IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Husbands left home alone

With their wives and children gone for the summer, three Washington-area men reconnect to their inner bachelor.
Chris Stahl is home alone. With his wife and children in Guam for the summer, he is spending his time catching up on films and baseball.
Chris Stahl is home alone. With his wife and children in Guam for the summer, he is spending his time catching up on films and baseball.Tracy A Woodward / Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

They are the words any self-respecting family man dreams of hearing: The wife announces she's taking the kids on a vacation, to Grandma's place, the mountains or -- does it get any better? -- another continent.


In an instant, the men are gloriously liberated from the usual parental obstacle course. No more changing stinky diapers, no stuffing the kiddies into jammies, no crawling under the sofa to find caps to the Magic Markers, no reciting "Green Eggs and Ham" for the 967th time.

No more cries of Mommieee!

Such is the sweet summer life of three faithful, adoring and otherwise dedicated husbands, Erik Warga, Eric Langenbacher and Chris Stahl, whose wives all flew off with the kids in early June to foreign shores and won't be back any time soon.

'The guy's vibe'
They have left the men to revert to what Langenbacher describes as their "inner guy," that blissful state of drinking, cussing, smoking, playing air guitar in their undies, watching the tube whenever and bantering as if they never graduated from bachelorhood, as if they never became mortgage-paying, car seat-owning, credit card-carrying Men of Responsibility.

"It's the guy's vibe," Langenbacher explained between drags of a cigarette as he walked down Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. "When the mothers are around, you can't say, 'Hey! I saw three beautiful girls the other day.' "

His wife and two young sons left June 8 for Japan, where her parents live, and won't return until Aug. 22. He and Warga, who lives around the corner, were musing about the untethered life as they ambled home from the supermarket and liquor store with all the urgency of two sophomores with nothing to do and nowhere to be.

Warga, in shorts and a Nationals cap, was pushing his double stroller -- one seat occupied by a case of beer, two more six-packs stowed underneath.

By 1 p.m. on a steamy Thursday, the men were eating steaks at Warga's kitchen table and popping open the day's first brewskis.

"I'm not getting any work done today," announced Langenbacher, 33, who teaches government at Georgetown University. He did not seem overly concerned.

Warga, 40, an international trade consultant, has grown accustomed to his yearly sabbatical, having spent eight summers bidding his wife, Emmanuelle, bon voyage. She takes their three daughters -- Marguerite, 8, Lucie, 5, and Juliette, 1 -- to France to see her family and immerse them in French culture.

Warga embraces his freedom, imagining all the work he'll get done once he's no longer shackled by car pools and a gazillion chores. He takes down the child safety gates and lets the dirty dishes pile up in the sink. He commandeers the dining room table, spreading out his laptop and stacks of papers, the undisputed master of his domain.

He does what he wants when he wants. One afternoon, a Nationals game. One night, poker in Arlington. On a Sunday night, at an hour when he'd normally be bathing the kids, he met Langenbacher and a few buddies at the Brickskeller ("World's Largest Selection of Beers"), where they compared notes on the solo life.

"I find myself getting used to it," Langenbacher shrugged.

Of course, before she leaves each summer, his wife, Kay, stocks the house with a couple of cases of Heineken and 24 rolls of toilet paper and stows a Japanese stew in the freezer. She makes their bed with six layers of sheets so he just has to strip them off one by one.

Langenbacher is fully aware of the benefits of their separation, not the least of which is that it gives him a break from what he describes as her annoying habits -- like the heinous omission of not returning the cordless phone to the cradle. "It drives me nuts!" he said.

Nor does he have to feel guilty that "we're not doing enough for the kids," he said. "I have no obligations. That's the best part."

Actually, it gets better. There are lazy barbecues, afternoon movies (he's working his way through the American Film Institute's top 100) and impromptu naps.

Stahl, 45, a Sterling consultant, said he was initially less than pleased when his wife, Carla, sprung it on him that she was taking their daughters -- Lily, 6, and Liv, 9 months -- back home to Guam for the summer. But how could he argue? Her father, Guam's former governor, is running for his old seat and wanted his family around for the campaign.

