Wednesday, June 29, 2011

All That Glitters: Notes from Under the Poverty Line

Many people often assume that folks must be rich if they have a Nantucket zip code.  This assumption is one of our local inside jokes.  Because we know that nothing could be further from the truth.  For most who live year round on this summer resort island thirty miles out to sea, life is hard.  With the highest grossing branch of Stop & Shop supermarkets in the entire country, and the additional shipping costs of many of our resources that put a high premium on everything from screws to fuel, we must support a very high cost of living.  Most people work a few jobs just to get by.  And if you want to go anywhere else, well, you start adding the cost of planes and boats and rental cars to the cost of travel, and you are talking about putting down a lot of loot.

Year round life on Nantucket takes a certain person.  A certain character.  If you aren’t that person when you get here, the winters will season you fast.  We are physically disconnected from the mainland, and we don’t have any traffic lights.  The cobblestones streets, the dirt roads and the uninterrupted stretches of beach and the abundant nature conservancy give it a real old world feel.  On warm, rainy nights down by the docks you can still smell the whale oil.  We are rich in quaintness and breathtaking views and a tight knit sense of community that’s rendered from our common isolation.  We have what is I believe one of the very first Historic District Commissions ever established in the country.  We have an annual town meeting.  To live here is to have a sense of reverence for the past.  It is quintessentially nostalgic.

Now that I am a mom, I am realizing how much the simplicity of life here is an asset.  I have been losing sleep worrying about how I’m going to support my son and give him a good life, a life that isn’t merely rich in love but also rich in the opportunities and experiences that can come from having means.   You know, the ski trips and the summer camps and that trip to Alaska you always wanted to take.  Not to mention music lessons and colleges and medicines should he god forbid become ill.  You all know the hankering, nagging fears.  You twitch with them at night the way your kids twitch with growing pains.  If you're lucky, you remember to close the window as the birds start to sing so you can catch a little more shuteye.     

Thank god I did get that shut eye.  Because I can relax a little today, and look around and see the abundance all around me.  New summer blossoms have left bursts of color all around our yard.  There are new sprouts from the vegetable seeds we recently put in our garden.  We have farms and fisheries right here.  We have talented artisans and musicians and teachers and businesswomen and men.  We have so much here at our disposal.  So much at hand. 

So while we may live hard we do live rich. I remind myself that it’s not all about fast tracking my toddler to the Ivy Leagues. What I give him just in being here day to day, sharing moments together like when a bee sips from the lavender, or the way the sun and rain left bright blossoms smattering the green like exclamation marks. So I guess whether I am rich or whether I’m poor is a matter of perspective. We don’t go out much, or drive fancy cars or talk on “smart” phones. But we can lull our little one to sleep at night with the sounds of the ocean and the wind in the trees. We can show him how he can dance along the tightropes of stars through his dreams.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Ways We Work

His jeans wear thin and fray, the pockets faded in the shape of his cell phone and carbon order pad.  He replaces his boots each year.  The uniform is completed by a lumber company tee, always dirty on the right shoulder where he carries all manner of building materials from two-by-fours to bundled shingles to sheetrock, and an old camo cap, a pen behind the ear.  This is basically the appearance of the man three hundred and sixty-five days of the year.  Even on his days off, the boots stay on.   He’s a working man.  He’s a company man.  He’s a stick-it-out-through-the-thick-and-thin man.    

And now, at the age of forty-two, he is learning how to slip out of this persona.  For the sake of the family he is slipping into whites and khakis, eschewing the camo cap so the world can see his dimpled smile.  He’s translating his time coming up in scallop shanties to high-wheeling parties with raw bars on ice and oysters, oysters, oysters on the heavenly half-shell.  Last night he threw off the jeans, showered, put on the khakis and was out the door before his little boy could say “Boo!”  He was back home near midnight.  Then this morning, another shower  (yes, he slept with all the oyster juice in his pores so he wouldn’t wake the baby with our old plumbing and thin walls), a fresh pair of jeans, a clean tee, feet back in the old boots, and back out the door.    

