A modern mother's little helper

Writer Angela Dale was a scattered parent until she learned a little trick to keep her life together, all thanks to the phone company. (DREAMSTIME.COM / June 24, 2011)

"Mom, how come you weren't on the field trip today?" my son asked, one part brave, one part plaintive. "You were supposed to chaperone."

Why, indeed? I'd long ago ditched the whole 9-to-5 slog to be able to take advantage of just such occasions. I'd won out in the parental chaperone lottery. I'd marked my calendar. And still, I'd forgotten. As I apologized to my son, I wasn't sure who was more crushed.

From the beginning, I've accepted — even embraced — my scattershot, absent-minded parenting. Benign neglect, a time-honored tradition. It worked for my mom; it would work for me. Growing up in the land before cellphones, if pickup after drama club or basketball intramurals was not forthcoming, my siblings or I would call home collect from the nearest pay phone and wait for an opening in my mom's crammed schedule for her to round us up. Sometimes we had to call twice. Sometimes there was no phone available. But we always made it home … eventually.

Fast-forward to daycare, 21st century, where I'd enrolled my preschoolers for a few hours of morning quiet time (mine). Ten minutes after pickup time, my kids still loitered in the reading corner, coats and hats at the ready, while the all-day lunch bunch unfurled their placemats. The director rang me up, breaking into my marginally productive reverie at the computer with a stern reprimand. I picked them up on the double and disenrolled them on the spot — out of sight, out of mind just wasn't going to work. Instead, I installed playpen fencing around my desk. They could rattle my cage all they wanted, but eventually they'd get bored and, with the run of the rest of the house, wander off.

It worked wonderfully through the early year. Other parents would remark on my children's resourcefulness and independence. They could go for hours without parental direction or supervision, armed only with homemade Silly Putty and their imagination. (It's easy to make; half Elmer's Glue, half liquid starch, food coloring of your choice. Its removal from new upholstery may not be covered by that service warranty, sold separately at time of sofa purchase, but WD-40 works wonders.)

In addition to chaperoning gigs, I've forgotten to take the kids to doctor's appointments ($25 missed appointment fee) and classmates' birthday parties (cue wailing — theirs — and gnashing of teeth — mine). I nearly got my middle-schooler booted out of ping-pong intramurals after arriving five minutes late for pickup two days running.

So perhaps it was my (my kids'?) guardian angel that made me suddenly tune into the rote prompts as I retrieved voice mail while trying to conjure up dinner. To my surprise, I heard this: "… for reminder calls and wakeup messages, press 3." I pressed 3. God bless the phone company. Turns out you can set up reminder calls — to take out the trash, or go to your mammogram appointment (who wouldn't block that out?), or retrieve your kid. I spent the next 20 minutes setting up a month's worth of reminders, and burning dinner in the process.

Later, out on date night, I regaled my husband with the possibilities of this new service: "I'll never forget to pick our kid up from camp again. A modern mother's little helper!" I giggled with joy. I laughed with glee. I dissolved into tear-streaming hysteria. My husband looked at me, bemused, maybe because we were in the middle of an otherwise subdued restaurant, or maybe because he feared I'd become unhinged and was weighing the need to become a work-at-home dad. Didn't he think it was funny, I asked, as I dabbed my eyes and slipped again into mirthful tremors.

"Funny," he said. "But not that funny."

Hmmm. Maybe not.

But the proof is in the pudding. The next morning, at precisely 7:55, I answered the phone to hear my day-old voice reminding me to put out the cooler for the meat delivery. One hundred-plus dollars worth of hormone-free, grass-fed ground cow would now be chilling in my ice-packed cooler instead of spoiling in the full-on heat wave, awaiting my return fromyoga. (I'm never late foryoga; it only takes one locked studio door coming between a mother and her moving meditation to wise up fast).

"Just think," I told my husband over coffee, "I could die today and you wouldn't miss a kid appointment for a month at least. My voice would call out from beyond the grave to remind you."

"That's not funny," he said.

Maybe not.

Angela Dale is a writer and editor in Ellicott City. Her email is ahdale@yahoo.com.