East Side to the West Side

A friend re-posted my last post onto a Web portal thingy, and one or two readers pointed out that by writing about work as a choice I had neglected to mention those moms who work because they have to. It was a fair point. There are, of course, millions of mothers who have no choice but to go back to work six weeks–or two weeks–after their kids are born, a fact that really boggles my mind (L was born in Norway, where I was very cheerfully signed up for ten months of maternity pay). But yes: I am writing as a college-educated, semi-professional (ha), middle-class mother who has some choice in the matter. That said, I do have to work. For all my “I could have stayed home, I could have done this” business, the truth is that our household relies on the money I earn. Because I’m adjunct, I don’t get paid when school isn’t in session, and we’re still digging out from the six weeks I had off in January. There will be another hiccup in May. Could we make it work if we absolutely had to? Yes. Probably. Therein lies the nature of privilege, and my choice to only work part time.

Lately I have been a little obsessed with money. You know me, I’m always obsessed with something–and lately, it’s money. I wish I wasn’t so obsessed, but the aforementioned digging out has felt stressful. Daycare costs went up a bit in January. Preschools for next year cost even more. If we have another baby, the financial burden would be a strain. We live in one of the most expensive parts of the country, I’m afraid. We have small-town salaries at big-city prices.

Not that I’m complaining. I’m just noticing. I’m noticing that I’m obsessed with money.

I get into these conversations with people about the cost of preschools–a friend’s excited about a preschool that only costs $14,000 a year, which is a real steal, I’m told, since generally you pay $20,000. Gulp. I’m thinking, can we find one for, say, $6,000? Recently we were at a friend’s house. She bought a place in San Francisco and was telling me about her plans to gut the kitchen and put in a new one. Perhaps needless to say, there will be no gutting of kitchens from us anytime soon. Hell, we aren’t buying any kitchens anytime soon.

Another friend thrives on frugality. She tells me how much it’s worth it to her to live a simple life in a small apartment, never buying new stuff, in order to have freedom from big bills and other trappings of big-city life.

I’m kind of with her; and then I’m kind of with the other friend, craving a new kitchen in a fancy San Francisco apartment!

Ah, who knows.

It occurs to me that this push and pull has something to do with where I came from (New England) and with where I live now (Northern California). I have long felt like I live in the middle of two worlds: I have an East coaster on one shoulder, reminding me to behave. On the other, a West coaster, handing me a joint and telling me to relax. I think about this a lot. That dichotomy isn’t all to do with money, of course, though if one were to generalize they’d probably say that people are more understated about money in the East and more ostentatious in the West. Probably, if I were truly an East coaster, I wouldn’t even touch the subject in this blog. Even in the West, where people will tell you about their bowel movements and sex lives at the drop of a hat (and what better conversations to be having?) I feel squeamish for talking about money.

So, in a sort of vaguely related way, here’s an excerpt from my book. It’s about that difference between the East and the West. It’s about the difference between my husband and me. I’m lucky that after all these years together I have found there’s a lot of East in B’s West, and a lot of West in my East. Maybe that’s why we get along so well. Most of the time.

This part comes early, after the character of Susie has met B. She is ruminating on why it is that she’s so crazy about him.

I just wanted to talk to him and hold him and fuck him all day, every day. I hadn’t felt anything like it in years, if ever. Part of what I loved was that he was different. He had lived for a few years in New England as a kid, but he was, to me, pure West Coast. His parents met in the early seventies, when his dad came to visit the commune in Santa Barbara where his mom lived for a little while. He was born at home, in a time when homebirth was illegal in California, and at the end things got messy and when the paramedics came the midwife had to hide in the bushes so she wouldn’t be arrested. His parents divorced when he was one; each promptly remarried a painter, and his mother had two daughters, also at home. As a kid, B took turns with each parent every two years, and each family moved in the meantime too. By the time he got to college he had lived in different parts of California and out in the sticks of New Mexico and in Maine; he had lived in so many different houses and gone to so many different schools he couldn’t remember their names.

I didn’t meet people who’d had these sorts of upbringings until I moved to the West Coast. They were children of divorce who’d been born in outlandish circumstances and moved around a lot. B’s best friend from college was born in a teepee in the Santa Cruz mountains and his parents called him Manipi. Manipi from the teepee! Imagine.

Before I moved to Oregon I knew only one kid who was born at home. His parents were Christian Scientists and in Kindergarten he told us he’d come into the world on the dining room table. In tenth grade, he admitted he’d made this up. He was born in a bed. But everyone else from the suburb of Boston where I grew up was born in a hospital, like me, and most of them, also like me, stayed in that town until the day they left for college (and they all went to college). Most, but not all, of my friends’ parents were still married. My family was generations-old New England on my dad’s side; my mother is from working class London, and my dad met her when he had a fellowship there in the sixties. My brothers and I were raised privileged, with a summer house and travel and books, and we were also raised with that particular set of New England values that emphasizes frugality, honesty, hard work, and social propriety. And guilt. My parents are liberal, smart, and funny, but they’re also pretty straight, and I’m quite sure some of the things B’s parents found ordinary—like taking your infant to the astrologer, to see what might come down the pike—would have struck mine as completely bonkers.

