Dana read cookbooks like they were novels. Eve went back to Sarah Lawrence. Kristen had Chinese characters tattooed on her upper back that she claimed said "Moo Shoo Pork." Alice had written a novel and was also a painter. Herman ran like a rabbit. Josey rode a red bicycle. Katherine taught sign language. Angie dyed her hair a different color every month. And Karen was the mom of a fourth-grader.
And that’s not even all of them.
In my son’s six years he’s had more caregivers than I can count. They did a great job, especially considering they took home much less than it costs to live.
Yet, last fall when we graduated to kindergarten, we were relieved to put the $600 (fondly known as "our second mortgage") back in our pockets each month—and felt lucky to dole out less than $200 for after-school care. We envisioned re-doing the converted garage, traveling to someplace besides Oklahoma (grandparent land), and even replacing my seven-year-old mom mobile with my "inner car," a sporty yellow jeep.
Then in October, just one month into our newfound largesse, my husband joined the unemployed masses. The good news was that unemployment benefits put our income right back where we’d been pre-K. And the extremely good news was we could kiss childcare goodbye! Jim joined the after-school moms (and one other dad) who gathered at the magic hour outside the row of turquoise double-doors of our son’s school. Jim arranged play dates and actually learned some parents’ names. When Cope had the week-long sickness we dubbed "running and jumping pneumonia," Jim rented videos, laid in the hammock and read books until the antibiotics finally took over.
A three-year nurser and "do it herself" mom who danced the line between elation and exhaustion, I’ve racked up the hours. Though I started back to work part-time when Cope was three-months-old, I was committed to staying connected. His childcare was right across the street and we still shared baby time half the day. When he turned two, I went full-time. At first, being away from Cope all day was, for me, like quitting a benevolent soul-completing version of heroin, but for him it just meant more time to play with his friends. I adjusted and our emaciated bank account breathed a sigh of relief. Even then, my job offered more flexibility than Jim’s, so I was the one who went on the school field trip to the bakery and it was me who drove our son, dry-heaving into a towel, to the doctor. Don’t get me wrong, Jim wore the baby on his body for the greater part of two years and probably changed more diapers than I, especially the icky ones.
I never dreamed unemployment could be so wonderful. At first, I was a micro-managing boss, prescribing chores and job-searching activities. I was working hard to bring home the bacon, I reasoned, so everyone else should suffer, too. Then I wised up and succumbed to overwhelming gratitude. The rugs were clean! The laundry disappeared! Tidy stacks of clothes marched up the back of the couch. The refrigerator refilled itself and dinner evolved with little aid from me. Jim became a disciple of the Holy Order of Home Depot. He spoke of the early morning show hosts as if they were coworkers. He chased the profession of his dreams, teaching tai chi, while dashing off resumes to meager job postings. And, most importantly, he embraced his forced sabbatical as he does all things—with peace and wonder. If I can’t admire the changing winter clouds or nap on a rainy day myself—then it’s nearly as nice to hear my beloved deliver a detailed report on these blissful non-achievements.
And suddenly, I had more time, too. No more flying out of the office at ten of five, tempting the traffic gods as I beat it across town, only to have my fragile progeny greet me with, "I wanna stay longer, PUH-LEAZE!" Now, I could have dinner with a friend or take an evening yoga class, knowing that my son was warming in a parental glow. These past few months have been like having a nanny again (a six-month experiment we conducted involving our baby and threat of bankruptcy). Life is, as an advertisement for life insurance or an SUV would say, good. We feel rich, even if we can’t afford cable TV, two nice cars, a big enough house on a pretty street, or going to places like Colorado and Florida on vacation. (We can’t afford that stuff on two salaries.) We know we’re damn lucky—fewer than a third of American families are making it on one salary.
Of course in October, when the government pulls out of Jim’s life to pursue other more worthy causes, we’ll be sunk.
The best part of being a single-worker family is we're exempt from the camp conundrum: that dreaded flash of time in February when frenzied working parents compete for precious few summer day-camp registration slots. Just for fun this year, I piled in my friend's van and went to the "camp fair" feeling like a millionaire shopping at Wal-Mart, picking up a couple of items that I really didn't need. Jim and Cope already had big summer plans: to build a tree house in our backyard tree, and swim. They had already started stashing scrap wood. Even so, we reasoned that a week at farm camp and another at nature camp, spent with a friend, would give Jim a well-deserved break and time to job search.
Then, Jim got a phone call. His old employer wanted him back part-time. He forecast a full-time position by summer.
I could hear the tree house falling to the ground, screams of Marco (Polo) fading into nothing. We waited until Cope was in bed to talk about what it would mean to rejoin the dual workforce. I wept and protested that I would not go back to the crazy schedule I used to keep, hitting the grocery store, against Cope’s protests, after a busy ten-hour day. I didn’t want to return to living in fear of what might happen to our child when he was away from us. My tears were for the terror I felt the first time my baby walked away from me, for the first morning we left him at that giant public school, and when he first emerged from the safety of inside of me into this reckless world where buildings explode, cars crash, diseases spread and fires overcome the innocent.
The "camp" folder
lies on the kitchen table, no checks written nor registration forms
sent, until Jim gets a firm commitment from his employer. With two
full-time salaries we will be able to turn our tiny fifties house into a
place we can see staying a few years. We can celebrate our tenth wedding
anniversary next year with our long-dreamed-of trip to Barcelona. Our
son says he wouldn’t mind going to all-day camp with his friend Luke.
For him, it’s about swimming and playing games and experiencing
everything "summer." To us, it’s about balancing needs with
desires and surrendering to the changing cloud that is our life.