When I was a toddler, my parents bought me this book:
It quickly became a favorite. When I got married, my dad brought the well-loved book to the reception and in his seemingly endless toast (which friends and family lovingly refer to as “the filibuster”), he graciously bestowed it upon my poor unwitting husband, Nick. As well as he knew me, Nick had not yet experienced the full magnitude of my intensely fierce and (I can now admit this) exceedingly annoying need to do things myself. Over the past 6 years, I have commended myself on my progress in becoming less militant about not accepting help. “I have matured!” I say, patting myself smugly on the back. Or have I…
Last month, I was carrying three bags, two heavy car seats and my 8-month-old daughter while simultaneously pushing my 3-year-old in a laden down stroller and pulling a rolling suitcase through a crowded airport. My kind father (who, in my defense, was carrying a substantial amount of luggage himself) asked if he could help me carry something.
I glared at him, feeling a piercing annoyance swell. After 3 decades, did he really still think I was incapable of taking care of myself? Really? What was wrong with him? He was deliberately trying to make me feel incompetent! 30 years old, two kids, and he was still treating me like a child! Somewhere between the snippy, “I’m fine dad. Just get the door,” and the exaggeratedly exasperated sigh that followed his innocent question, I realized the absurdity of my mental interchange. Clearly, I still have a long way to go (at this very moment, I can actually hear my dad chuckling from 500 miles away).
We recently celebrated my departure from the income-generating world and migration to living exclusively on Nick’s graduate student stipend. I have worked partially or entirely from home for the past 4 years. It was determined that it was now in everyone’s best interest if I gave up the work so I could sleep more than 4 hours a night and spend the other 20 hours in a civilized mood. It was a financially terrifying step and an ego bruiser to admit that I just couldn’t do it all.
My first day of unemployment, both girls miraculously fell asleep at the same time (an event that has yet to be recreated). I frantically finished cleaning up from lunch and raced to the computer to grab some work time. “Oh yeah!” I remembered. “No work! ME time!” So I walked outside to our backyard. I stopped. I looked around. What should I do? Laundry was done. Dishes washed. House picked up. I guess I could use a toothbrush to scrub the grout around the bathtub. I felt…lost. Unhinged. Useless. I sat down as a rush of panic slapped me in the face. It had been so long since I had a chunk of time that was all mine where I didn’t have mounds of unfinished work hovering over me in a guilt inducing cloud. For thirty horrifying minutes, I sat listlessly in the yard and pulled apart blades of grass. Then the baby sneezed. I bolted up and raced inside to grab her, invigorated. I had something to do!
That night I sat down to think. I have always dreamed of being entirely self-sufficient. I even had a list of 54 things I wanted to learn to do myself. Consequently, I had accumulated lots of little half-started projects over the years that I never seemed to have time to finish: the first chapter of a children’s book, a sweater sleeve on knitting needles and piles of beautiful and luxurious yarn, quilt pieces for a baby blanket for a now 8-year old child, paints and canvases, 5 pages in my wedding scrapbook, three overflowing recipe boxes full of directions to make “from scratch” foods, an abandoned pile of lumber and some neat-looking power tools, a digital SLR camera and half a dozen lenses…
But where to start? How to start? I was paralyzed by too many options. It was then I decided that I needed a plan of attack. Something to direct me and give purpose to these “selfish” pursuits. Without something to direct my time, I saw my unfruitful future of sitting for mindless hours watching The Cosby Show on Netflix.
To honor this fantastically freeing and tremendously terrifying phase of life, I decided to embrace my power of stubborn self-reliance and harness it to pursue a mastery of feasible, cost- and time-effective self-sufficient activities. I want to challenge myself with public accountability. This blog is dedicated to chronicling my pursuit of self-sufficiency with the following purposes:
Minimize spending. Nick and I recently sat down to revamp our now scantily clad budget, a terrifying, tedious and daunting task that we had been successfully avoiding for several weeks. After four hours of blood, sweat and tears, we sat together on the floor, wide-eyed and silent. “Well, that’s depressing,” Nick mumbled. After a few days of panic, despair and whiny self-pity, we knew we needed to change our habits to avoid accruing a mortgage-worth of student debt over the next 6 years of Nick’s doctoral training. Make more at home, buy less. But are doing things myself actually cheaper? I want to find out what activities will really minimize our spending over the long haul.