All of which is to say that beyond the scientific and emotional irrationalities of attraction—which I don’t know if anyone really understands—part of what I liked about him was that he represented something new, a departure. I was fascinated by his parents’ divorce, by all the moving. I worried briefly that he was someone who would have a hard time committing, but it was almost as though the experience of having been constantly uprooted had the opposite effect on him. He was affectionate to the point, occasionally, of clinginess; he was the most affectionate man I had ever known. He would wrap his long legs around me. He always wanted to hold hands. He loved to give and receive back massages. He would sometimes take my hands and put them on his chest, or his face, or his head, a reminder that he needed touch too, like a cat bonking its head into your legs. I am not naturally as affectionate. Or as laid-back; B felt no hesitation about doing things simply because he felt like it, because it was fun. Unlike me, he did not encounter guilt or anxiety like a wall in front of him when he walked out into the world every day.

Enjoy.

See you next time,
Susie

Workin’ Nine to Five, What a Way to Make a Living

I know I just wrote yesterday, because I was on this kick about optimism and I really wanted to show some photos of my sweet little garden. But it just occurred to me that actually, I have had something else on my mind for a couple of weeks now, and the only reason I didn’t blog about it yesterday was that the conclusion I was trying to draw hadn’t fully gelled.

Since L switched to a new daycare about a month ago, my childcare time has doubled. This was merely logistical: Lorena wouldn’t take him for less than three days, and she charges the same for those three days whether I pick him up at noon or at 5 o’clock. Initially I thought I would keep him half days anyway, and I picked him up around 1:00 the first week. But he didn’t want to leave, and I felt I was disrupting the flow of the day when I arrived to take him home, since all the other kids were in pajamas and settling down on those little puffy mats in the living room for their naps (“L will never go for that,” I thought, thinking of our very special nap circumstances at home: white noise, stories, special blankies, crib). So after a week or so, I decided, well, I’ll try just one day to leave him there the whole day. Sure enough, L didn’t sleep and came home exhausted and fractious around 4:00 p.m. The following week I thought I’d try once more to have him stay the whole day, sure that it would be a disaster. Well, Lorena called around 3:00 to say that L was sleeping, and had been for two hours. When I went to get him, he was completely and totally happy. And since then, he has settled down on a mat in her living room three days a week with four or five other kids and sacked out at naptime. Then had someone else get him up when his nap is over, give him his snack, and find him something to do.

And I am wrestling with my feelings about this.

I’ll admit I had and probably still have a bit of a prejudice against parents who have kids and then dump them in daycare for outrageously long hours. I know some kids who are in daycare from seven to seven, five days a week. That’s a lot. On the other hand, I realized after I’d been home with L exclusively until he was sixteen months, working from home part-time for some of that, that I wasn’t cut out for full time SAHMness. When I hooked into a nanny share twelve hours a week, writing or working in cafes, I felt like my life began again. I knew then that I would not follow the model of my own mom, who was home with us the whole time we were growing up, or my sister in law, who very cheerfully stayed home with her three kids until they went to school, when she went back to work. At first I thought I had failed in some way for not wanting to do that. Sure, I could have stayed home with L full time; but I wasn’t that fulfilled or nearly as patient as the job demanded.

Since L has started with Lorena I have been amazed at how much more central my work life has become. I’m writing; I’m teaching; I’m blogging; I’m having entrepreneurial feelings; I’m networking. And I’m wrestling with a voice telling me that I’m failing my kid somehow, while all the while I’m–can I admit it?–ecstatic to be working more. I’ve been kind of whispering that to myself and to B, and today I admitted it to a friend, too: I like having L in childcare three days a week. I miss him, sure, but I also love the freedom.

There’s an awful lot of judgment thrown on mothers in particular for their decisions about work. Let’s face it: if you’re in a heterosexual relationship, there’s an easy assumption that the father will work full time and the mother will be the one to make a hard choice. As a feminist I see the unfairness in this; as a crunchy earth mama I also see the logic: I stayed home with L for over a year in part because I wanted to nurse him that whole time. I have made judgments of other mothers myself (I admitted as much, above). I hear those judgments from other people, and sometimes they seem justified (like the family I knew who employed no less than three nannies and a baby nurse, to ensure that the time they spent with their children was about one hour a day–their former nanny, my friend C, and I had a big old judge-fest about that one day). Sometimes I hear judgments when they’re not even there: when my mom says to me, “So, you pick him up when? At five? Really?” I can’t tell if she’s judging me or amazed, since her sole experience with childcare when I was a kid was an occasional trip to Mrs. McNeeley’s, a kid factory down the road with a giant TV that was always showing the Partridge Family. I was sent there maybe twice a year.

