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Househusbands: The joys of managing the home front

UNTIL my wife and I switched places last year, I had only a vague notion of what she did all day beyond taking care of the children and cooking. But then she rejoined the carpool to her downtown office, and I stayed home to wear the new hat of ``househusband.'' ``A piece of cake,'' I mumbled to myself as I slept late the first morning and planned a day of relaxation.

Well, I was right -- in a way. Househusbanding can be a cinch. But you need to learn to appreciate a well-vacuumed rug. You need to know what goes with what, clothes-wise, on little girls. And that includes the ins and outs of barrette etiquette. You better find out how to thread a needle. Gourmet cooking is optional, since most children prefer Kraft macaroni or hot dogs, both made with boiling water (fortunately, my wife is willing to eat these culinary delights, too.) And you will have lots more time to spend in that rocky vegetable garden.

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This all sounds pretty trivial, doesn't it? And it is, unless you look a little deeper. Some people have a knack for making homes out of houses. They can convert an empty-all-day split ranch into a living, breathing activity center overflowing with love and excitement. And believe it or not, some of these people are men. When one of these men marries a woman who feels best behind a desk, you've got a potential househusband, just waiting for the right moment to assume the role.

I took over during the summer, which is trial-by-fire time in the suburbs. There's no school, and children all over town fall victim to their eternal enemy: boredom. So I quickly learned where all the free beaches were. And when the ice cream man came down our street, I was ready with an open wallet. The local library was a delightful, air-conditioned source of entertainment. Now and then we'd go to the movies, or to a local fast-food outlet (``the one with the playground, please!''). We did projects around the house, washed cars (and ourselves) with the hose, and cooked on the grill night after night after night.

Oh sure, I missed the office. The whirr of photocopiers, the constant phone calls -- and the paycheck. Especially the paycheck. But it was summer, a time to be lazy -- a vital rest period for growing children, and me.

When school started in the fall, I added another activity to my schedule. I became the ``room mother'' for my step-daughter's third-grade class. This meant calling all the other mothers to see who could bake what for parties -- lining up the ``punch and cookie crew,'' you might say. Two extra bonuses of this duty: (1) I got to know my step-daughter's teacher, a definite plus during parent-teacher conferences, and (2) it gave me a list of mothers I could call in the summer when my kids needed someone to play with. Never throw that list away -- you need all the support you can get.

That fall I also discovered something housewives have known for years. It's hard to find a rewarding job if you can only work from 10 until 2. Flipping burgers? Selling shoes? Those are the choices for the 10 to 2 crowd. And don't fool yourself, Dad. You won't enjoy working for a teen-ager young enough to be your own. The trick is to ignore the obvious, and look for the logical. Remember how busy you used to be at the office? How much you'd have liked to hire an overqualified, experienced person for a few hours each day, just to keep caught up? Well, that person is you!

Newspapers are a good place to work. They have a seven-day-a-week product and a five-day-a-week staff, with overtime. I found a spot two nights each week, doing advertising layout. Exhausted full-timers almost cheer when you arrive to relieve them. When was the last time somebody cheered your arrival at an all-day job?

You'll probably need more than one of these mini-jobs to make ends meet comfortably. I have four of them -- all different and very interesting. But there's still lots of time to help the children wake up in the morning; to sit around the breakfast table and talk about the day with them; to be home when they come bounding through the door at 3:15, bursting with news of their day. To help with homework and have dinner on the table every evening. And -- last but not least -- time to write this article.

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