Monday, October 30, 2006

The Economics of Motherhood

School's been out since last Tuesday afternoon due to staff retreat. As a result, it's been a long week of surrendering into the role of full-time mommy, my other work be damned. Activity lists help me stay focused on potential things to do during my tenure as stay-at-home mom, otherwise I am at a loss. Instead, pumpkin patches, carving jack-o-lanterns, costume festivals, library outings, movie-popcorn nights, ice cream cone excursions, Halloween decorating, drawing and more drawing, roasting pumpkin seeds, pumpkin muffins, window shopping at the pet store, cleaning out her too-small clothes, looking for slippers that fit, trying samosas together, perfecting the handstand…these were only some of the activities we did together over the last 5 days.

By the time "the drop" came, and by that I mean the post-what's-for-dinner, who-needs-a-bath, time to get your teeth brushed and pjs on, let's read another chapter of Ramona or Henry Huggins, OK goodnight, I'll come back and check on you in five minutes, and five minutes after that, but only after I clean up the dishes and let the cat in…I was blotto. Empty. Vacant.

It was I who dropped.

Freedom finally mine, it was all I could do to flip around the tube for some back episodes of Top Chef, or worse, my newfound disciplinary guilty pleasure, The Dog Whisperer. (If only my daughter could be trained like that!) Thoughts of writing in the evenings after she went to sleep vanished like a deserted can of tuna fish around a hungry cat. The stink and an empty can were all that remained. Even the memoir I was reading, The Liar's Club, the one I had been waiting to get to, held little attraction as my eyes would sink, words all blurry after a mere page and a half of attempted reading. Thoughts escaped my uncontained brain.

I was spent.

As thanks for my (insert gratuitous flattery here) motherly devotion, a sentence he himself managed to escape due to various meetings, deadlines, and evening agendas, my husband generously offered to take us all out to breakfast this morning. A nice Sunday brunch.

Sounded good to me.

Sienna was thrilled.

We chose a lovely Westside place, known for their fresh food, homemade coffeecake and mismatched shabby-chic garden tea-party-on-acid décor.

I should have known something was up when the only table the host would seat us at in the near empty patio was butted up next to an already seated two-top who's Sunday Times was scattered all across our table and chairs. Apparently no other table was "available." Also, he informed me they were no longer "doing" the coffee cake. The cake they were known for. Hadn't for about a month or two.

Another bad sign was when my cappuccino finally did arrive, it came in a mug labeled Starbucks. (Need I say more?)

When I excused ourselves to take my 4-yr-old to the bathroom, something that always seems to happen as soon as we get settled in somewhere, the host watched us as we wandered around looking for it, didn't offer any directions, but when I finally asked, informed me that it was right across there but I couldn't cut through the wait station where he was pointing. I would have to go all the way back around. Don't do me any favors, please.

I was already feeling too old and too tired, too un-hip with child, to fit into this attitude-ridden young urban hang. My week had been work. Unpaid work at that. I didn't need to work at having breakfast too. I was supposed to be being treated today.

Back at the table, I study the menu. My daughter is already clamoring for crayons and paper, and getting restless. The crayons are sitting at the host station in little jars, clearly visible, but none are making their way over to our table.

This might not work, I begin to think. Visions of previous restaurant extractions float in my periphery.

I scan the prices. $12-15 per brunch item. I see no simple menu choices for a child. No pancakes, no plain French toast, no side of scrambled egg, even the side of sausage looks like it might be one of those highly seasoned varieties she won't touch. Although I love the food here, I quickly do the math…this will be a $60 breakfast if it will be a dime.

I'm starting to hedge, getting angry.

The waiter comes over to take our order. She confirms my suspicion, no plain items, no half-order concessions for kids, but she graciously informs us we can order from the "sides" for our daughter, which, when cobbled together will cost us about $18-20, for a meal she will most likely not even touch. Add to that the "restless factor," and I am thinking this is such a great end to my very long and unproductive week. Not.