"It was a hard decision," said Stahl before acknowledging that "It was a little harder for me. She made up her mind to go pretty quickly."

Somehow he has managed.

One afternoon, he went with a friend to a batting cage, drank beer and swung at fastballs until he could no longer lift the bat. On another, he went online and bought a powerboat for $6,500, a purchase he still hasn't gotten around to telling her about.

And one night, he curled up on the chaise longue in the bedroom with potato chips and soda -- taboo, as far as his wife is concerned -- and watched baseball and war movies on a split screen.

"I had a big smile on my face," Stahl recalled, describing the evening as the high point.

As far back as the 19th century, wives have loaded up the kids and abandoned the hot city for the mountains and the ocean when summer arrived. Tied to their jobs, husbands stayed home and commuted to see their families on weekends. With air conditioning and the rise of two-income families, that practice has become far less common.

"Most women can't leave for two months in the summer these days," said Cindy Aron, a University of Virginia professor who has written a history of vacations, "Working at Play."

Perhaps no film captured the split family life with more glee than the 1955 classic "The Seven Year Itch," which begins with Richard Sherman putting his wife and son on the train to Maine for the summer. When Sherman returns to their Manhattan apartment, he learns that he has a luscious new neighbor, played by Marilyn Monroe, whose white dress famously flutters as she stands over a subway grate, allowing for a show-stopping view of her legs.

Reality is not so kind.

In Langenbacher's case, the neighbor is a young guy who likes to wear "white pants and a pastel shirt, collar up -- a military wannabe," the professor scoffed.

More reality: With all his free time and no family to structure it around, he works "with much less efficiency," he said. "I'm hanging out too much, and when I hang out, it usually involves beer."

His life alone, the seasonal bachelor confessed, "all gets so tedious."

Warga agrees. He compares his family-free summer to the film "The Omega Man," in which Charlton Heston plays a post-apocalypse survivor "rooting around for food and talking to himself."

After awhile, Warga finds himself wandering the kids' darkened, spotless bedrooms, perhaps gazing at his daughter's hand-scrawled school project hanging on her wall: "The Cockroach, By Marguerite Warga. Habitat: Cockroaches live indoors; Diet: Cockroaches eat anything."

Stahl said he stopped enjoying himself three weeks after his wife left. Maybe it was all that Chinese takeout piling up in the fridge (he ordered three days' worth to save on delivery costs). Or that he ran through all 45 pairs of underwear and had to summon the cleaning lady to do the laundry (Warga replenished by going to Banana Republic).

Whatever the case, Stahl got sick of rolling around the big empty house -- the five bedrooms, the game room, the two dens. His low point, he said, was when an appraiser visited and he offered her coffee and made small talk ("What do you think of our home theater?") so she wouldn't leave so quickly.

"She was looking at me like I was kind of weird," he said. "It was pathetic."

The whining does not win the men much sympathy from their wives. They speculate that their husbands exaggerate their pain to get themselves bargaining chips for down the road.

"I'd love to get away from my kids for two months," said Emmanuelle Warga, speaking by phone from the south of France. "He's pretending to be miserable."

Kay Langenbacher, rung up in Tokyo, said she's not quite sure why her husband is complaining, since he can come and go as he pleases, drink beer and hang with friends.

"He gets a sweet deal," she said.

Does she worry that he will stray while she's gone?

"He's above the average intelligence, and if you think about all the disease and what you can lose, I don't think he's the type," she said.

One early evening, Langenbacher biked home from a bar to call her.

"Kay!" he said, sitting at their dining room table, launching into a blizzard of questions about their sons, Adam, 8, and Max, 4. Then he told her about a barbecue he hosted a few nights before, at which he and several pals stayed up late communing with their inner guys.

"Who gets the better of this deal?" he asked her.

"The kids?" He shook his head. "It's always about the kids, Kay. Take the kids out of it."

"It's good for both of us, right," he agreed, nodding. "It makes me cherish you more, and vice-versa, right?

"Vice-versa, right? "