On privilege and independence

money,motherhood — admin @ 3:51 pm

Having a child grants a temporary reprieve from dreams of pregnancy and birth. Of course, there was a long gap after my daughter’s birth before I slept well enough to dream of anything at all. My first dream as a mother felt like a milestone, though I no longer remember anything about its contents. I don’t dream dreams in which she doesn’t exist, even if she isn’t IN them. Now that the baby dreams have started up again, it’s always a second child, once even a third. There was a fugitive birth on a train, a birth in a public shower. A couple days ago I dreamt I was in labor in a hospital that was part shopping mall. One of the exams involved removing a large bone from my pelvis. I waited in a fast-food line with my doula, who had another client in labor at the same time, also in line, ahead of me and doing the heavy breathing. I decided it’d be better to wait in the car, which turned out to have a birthing tub inside it. It was snowing in the parking lot. The baby in these dreams is always a boy. Though in that one dream in which I was on number three, I already had two daughters.

I was out in the hot tub, looking over the city lights with a jet centered on my aching back. I realized the last time I’d been in the tub was back when F. was so small I’d carried the baby monitor out with me. I’d periodically hold it up to my ear so check for any signs of crying over the white noise of too-far-away-from base and the white noise of the Sleep Sheep whale song we played for her. I couldn’t trust her to stay asleep at night then, and I wouldn’t allow myself 20 minutes before the anxiety of being out of earshot was too much. Even if I was in our own backyard. Even with her father in the house.

The invisible tether. It does let up eventually. It took until she was 10 months for me to leave her in someone else’s care. I wanted to do everything myself. I still do that, to a certain extent. But I’ve gotten to that point where I can go to work without her. Traveling without her, spending the night away from her — these still feel very far away.

I was embarrassed to mention the hot-tub above. I grew up poor. I worked myself through college. My mom was single until I was seven. I got free lunch at school, but I honestly didn’t realize I was poor as a child. I had wealthier relatives who occasionally spoiled me in anachronistic ways. Stylish name-brand clothes, vacations in hotels with room-service. I’ve always been a weird hybrid when it comes to class. I have a hard time accepting the amount of privilege I have now; the amount of unearned privilege. I remember thinking, once, that having someone in my life who could eliminate my need to pay rent or pay my own bills would be the greatest thing that could happen. I remember reading blogs of women in this enviable position, who had the gall to complain about it, about what it did to their self-image. I found that infuriating. How could they be so blind to their incredible luck? But I didn’t understand the particular pain that comes from losing some of your self-sufficiency. Especially when you’re used to doing it all on your own. Especially as a woman, to a man. Sacrificing freedom and independence for a higher standard of living doesn’t feel like a fair trade, especially after you’ve become acclimated to the higher standard of living.

I’ve lived in tiny apartments, in rooms-for-rent, often with roommates, in New York City (3 boroughs); Washington, DC; Portland; San Diego. Some of those places were pretty dingy, all of them were at the limits of (or above) what I could afford. But those places were mine, mine alone. I always paid my own rent; I never got help from my parents or anyone else; my checks were never late. I was proud of my financial independence, which I’d forged in my late teens, and I didn’t know how much it meant to me until it was gone. My income now, as a graduate student, is well below the poverty line. 2/3 of poverty, I think. It’d barely cover the mortgage on our house, if that. But I paid all the medical bills associated with my pregnancy and birth. I pay for my daughter’s childcare, for most of her expenses, and that’s about all. I’m fiercely protective of my right, my privilege, to do that.

I can no longer imagine not working, of letting anyone take care of me. I wouldn’t be able to live with that old fantasy. Even being able to get by on my own, without anyone’s help, isn’t enough anymore. I want to have the means to care for my family on my own. I want to be able to put my daughter through college. To take care of my parents in their old age. I finally understand the American Dream. It makes sense, to want more for your children than you had yourself. It is of critical importance to me, more than ever before.

Though it embarrasses me, I’ve gotten used to certain privileges, material luxuries I never really earned, and it’s a strange thing to experience. Accumulating such things doesn’t make me appreciate life with them more, it just creates a certain dread of life without them. First class and business travel is the perfect example of this. It’s not that the first class experience is so amazing. It’s just that, by comparison, traveling in coach seems like such a terrible hardship, so much worse than it ever seemed before I’d experienced a bit of extra legroom and a more comfortable seat and airline employees treating me a little bit more like a human being. Having a hot-tub in your yard, an ocean view from your dining table, living in a city where the 50’s qualify as “freezing”… these things make you feel lucky for a little while, then they just become the new normal, you take them for granted to such a degree that you hardly even notice them anymore. But thinking about life without them does seem hard, and a little sad.

Things that really are blessings, like having a child, like having a friend, are different than material privileges. Life with them is constantly, discernibly richer. Life without them doesn’t seem sad, it seems impossible.

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