Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Who wears the apron around here anyway?

“What you have to understand,” Ernie said, “is that I’m basically the wife here.”
“I can’t drive, can’t work in the areas I know. I can sometimes cook, and keep the house warm & tidy. I’m basically here to support you. You can do whatever you want to do, and come home to a nice place. So, what do you want to do?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, “I’ve been asking myself that for years.”

‘What if I want to be the wife?’ I thought to myself.
‘What if I want to stay home, raise babies, putter away at hobbies and home-made fixes? ‘What if I get sick, or have a complicated pregnancy, and can’t work?’

I was raised in an era between two worlds. So I have examples for how to be a housewife, an equal partner, or a high-flying career-woman. It’s not the lack of choice that makes it difficult – it’s the plentitude of choices, and the differences between all these examples.

My grandmother or mother might work, and be proud of her work – yet her work would rarely pay as highly as her husband’s uninterrupted career. In my grandmother’s time, the wife rarely worked outside the home after marriage. In my mother’s time (and still), two-income families are the norm.

But to raise a family on one income, in this era, and that income (wince) mine?

My maternal grandmother was widowed while her six children were still in school (the oldest in college, the youngest eight years old). She supported them on a lab tech’s wages, and enjoyed the work. She put all but the youngest through college before becoming ill herself, and succumbing to pancreatic cancer at age 59.

“Body-Talk” medicine lists the pancreas as the seat of worry, of the kind of intellect that is implicated in “thinking too much.”

My paternal grandmother worked from her early school graduation at age 16, until her marriage at … 22? And then had her hands full raising four children in 27 different houses. Her husband kept them constantly on the move, working a series of well-paid but temporary jobs on the big hydropower construction projects then transforming the West. One of my uncles later suggested he could have made more money by staying at one job until the work was almost over and they promoted the last few people to higher ranks, but he was never willing to risk being out of work, so he’d always move on before the jobs got scarce.

My mother worked while I was very young, then stayed home for about ten years. When her youngest entered kindergarten, she trained as a teacher. My father worked this whole time, but got laid off about the time she was finishing her masters. So we lived on her income for a while, while he tried to start a business, then went to work for another employer. The stress of that period contributed to their eventual divorce. She continues to work in the same school years later, taking pride and satisfaction in doing excellent work. Her students return to visit her year after year.

I’ve met farm couples who worked together as a team, to all appearances happy. She “does the books,” fixes meals, he does a bit more of the outdoor work and mechanical repairs, but they both go into the field together to round up the big herd, or into town together to arrange the big sale. But that was in New Zealand. Is it still possible here? Or have earthy farm families been de-stabilized by the combination of corporate farming, women’s lib, and antagonistic intergenerational politics?

There was a time when I would have loved to find a man willing to play the supporting role. I could have a career, and kids too… and perhaps, if I were very lucky, avoid having to do dishes or housework ever again. Or at least until Saturday.

But in the meanwhile, I’ve lost track of my career.
I have no steady income – only part-time and temporary gigs. The idea of supporting us, when I don’t know where I’m going myself, frightens me more than the role reversal.

I’ve worked here and there, summer jobs in construction and architecture, five years as a full-time science educator, résumé filler material includes book credits and R & D work. Under the influence of niggling dissatisfaction (my younger siblings married out from under me, I stopped moving up in the education hierarchy, and work had begun to feel routine), I cut loose. For over a year, I did nothing ordinary: traveled most of the way around the world, made wedding cakes, did migrant farm work in NZ, and travel writing. On returning to Oregon, I investigated sustainable businesses in Portland. I had almost made my mind up to find a for-profit, “practical” business that did sustainable work, when I stepped sideways into a not-for-profit job and a part-time role as my grandmother’s caregiver. I continued working on writing, education, and graphics projects – but my main considerations were family and community, not career.

I met Ernie through non-profit community work. He was handsome and winsome, and mutual friends spoke highly of him. Then he was hit by a car going 40mph. By the time he got out of the hospital we were pretty well attached. When the insurance money ran out, we financed another year or two of his recovery with pot-luck fund-raisers, candy sales, and freelance work with various outdoor and hands-on skills groups.
The drama of this phase of ‘my’ life story has become focused around Ernie: his injury, his frustrated ambitions, his dreams. He wants a boat. He needs to figure out whether he can work enough to get by, or whether he can qualify for Social Security at age 42. And oh, yes, one of his ambitions is to make me happy.

So what would make me happy?

And, incidentally, provide enough income to cover the costs of living, health insurance, and starting a new family?

If I only knew…

If I knew now what I will know later, what would I do?

Stop worrying, and try something.


The first part of this essay was originally written in 2008. Those 'part-time and temporary gigs' have increased to a steady trickle of workshops, hands-on science and craft classes, and project-based work with TrackersNW, PSU, Tualatin Hills Park & Rec, and other local groups. I still sometimes feel like a fool for not putting it all aside for a full-time job – but hey, with the current economy, the jobs I want have hundreds of applicants, and I'm enjoying the work I do already.

Somehow, this spring, it kind of kicked over into “Hey, I'm running a business.” Getting tax advice (from Ernie's retired-accountant stepmother). Learning about SEO (search engine optimization) and promotion, especially word-of-mouth and Internet buzz. (Thanks, Paul.) Getting ready to open an online 'store' for selling plans. Working on freelance curriculum to be published by TOPS, and getting some art commissions as well. People who we respect highly, are referring to us as the best experts in rocket mass heaters – and while the resulting interest is mostly requests for free advice on permies.com, it's still flattering, and we are getting calls for actual workshops and consultations from all over North America, and increasingly from Europe, Latin America, and Down Under.

It doesn't quite pay the bills yet, but Ernie has finally started following up on the disability claims he started to file in 2006. So our hope is, that I can continue building this business into something that keeps us productive and happy, while Ernie chips in as he can and takes as much time as he needs to keep his leg up. We had a great conversation with Paul Wheaton a few days ago that turned into this 2 hour rocket mass heater podcast, but then yesterday the weather crashed down and it is all Ernie can do to be civil while seeking distractions from the pain.

He's blown through two pairs of VA-issued aluminum elbow crutches already. They say he's using them too much. So he's looking at building his own, rather than go back every couple of months to face ridicule over needing a third pair. The man has a hard time sitting still! (He literally paces on the phone, which is amusing to watch, with the two arm crutches and juggling a tiny cell in his large paws. So if he drops your call accidentally, now you know.) It's part and parcel of his amazing physical intelligence, and the frustration of this injury that he handles with such good humor.

We're looking forward to our out-of-town trip, and to steadier summer weather that will allow Ernie to better predict his daily energy. That might be a good topic for when I get back – Ernie and Erica on the road.