Maximize time. Let’s just be brutally honest. There’s a reason why more people don’t churn their own butter, use cloth diapers or grow their own food. It takes time and effort. But how much? Is it more time and effort to do things like Grandma? Before using cloth diapers, I would have sworn they were more work. 3 years and two cloth diapered kids later, I can say the work just about equals out. But I realize there are some things that are just not going to be worth the extra time spent for the money saved. I want to know what those things are, so I don’t waste my time.
We recently took a family trip to one of our new favorite places: the city dump. Lest you judge too harshly, we frequent the dump to shlep the deliciously earthy smelling compost for use in our garden. On this particular occasion, the temperature was tiptoeing around 90 degrees and the breeze sent intermittent wafts of stench from the actual dump portion. “Phfeww! What is that stinky smell?” my three-year-old Nora wanted to know. So we wandered over to see the heavy machinery rolling viciously over the acres and acres of stinking garbage. I explained to Nora that this is why we recycle and compost and reuse things rather than throwing them away, all the while thinking guiltily about the plastic peanut butter jar I had thrown away that morning because I was too lazy to clean it out. Ironically, that night, Nora chose to read the story of creation in her kids’ Bible illustrating that God’s first job for man was to care for the plants and animals and the earth. I think of all the waste created in the name of convenience and want to do my part to remedy that with my new found time.
Engage the offspring. Nora is an extreme extrovert. She just cannot be alone. Ever. As an infant (and even to a large degree now), she couldn’t even sleep unless she was in physical contact with another human body. Now I truly love spending time with my creative, energetic and astute child, but as an extreme introvert, she exhausts me. I need to plan engaging activities with her in mind. With rare exception, if I can’t do it with Nora, it won’t get done.
Chronicle the journey. I am terrible at documentation. I weep to think of the creative wisdom lost forever because I didn’t write down what I did or lost the scrap of paper I wrote it on. I also rarely pay attention to time. I am notorious for getting partway into an ambitious project and having to stop because I discover that it is already10 minutes past bedtime and Nora is dancing maniacally in the flour she dumped all over the floor and Madeline is smearing her food through her hair and shrieking. Creating a blog will force me to be a responsible adult. Right?
Rekindle the creativity. Writing is my life, my escape, my soul’s fuel, my passion. It is how I think, create, connect and pray. I spent the last four years doing exclusively technical and scientific writing. For me, it was like subsisting only on oatmeal and vitamin supplements – you can survive, but the joy of eating is gone. I want to reclaim that joy. But like a runner after a 4 year hiatus, it takes me a lot of work to get back in creative writing shape. And motivation to do the workouts.
Amass existing knowledge. I don’t plan to reinvent the wheel. Along with trying out my own ideas, I plan to research what has already been done, try it at home and give credit where credit is due. I want to have a repository of all that knowledge at my fingertips.
Rather than fight with my nature, I have decided to embrace my annoyingly stubborn need to do things myself. However, lest you think I am still a toddler stuck in a soon-to-be-nearing-middle-age adult body, I have done some growing. When our second child, Madeline, was six weeks old, we took her to the doctor to treat suspected pink-eye and instead discovered she had a life-threatening congenital heart defect. She was admitted to the hospital immediately and had an awesomely successful open-heart surgery a week later. We had just moved to a new town, so I had to humble myself and accept the help of not only friends and family, but casual acquaintances. It was strange at first, accepting help from people I barely knew and knowing I may never be able to repay them. It’s a little like making your hands talk like Bert and Ernie for your kid in public. At first you feel really awkward. It's embarrassing. You just know people are judging. But gradually you realize that letting go and giving in is freeing. Exulting. And it actually brings joy to everyone (even if your voices don't sound at all like Bert and Ernie).