How Tough Could It Be?

by Austin Murphy

Published by Henry Holt

239 pages, 2004





Mister Mom

Reviewed by Adrian Marks


It is the plot of a Hollywood movie. Perhaps one that's already been done. A hot shot career sportswriter reaches his tipping point when he realizes his constant travel is keeping him from watching his children grow up. At 41, he volunteers to switch places with his wife. It will be perfect: he'll get to know the kids while she plays catch up with the career she put on hold to be mom. Seriously: how tough could it be?

The answer, of course -- and you need it for good non-fiction -- is that it was much, much tougher than author Austin Murphy ever anticipated.

I embark on this journey spectacularly ill-equipped to survive it. The man who will be asked to prepare three nutritious meals a day never used his own outdoor grill. ... Organization, patience discipline--common traits in successful housewives -- are not strong suits of mine.

While the whole Mr. Mom saga may not feel entirely fresh. Murphy's prose here makes up for it. What looked easy from the outside is somewhat tougher when viewed up close. Early on, he gets a hint, but doesn't buy a clue.

What I don't want, but am getting by the boatload, is advice and constructive criticism. I've said all the right things -- This is going to be the hardest thing I've ever done -- but secretly felt, deep in my heart, that I would master it quickly. It's housework. How tough could it be? I am guilty of hubris. I am in trouble.

Experience coaxes the hubris away, but not without some mishaps. Seven-year-old son, Devin, is lost, for example. (Not really and not badly, but Murphy doghouses himself, just the same.) And spring break in Vegas with the kids was perhaps not the best idea, though Murphy's heart was in the right place. All that doesn't go right with the trip is compounded by the thing Murphy does really wrong: leaving the kids alone in the room watching a Harry Potter movie while he spends half an hour at the hotel's health club.

It isn't something I'm proud of, or something I'd do again. But was it really illegal?

Laura says it was. Laura is genuinely shocked. My fecklessness has cast a pall over the household. Laura doesn't see much difference between what I did and, say, leaving the kids in the car while I ducked into a crack house for twelve hours.

I explain that I made sure the kids bolted the door behind me. I told them not to allow anyone in the room. I know, while I tick off those excuses, that I have been inexcusably negligent, and that my only chance is to promise never to do it again and hope it all blows over soon.

"What if there was a fire?" she asks me.

"Well, our room was right over the koi pond," I say.

She doesn't laugh.

Predictably, Murphy's period as Mister Mom, though fraught with peril, ends with more closeness for the Murphy clan. And though Murphy has returned to his previous high pressure life of sports journalism -- not to mention penning a happy book based on his experience -- he tells us that some of what he learned will stay with him, always. Some of it has contributed to altering his family's life forever. "If I am not, like Thomas, a 'very useful engine,' I am at least a more useful engine than I was. For now that will have to do."

That would seem to sum up How Tough Could It Be? as well. It won't alter your life, but Murphy is an engaging host and the trip is worth the time. | June 2004


Adrian Marks is a January Magazine contributing editor.