Wish I could for a moment be like one of those fancy moms in our fancy preschool, where dropping $60 for a breakfast that is only nibbled at and left behind is considered no big deal. Seriously, I used to work for a client who took out $5000 cash every weekend for "play money" he called it, "pocket change."

Now the thing that really pisses me off is that I know food costs. And I know that to make a plate of f-ing French toast--and I don't care how damn good your French toast is--is nothing more than bread, eggs, milk, and sugar, and if you're really fancy some apples sauteéd in butter, brown sugar and cinnamon poured over the top. But twelve bucks? I could make it for about $2/plate, and that's if I'm using some high-end French or Challah bread and organic Granny Smith apples with Korintje Cassia cinnamon. That's some markup.

But even more than that is how tired, and old, and I hate to say it, cheap I am feeling. Like I don't fit in anymore. Like I can't even afford my own neighborhood. Like if I'm going to spend that kind of money for a meal, dammit, I would rather spend it with my husband and enjoy it, not spend it chasing my kid around back and forth to the restroom, trying to find something she will actually eat without throwing good money away, and trying to pretend we've got it all together enjoying an upscale breakfast when in actuality keeping her contained when she wants to be in perpetual motion is making my blood boil. We can't enjoy this. We can't afford this. This is ridiculous. It is another nail in the coffin of my vanishing youthful, flush independence.

Not only that but the truth is, neither my husband nor I need to be eating a high-calorie starch-laden breakfast. We just don't. Neither waistline needs it, frankly. I am finding myself quite contrary by now, adding over-weight to my growing list of judgments.

We decide to abort. Exit stage left.

As we pile back into the car, I realize just how cranky I have become. I am furious for so many reasons. I haven't run in 6 days. I haven't been able to write. I haven't returned phone calls. I have been exhausted and run down by being practically the sole childcare-meal provider during this time. I am so tired, always tired, and yet I also battle insomnia. Add to that, lately, some garden-variety depression. It's not a good combination.

I ask my husband if he'll just take me home. They can go somewhere and have a nice Daddy-daughter breakfast, (where eggs and pancakes cost about $5-6 per plate), and I can go for a run. I really need it. He agrees.

As soon as I'm home and into my running shoes, I already feel better. I miss my routine. I miss my life. I miss the balance solitude gives me.

I take off up the hill and allow my thoughts to unravel. This is how I work them out. As my body moves, sweat pushes the toxins out of my skin. A Pigpen-like cloud of negative judgment begins to disperse with each repetitive strike of feet hitting the pavement. Ahhhh…heat. Free me. Release me.

My issues, one by one, lift up for viewing. The roots are deep and gnarly. The most difficult one is economic. This ties in with self-esteem and personal success, or in my case, my perceived failure.

I have put the roof over my head since I left home at 17. Not being taught to capitalize on one practical skill and make a good living at it, I was encouraged into a liberal arts education…to be "well-rounded" was my mother's goal for me. Business school? That was for Johnny one-notes who couldn't think.

"We used to have to conjugate verbs in Latin. They don't teach that anymore." She'd say, feeling so superior.

I studied philosophy and religion, theater and French. I played cello and piano, I danced ballet and jazz, did plays, shows, musicals, videos, acted, gardened, cooked, catered, chefed. But what the hell good is all that? Where has it gotten me in this capitalistic, consumerist society? A well-rounded peddler of art? Unprepared for the challenges we face in our current economy.

I am an idea person. I create with expression. The medium is secondary. I can produce something out of nothing. I connect people with people. This is the perfect town to be in for that, as we are all just a glimmer away from our ideas making us a fortune. But I am worthless until I am branded and marketed. Until my content and intellectual property is bought and sold. I have yet to make my mark.

So far all the mediums I have worked in are disposable and not lasting. Like food that is tossed at the end of the day, my "art" is passed over for hotter trends. I search for relevancy in my too tight jeans and tired middle-aged face.