So frequently is his working father in and out of the door, doors have come to be synonymous with “Dada.”  There are a couple of random closed doors down at the playground: one to a dormant information booth, the other apparently leading to some storage behind the bandstand.  Cayce pulls on the handles of these locked doors calling for “Daddy.”  Of course, in addition to the doors that Daddy leaves and returns by, there is the door to his man cave, his decompression zone, where he watches Deadliest Catch and sneaks cigs, his home away from home.  Daddy always seems to be behind one of these doors or another.  

I launder Daddy’s clothes, iron the shirt and khakis so everything is ready for him come changing time between jobs.  I stay home with our child, chase him around the playground, keep him plied with snacks, dress him, hold him and bath him, change him and nurse him.  I keep track of the laundry, the dishes, getting groceries in the house and dinner on.  I don’t always do it well, but I do my best.  I do manage to be a loving and attentive mother, and partner, and now one who can pull in a pay check or two to boot.  When I am babysitting or typing I am also able to pay for most of the groceries while he tackles the mortgage and all of the nagging bills associated with owning a home. 

I never thought I would be a woman who stayed home and ironed her husband’s shirts.  I don’t even have the benefits of marriage, and yet somehow I seem to have become a wife who irons her husband’s shirts.  Raised in the era of feminism, I looked at it from the outside: it looked stifling and small.  In college we read books like Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering, where the idea of women as sole nurturers was revealed as a social construct, born of a patriarchy.  I thought I had it down pat.  I threw around terms like “the division of labor” like I had no intention of ever succumbing to a life in which this division was unequal. 

But in practice, it’s hard to find a healthy balance where men and women can share equally the responsibilities of parenting and work.   It sure would be a lot easier if our society didn’t put so much pressure on the men to be the breadwinners, and the women to be the nurturers.   Sometimes I think maybe Erica Jong was right when she wrote her article The Madness of Modern Motherhood.

The other day, a friend mentioned the word balance.  It has resonated with me all week.  She works full time at her gardening business and wishes she didn’t have to give up the time with her young son.  I envy her working and being out in the world, the power and strength that comes from making her own money.  I wish I could walk a little bit in her shoes.  It is small recompense that she may also wish sometimes she could walk in mine.

Some days I am able to feel the enormity in my small little life.  I don’t see myself as someone who is sacrificing herself for her family.  I don’t see myself as chained down.  I see myself as linked in to an ever growing web that will hold us like a net and keep us from getting hurt as we climb to soaring heights. 

I am grateful to be able to write.  It is like the umbilical chord that keeps me tied to the power and strength in my stay-at-home life.  All the wonderful moments along the way that aren’t likely to make it to the evening news, but really deserve spots on the World’s Funniest Videos.   The tiniest little moments loom large when they are voiced.  And this voice just might be a raft that will carry us all down the river to an easier place, where there is plenty of money for continuous fresh, organic fruits, music lessons, summer camps, and our pick of schools.   I could make it happen, couldn’t I?

Stay right there.  Hold that thought.   

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Nature of Nurturing

When I agreed to take on the care of a six month old baby for sixteen hours a week, I was a little concerned that it would have a negative impact on my 20 month old.  I was worried that he would have a hard time sharing me with her. 

In fact, he has become so attached to Baby, he has a hard time letting her go at the end of the day.   Since last Friday, he throws his arms around the little one when he sees her mother turning into the driveway, or hears the squeak of the screen door as she comes into the house at pick-up time.  He cries, “Baby! Baby!”  He asks about her after she leaves, bringing up her name.  When she is with us Cayce loves to brag about her and show her off, pointing her out to everyone.  Indeed, he thinks she’s ours.  Last week I took them both to Stop and Shop to get a few snacks, and Cayce, who talks to every Tom, Dick, and Harry he passes, pointed baby out to everyone in our path. 

It broke my heart a bit when, that evening, I returned to the store with just him, and he kept chiming Baby! Baby! again, as if she were a limb that had been severed from him, and yet he could still feel, a dull ache where that part of himself had been.

