we even get it anymore if we wanted it?” “I think your mom knows a guy … ”
It’s funny. When our kids are babies, we welcome their curious stares and encourage their careful listening. Watching us put on jackets and hearing us order pizza is the way they learn how the world works. But as they age, the things they discern from observing us are much more personal, more nuanced—and considerably harder to master: how we approach our work, how we cope with frustration, how we talk about friends when they’re not listening.
I always thought I could be a good parent if I just stayed focused on my kids; I didn’t realize how much of the family’s focus would reflect back on me. Imperfect, unpolished, prone-to-cupcakes-for-breakfast me.
Having time to let our feckless flag fly is a blessing to my spouse and me. And by the time the kids return, we’re ready to resume role-model protocol and relinquish our sty-making, curse-spewing, flab-inducing ways. But we can’t help but wonder: Is that how Grandpa behaves the whole rest of the year?