Somehow, I tell myself, this sunny external disposition hiding torrential internal thunderstorms will eventually collide with the marketplace, revealing a blazing rainbow of unlimited light and abundance…

We moved into this neighborhood 8 years ago. I was working as a private chef back then as I worked on my record and did live gigs around town with my rock band. I also sang on studio sessions for the occasional jingle or tv show. My husband and I split the mortgage and expenses, even though he made much more money than I did as a composer/producer. Still, we were a two-income partnership.

Now, post 9/11, post shrinking music budgets, post needing to use union talent and the ubiquitous almighty "buyout" (i.e. no residuals) form of payment, work is not as lucrative or prevalent. Post-child, my image, my body, my energy, my time, and my desire to climb the pop music media ladder is almost non-existent too. In fact, except for some occasional publishing royalties, session payments and straggling residuals, I don't contribute much money at all now. Instead, I am a mom. That is my primary contribution. How hip is that?

I don't like how that makes me feel…like some sort of emasculated choirboy…relegated to the raising of our child at the expense of my abilities. Remember, I have been financially independent since I was 17. I relied on no one. Taking time off to be a hands-on mom who's also making a leap-of-faith into this whole writing game has been both artistically and financially daring. Not to mention personally consuming.

Do I still believe in my ideas…enough to make them happen?

On the plus side, our real estate value has nearly tripled in the last 8 years. It's weird and a bit unsettling. Although we live here, we couldn't afford to buy our own house now or live in our own neighborhood if we were just starting out.

I really should just get a job. That would solve a lot of these economic struggles. Then I wouldn't feel so bad about buying 2 or 3 plates of overpriced food that my daughter won't touch. Then we could hire a babysitter now and then, and wouldn't blink at paying the $12-15/hour for help so I can get a break. Then maybe we could buy a 2nd car which would allow us the freedom to get around this town without the scheduling tango of who has the car and who has the daughter. Then we could work at reducing this accumulated debt. Perhaps that is the most logical option. But I have a dream…we both have a dream…and businesses to build…

I think we both thought we'd be further along than we are by now. I think we thought we'd have attained a certain financial security…both of us, by now.

When I justify my choice of staying at home to raise our daughter, working in the cracks, staying up all night writing and being perpetually exhausted and broke, I wonder if the sacrifice I made to her is worth it? What price this extraction? Is it worth my soul? My sanity? My self-worth? And on the other side of a full school schedule and me able to work more, will I still be relevant in the marketplace? Or will I have to reinvent myself all over again in this transient world of trends?

As we read through some of the old chapter books and examine childhood and parenting in different eras and cultures, it is remarkable how extremely hands-off child-rearing has been in the past. I wonder if all this stay-at-home coddling of the children, encouraging the development of their ability to learn and reason, socialize and problem-solve, will actually serve them? Is there any way to know for sure if this dedication of time and energy will be worth it, or will it backfire resulting in needy, spineless, dependent adults with broke grandparents?

What price motherhood?


Carrie Wilson Link said...

This is my favorite post you've ever written, Tanya. So honest, so soul-searching, funny, sad, brutal, hopeful, depressing, everything. Welcome to motherhood. No easy answers, only more questions. Lots of ways to get from A to B, no perfect way, just find the way that works best for YOU.

Prema said...

Tanya, I feel so sane reading your thoughts, for how you beautifully and unapologetically name what's actually involved in mothering. Thank you for your willness to show it all. That's healing, though not comfortable. You are a gift to your daughter.

Suzy said...

Wow Tanya.... get it all out woman!

Your table is full....but if anyone can start clearing the table-it's you my friend..
Keep going and know that we're here with you.

Mystic Wing said...

I just found your site, and man, am I glad. Please put to rest any fears you have about not being suitable to the writer's trade. You most definitely have the gift.

I suspect most of your readers here have been women, but this is one man who will be reading you faithfully. Great, great writing.