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.


See you next time,