We have come a long way since the first week when Cayce seemed to want to throw the baby’s teething toys at her because she wouldn’t stop crying.  On day five I finally wore the baby in the gorgeous blue embroidered Ergo carrier that has been on loan from a friend since Cayce was small.  I walked with her little legs wrapped around my waist and her head resting on my chest, the way I had worn Cayce for so many walks when he was small, and for the first time she slept.  The next day, when her father brought her to us at noon, she smiled for me.  She made it through most of the day without crying.   I began to wear her in the Ergo more frequently to help her feel secure while her mommy and daddy were working.   And the ease of our time together increased exponentially. 

I will admit, that first week, the baby’s level of distress made it hard for me to bond with her.  It wasn’t until that first day that she smiled at me that I realized how darn cute she is.  Before that, well, she would never let me put her down even momentarily to nurse my own child, and I undoubtedly had some misgivings about that.  Here I was now with not one happy baby, but two unhappy ones.   They would set each other off all day like little ticking time bombs.  I would coo and cajole, as if none of it was fazing me one bit.   Then, when the baby went home and I felt like decompressing, my own child needed me intensely.  Aha… so this is what it’s like for working moms.

Now that we have been doing this for a little while things have begun to hum along quite nicely.  The babies make each other laugh.  Today, Cayce turned her on to his favorite singer, Ziggy Marley, and I so hope I can get the camera rolling sometime when they are rocking out together.  They also played a duet together on Cayce’s Little Tykes piano.  When the baby’s not around, Cayce is pushing around a pink doll stroller I picked up at the dump.  He puts into the stroller the yarn-haired cloth doll that also came from the dump, whom he calls, simply, Doll, or else his Elmo doll, or else his yard-sale Bert doll whom he insists is Ernie.  (In the Book of Cayce, Cookie Monster will always be Oscar, and Bert will always be Ernie.) 

On Sunday, as I was getting us all ready to go out for a family walk, Cayce insisted that Doll get a hat just like the rest of us.  I rummaged around my various and sundry piles of infant clothes that Cayce has outgrown until I found a cotton cap small enough to fit over Doll’s frenetic yarn head.   I know, that wouldn’t suffice to protect Doll’s face from the sun, but it served to make Cayce’s make-believe baby a bit more real.  Once outside, we left Doll under the shade of her stroller awning while we headed off in the car to find a nature trail.  We won’t talk about how mommy totaled said stroller a few days later when Cayce left it in the driveway with Elmo sitting in it.  Luckily there was a pair of them at the dump, and I took them both.  (I said to K,  as I held up the flattened pink metal frame, Do you think this is God telling me that I shouldn’t let our son push around a pink stroller?  No, he answered, it’s God telling you to drive more carefully.  So of course, what I have taken from that conversation is that he thinks it’s perfectly fine to let our little boy play with dolls and doll strollers.)

As Baby comes and goes (and will soon be going for six or seven long weeks of summer), Cayce’s Dolls and stuffies have become important characters in Cayce’s world.  When Cayce brushes his teeth, he also brushes Elmo’s teeth.  When he nurses, he holds his stuffed bear or Elmo up to my breast for some “Na-Ni.”  (Doll, our recent dump find, has not yet reached this level of status in the hierarchy of Cayce’s affections.)   This is the same little boy who can’t get enough of Daddy’s truck and tractor mower.  The same little boy who can dribble a soccer ball around like nobody’s business.  The same little boy who seems so contented and rosy cheeked as he nurses during our sweet, one-on-one time after Baby goes home, saying “Mmmm…. mmmm!” so that I think he must be getting the flavors of strawberries and maple syrup from our pancakes that morning.

Whether or not we have a second child (and at this stage of the game, it’s unlikely—although it also seemed unlikely the first time around, so who knows?), I am so grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to see so early in my son’s life how attachment-parenting has impacted his ability to attach to—in fact, to love—others. Yes, saying goodbye is hard.  But won’t it always be?  Saying good-bye is just part of it.  As long as we get to say Hello again, and get a few squeezes in with Elmo, Beah, or even Doll.  And even if we never have a second child, I sense that Cayce’s childhood is going to be rich in real little friends.