It’s dawning on me that, like sleep, work is one of those deeply personal experiences that every mother, and every family, has to figure out on her own. And what’s probably most important is not only the happiness of the children in that family but the happiness that’s being modeled by the primary caregivers. If I’m fulfilled in my life by working part-time, I model that for L. And if another mother wants to be home full time because that’s what makes her happy, then she is modeling that for her kid. And if a woman wants to work full time because that’s what makes her most happy, then she is modeling that for her kid. When a problem arises, I think, is when either the happiness of the kid is so prioritized that the mother is drained and depleted, or when the happiness of the mother is so prioritized that the kid suffers. I realize that “happiness” is perhaps the wrong word to use, here–but I use it to mean fulfillment, ease, contentment.

For me, being a “good” mother means finding balance, and balance for me means working out of the home some days and home with L some days. Our closeness does not seem to have changed since he’s away from me twenty hours a week. We’re still thick as thieves. And I am, I guess, a working mom. I like to ride my bike to pick him up between 4:30 and 5:00. Usually I have spent the entire day glued to the laptop, and I welcome the physicality of the ride. We weave our way home through the streets, chatting the whole way. He dutifully reports on what he had for lunch and which kids were there. Then he tells me about naptime.

“Were any kids talking during nap?” I ask.
“No,” L says. “They were quiet.”

Glass Half Full

Me, tonight, to B: “You know, if I got offered some editing work in the next few weeks, I think I’d take it. It would be nice to make some extra dough. It might be stressy for a bit around here if I was working a lot more, but no big deal.”

B, wryly: “Yeah, how much more stressy could it really get?”

I had a good belly laugh about that one.

Sure, life could get a lot more stressy (have I mentioned I love slang? That I adore words like “spendy” and “janky” and “stressy”?), but resolved am I to be more positive.

Some people are very clearly optimists. My mother in law, for example, can look down the face of climate change, recession, and world tragedy and declare it a really exciting time to be alive, because the world is in great turmoil and it will be fascinating to see what happens in the next twenty years (!). My dad, on the other hand, can order the wrong thing at lunch and be bummed out about it for the rest of the day (!). I find that I waffle pretty reliably between optimism and pessimism. Small things tend to really get me down (I have a lot of my dad in me), and on the other hand, I am sometimes capable of impressive grace and positivity. When my brother’s wife left him, for example, my mom told me I was a “rock.” I felt like one. I took my brother out to get drunk and wander around North Beach, then I called my parents and assured them he was going to be alright. (Then I let him sleep on my couch for three weeks, and phoned my parents with updates until everyone felt a little better.) The whole rotten experience made me really grow. It was nice to be needed in that way by my family, especially as, a), I come from one of those families where, knock on wood, things don’t fall apart too spectacularly that much; and, b), my parents tend to really be the rocks for their kids and sometime, you just gotta repay that favor.

Over the weekend my mom sent me a video by a guy we know who has cancer. This man has always been one of those extremely full-of-life, happy-go-lucky guys, and he got hit with a real doozie: metastasized esophageal cancer. Man, this video was uplifting. He details all the treatments he’s undergoing, traditional ones like chemo and non-traditional ones like acupuncture, Chinese herbs, qigong, and a macrobiotic diet. He’s talking about everything very cheerfully and calmly–much more calm than I knew him to be–but with this wisdom, just this wisdom. And then he says, “you know, this is really a spiritual journey.” His grace moved me so much. To look at your own possible death and see a spiritual journey? That’s extreme optimism. I hope I would have the strength.

I think sometimes, lately, I have been falling too heavily in the pessimist camp. It’s not that I’m ungrateful for what I have, or that I don’t see my extreme luckiness in the scheme of things. I do. I am grateful for so many things: my health, my family, my job, my home, being a mother–and having an incredible community of friends, good childcare, Netflix, a hook-up for some great wine at low prices, a bike with a seat for L, good books, good food, a future wonderful sister-in-law for my wonderful brother, oh and a brand new nephew–not their kid!–but I also think I feel things deeply. I always have, and since having a child I’ve felt in some ways opened right up, to more joy and to more heartache. I find myself crying when I listen to NPR or B looks at me the wrong way, or the right way. Then two second later I’m laughing. I’m a maniac. And like this blog post–what the hell is it really even about? Oh right, it’s about how I’ve been worrying, dear readers, that I sound like sour grapes all the time.

And it’s about this. A very small thing. About eight feet long by three feet wide. It’s not, yet, very fecund or impressive. It does not make me weep or shout with joy. But it has made me want to get up in the morning to see what’s new. And when we get off the bike after daycare or coming home from the playground, L and I go to see what we’ve missed, which creatures have come to threaten it, which ones we’ve staved off, and which tiny little sprouts are starting to push their way up.

Two weekends ago we took an old flower bed and excavated it. B handily sawed some boards and dug them in. We added compost and fertilizer and tilled it all, and planted cooking greens (collards and Chinese broccoli, to go with the chard and dino kale already there); lettuces (mache, red leaf, baby romaine); and seeds for green onions, two kinds of carrots, and some beets. This adds to our volunteer parsley, the huge bush of rosemary and oregano, some arugula, some thyme, and some mint.

It’s my garden.

Cookin' greens.

The lettuces.

My sweet ranunculus.