Monday, August 19, 2013

Surrender Dorothy . . .

My answers, she says, are too simplistic.

But they work.
Michelle checks in, once in a while. “You’re sure you don’t resent that I don’t have a job.”
Of course not. And I mean it. And we also mean it when we discuss she does have a job – Mom to three kids, volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America. They’re jobs. She doesn’t get paid for them. She doesn’t care. I don’t care. We have enough. More than enough. We have enough to pay the bills and to set aside for retirement – the thought that her parents have laid aside just over a million for retirement doesn’t faze us. It’s a goal.
But my answers are too simplistic. Too limiting for my wife. Though they are her answers too.
Jessica Grosse, writing for, says I’m hindering my wife’s career prospects by having her stay at home to be a mom:
The other response is that one parent should stay home if a family can’t afford childcare. But that too is a simplistic answer. Childcare isn’t the only expense—most families need two working parents to feed and clothe their offspring. Also, if one parent—and yes, it’s usually the woman—stops working for a prolonged period of time, this has a ripple effect on the future earning potential for the entire family. For every two years a woman is out of the workforce, her earnings fall 10 percent.
Her solution is to have government subsidize daycare so both parents can work and earn money to provide for the family they now both see only a few hours a day because both parents are working. Emphasize quality time over quantity time.
I’m not sure the government owes us anything. And after thirteen years of being a parent, it’s become apparent to me that the quality time with my kids comes only because we as parents have a lot of time in which to find those quality moments.
I don’t disparage mothers who work, or fathers who stay home for that matter. What Grosse says, in part, is true. Most families need two working parents to feed and clothe their offspring. We’re lucky in that we do not.
Or is it luck?
I have two jobs – a full-time job as a technical writer, and a part-time job as a university instructor. Both jobs pay the bills and let us put money away for a rainy day.  We’re lucky in that.
But we’re also pinch-pennies. No cable TV. No smartphones. No car payments  -- our vehicles are old and paid for. We don’t dine out a lot. We bargain-shop for everything. I can’t recall the last time we paid the suggested price for a piece of clothing. Neither one of us have expensive hobbies. Most of the maintenance work at home we do ourselves, barring the stuff we can’t do. And we learn to do a lot of what we can’t. Two years ago, installing a sprinkler system would have been an impossibility. Now it’s nearly done, and all I’ve done is pay attention when my brother helped set up the initial works. And I paid for the parts.
Maybe my answers don’t work for everyone.
But they work.
What other answers are there?
What do we give up for the so-called career? I’m reading another article today that offers this:
The summer before I left for Oxford, I found myself back home, drinking beer with a high school friend in a pickup truck parked next to the river. His name was Karl, and he'd stuck around to lend a hand on his family's dairy farm. Most everyone else from our crowd had moved away, part of the ongoing small-town diaspora that will someday completely depopulate rural America. Our old buddies worked on salmon boats in Alaska. They dealt cards in Las Vegas. They sold Fords in Denver. Some, having grown fed up with low-wage jobs, were studying computer programming or starting small businesses with borrowed money. I had a hard time imagining their lives, especially if they'd married and had kids, but I didn't have to: they were gone. I was gone too, up a ladder into the clouds. Up a ladder made of clouds.
"So, what are your views on Emerson?" Karl asked me.
We'd been discussing books, at his request. He'd looked me up that night for this very purpose. While I'd been off at Princeton, polishing my act, he'd become a real reader and also a devoted Buddhist. He said he had no one to talk to, no one who shared his interest in art and literature, so when he'd heard I was home, he'd driven right over. We had a great deal in common, Karl said.
But we didn't, in fact, and I didn't know how to tell him this. To begin with, I couldn't quote the Transcendentalists as accurately and effortlessly as he could. I couldn't quote anyone. I'd honed more-marketable skills: for flattering those in authority without appearing to, for ranking artistic reputations according to the latest academic fashions, for matching my intonations and vocabulary to the background of my listener, for placing certain words in smirking quotation marks and rolling my eyes when someone spoke too earnestly about some "classic" work of "literature," for veering left when the conventional wisdom went right and then doubling back if the consensus changed.
Flexibility, irony, class consciousness, contrarianism. I'd gone to Princeton, and soon I'd go to Oxford, and these, I was about to tell Karl, are the ways one gets ahead now—not by memorizing old Ralph Waldo. I'd learned a lot since I'd aced the SATs, about the system, about myself, and about the new class the system had created, which I was now part of, for better or for worse. The class that runs things. The class that makes the headlines—that writes the headlines, and the stories under them.
But I kept all this to myself; I didn't tell Karl. He was a reader, a Buddhist, and an old friend, and there were some things he might not want to know. I wasn't so sure I wanted to know them either.
My cynicism had peaked, but later that summer something happened that changed me—not instantly but decisively. A month before I was scheduled to fly to England and resume my career as a facile ignoramus, I came down with a mild summer cold that lingered, festered, and turned into pneumonia, forcing me to spend two weeks in bed. One feverish night I found myself standing in front of a bookcase in the living room that held a row of fancy leather-bound volumes my mother had bought through the mail when I was little. Assuming that the books were chiefly decorative, I'd never even bothered to read their titles, but that night, bored and sick, I picked one up: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Then I did something unprecedented for me: I carried it back to my bedroom and actually read it—every chapter, every page. A few days later I repeated the feat with Great Expectations, another canonical stalwart that I'd somehow made it through Princeton without opening.
And so, belatedly, haltingly, and almost accidentally, it began: the education I'd put off while learning to pass as someone in the know. I wasn't sure what it would get me, whose approval it might win, or how long it might take to complete, but for once those weren't my first concerns. Alone in my room, exhausted and apprehensive, I no longer cared about self-advancement. I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to read. I wanted to find out what others thought.
Education and career, it seems, aren’t limited to schools and the grand office-buildings of the Zeniths of America. It seems the same things many strive for are many of the same things they mock when they read Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt. The posing. The aspiring, The aping.
But I know families where both parents work. I don’t look down on them. I don’t know their situations. What works for us may not work for them, and what works for them may not work for us. To say there is one definition or one lifestyle that stamps us all the same is to be as rotten a liar as those who say the lifestyle my wife and I are leading is stifling.
Humans never cease to surprise me with their adaptability. We find ways to deal with what life hands us. Most of us. Some of us don’t cope. But most of us do. And our ability to cope waxes and wanes – it’s never constant. Circumstances change and what was once a simple situation is now complex and overwhelming.
Walter Kirn’s most valuable lesson comes in the last sentence of his essay: He wanted to find out what others thought. That’s what we need to do, before we judge, before we launch edicts. What does the other think? That’s different than saying you think you know what the other thinks. Because you don’t. Unless you talk to them. Which most people won’t.

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