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Swap Family Roles

Laura Packing for our annual July trip to visit friends and family on the East Coast has always been simple. My husband, Austin, assembled his clothes, wet suit, golf clubs, and bike. I took care of everything else. Kids' clothes. Swimsuits. Goggles. Game Boys. And in a fit of optimism, a novel for me.

Perhaps the very word vacation tricked me into thinking that I might, at some time over our two weeks, find time to read. But with two children—Willa's 11, and Devin's 8—I was more likely to be stocking beach bags, applying sunscreen to uncooperative kids, and making sure we all stayed out of riptides. Austin didn't help matters. After we reached our destination, he would hover near me and stare—mope, really—until, in exasperation, I'd break down and say, "Fine, go ride your bike." He wanted to have fun. After all, this was vacation.

Or was it?Austin is not a pig, by the way. The problem is that his job as a Sports Illustrated writer has him working six days a week and traveling at least 200 days a year. Even though I work as a writer, too, it has fallen to me to take care of the house and be the more hands-on parent—a problem that has, sadly, persisted through our family getaways.

But not last summer's. For the first time, we switched spots and he got a taste of how I (and probably many moms) experience vacation. That's because Austin was fresh from a half-year sabbatical spent as a stay-at-home dad, about which he wrote a book, How Tough Could It Be?, published by Henry Holt. By the time we hit the beach (yes, he packed), Austin had proved he could make school lunches, do laundry, and volunteer in classrooms. But could he handle vacation?

Not immediately. At our first stop, to stay with our friends Neil and Lorie and their three children in the Hamptons, he suffered a relapse. While Lorie and I cooked, and gave the kids their baths, he and Neil sat discussing England's chances in the Rugby World Cup. He didn't exactly wow me on Devin's birthday, either, which fell at the midpoint of our stay. Too overwhelmed by an article he still had to finish for SI, he blew off buying presents.

Willa was appalled. No presents on your son's birthday?"I had a deadline and I couldn't get to it," Austin said. Can you imagine how this would fly in the Court of Motherhood?If I'd attempted the same, I'd have been strung up by my freshly pedicured toenails.

Austin Hey, it's not like I forgot the kid's birthday. I was just running a little behind, so I cut a deal with him: spare us the conniption if we don't happen to celebrate your birthday on, you know, the day of your birth, and Daddy will see to it that there's an extra box or two in your gift pile—if you catch my drift. Devin thought for a few seconds, then nodded. I hit my deadline, he scored a couple of bonus RailKing train cars. Twenty-four hours late though it may have been, the lad had a happy birthday.

Laura I have to admit, after the embarrassment of presents appeared, the kids didn't care what day it was. I started thinking maybe I didn't either. Maybe it was okay to loosen up a bit.

I tried it. I checked yoga schedules. Austin checked the milk and o.j. supply. I read Brideshead Revisited. He read The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. I picked prime locations on the beach. Austin picked the seaweed out of Devin's hair. He didn't get everything done on time, or even the way I like it done. But everyone was fine.

Everyone, that is, except Willa, who, on the way to the beach one day, became nearly apoplectic when Austin sternly reminded her that she needed sunscreen. "Daa-aa-aad!" she yelled. "You've turned into Mom!"

Had he?In truth, we never reversed roles entirely. But we did achieve parity, which was all I ever wanted. That, and a couple of hours with a good book.

Austin I wish I could say that the birthday was the only thing I fouled up. Laura had warned me that the duties of keeping two children fed and entertained every day narrows one's windows for leisure. Grasping that concept and forcing my body into action proved to be two different things. But after an inauspicious debut, I learned my way around Neil and Lorie's kitchen and cooked us all a memorable salmon dinner. When my kids tracked sand into the house, I even located the vacuum. I've never gotten less exercise on a vacation, and yet my wife has never seemed to find me more attractive.

After a week in the Hamptons, it was time to freeload elsewhere. We dropped in on my parents in Shelter Harbor, Rhode Island. On arrival, I took Willa and Devin crabbing—hot dog "bait" on paper-clip "hooks"—then shucked some corn. While waiting for the big pan of water to boil, I winched myself into a comfy chair alongside my dad to watch ESPN. Between packing and traveling and unpacking and crabbing, I felt I deserved this La-Z-Boy time. But the truth was, Laura and my mother were tired, too, and they weren't lounging. So I finally hauled my butt into the kitchen. The water was boiling.

If I had to distill the lessons from our trip into five words, they would be these: Fight the urge to sit. Or at least obey it less often. And: have patience, because the new you is going to make mistakes. The kids will complain about the picnic you packed ("I HATE mayonnaise!"). Your wife will point out that her thong underwear wasn't supposed to be tumbled dry. Take the constructive criticism in stride; let the rest roll off your back. After all, you're on vacation.

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