Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Long-Term Care

A point parents like to point out is that the childfree will presumably have no one to take care of them when they’re older. My husband and I are taking precautions for this, starting our retirement savings early, and we plan to get long-term care insurance and whatnot, but it’s been frighteningly prevalent in the lives of my friends in the last couple weeks, as well as my own.

My father lost his job in August with a measly 2-week severance, which devastated my family. When it first happened, I rushed to loan them $3000 to cover their mortgage and expenses while they figured out what to do. They cashed in their retirement and have watched as my dad went from interview to interview in his very specialized field and was the second choice five times in a row. After a lifetime of smoking and drinking, he’s 56 going on 65, and my mother and I suspect it’s his ill health that’s led the employers to choose the other top candidate. They’ve used up most of their sad little retirement account paying off debt and are now looking at potentially losing their house.

My brother, a single father, is trying to make his life work for the first time in his life. Newly employed full-time and insured, he promptly set about breaking his wrist in a fall on the ice and is faced with two months out of work and losing his new apartment that he shares with my niece.

Add this to my recent layoff and, while I’m optimistic about my own situation, the gods have not been smiling upon my family lately.

I’m in a position where I have to look at how much help I can give to my parents. My husband and I are looking to buy a house before health issues force our frail old landlady into selling or worse, so we need to keep an eye on our own finances. I’m feeling horrible guilt about making my parents pay back the loan we gave them, but it came from my husband’s student loan and now we need it to pay his tuition for the Spring semester. It’s all very complicated and it’s killing me that I can’t help them financially without plunging us into the financial ruin that they’re all suffering from. I’m focusing on moral support and doing what I can – buying my mom some business books as she explores starting a home business, school clothes and supplies for my niece, loaning my brother his rent while he’s out of work with the expectation that he will pay me back when he gets his tax refund. But it’s a lot to take, and compared to some of my friends lately, I’ve got it easy.

Marlene’s father and my dad might be the same person, although her dad is more extreme and has a couple of years on mine. This terrifies me more than I can express. She’s in the unenviable position right now of caring for her very ill and incontinent father, whom she despises because of his years of abuse and alcoholism, for fear of being brought up on neglect charges by social services. She went from not speaking to him for years to being his in-home caregiver because she and her partner can’t afford to pay for caregivers. Every day she wishes she could just walk out, but because her father knows she can’t he abuses the privilege and threatens to call social services. Recently she and her partner bought a home, and now she’s on a leave of absence from work and facing real financial problems because her parents simply relied upon her to save them when she grew up. I look at what she’s dealing with, with parents about 10 years older than mine, and fear completely that it is what I, the financially responsible one, will be required to do if my father falls ill.

Almost a year ago to the day my friend Elena’s father passed away a couple weeks ago, he was given a year to live with a brain tumor. Her mother had been suffering mildly from dementia before he became ill and faded into the background as the family rallied around dad. Now that he’s gone, her mother has gone crazy. She lost her job because of her mental illness and now Elena, married only 5 years with a 3-year-old son, is facing buying a house her family can’t really afford so that her mother can move in with them. There’s simply no other choice; she’s her daughter and this is what daughters do.

It wouldn’t be so terrible if it were just a matter of her mother moving in, but her paranoia is out of control. Even Elena’s young son has started having nightmares and being scared of people who are coming through the windows, the front door, the closet, to steal him. They can’t leave him alone with Grandma, and it’s starting to seem that it’s unhealthy for him to even be around her because her paranoia is scaring him, and they don't know what else might be wrong in her brain. Plus, Grandma refuses to believe that Grandpa is gone and keeps confusing the child, who is having a hard enough time processing the concept of death. “My life is over. I’m not even 30 and my life is over,” Elena said to me. I was speechless. It’s such an impossible situation, and impossible choice to make. I didn’t know what to say to her except give her a hug.

Elena and Marlene’s parents are fortunate that their kids are there for them despite the unpleasantness. But no one would blame them if they said “I can’t handle this” and left their parents to their own devices, their situations are so terrible. I look at my own family and wonder where my limits will be; will I be willing to help my mom but not my father? How do you reconcile that? It was never a secret that Marlene didn’t get along with her dad, resented his drinking and the way he treated her mother, and instead of looking at the situation and seeing her as the saint that she is he makes accusations and makes her stay out of guilt. Even though I blame my dad’s health on his poor choices, could I ever not take care of him? I don’t think so, and I honestly can’t decide if that is guilt or love.

I don’t ever want someone to give up their life to care for me out of guilt. I never want to look at a person and think “I had you so you could take care of me when I’m old.”

My husband and I joke about driving off a cliff together when one of us gets very ill, but we know that’s not a likely scenario. I have such conflict about what my friends are going through, knowing that someday my parents will get older, and that one day my husband and I will get older. I think about how fortunate my parents are that they did many things right and have two kids who would take care of them, however reluctantly at times. (But seriously, how can it NOT be reluctantly?) And I do wonder about us not having that. I worry about it. A lot.

Especially in light of the recent goings on, it’s perhaps the most compelling argument for procreating I’ve seen. It’s not a good enough reason and it’s not the right reason, but it’s on my mind hardcore.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Risky Business

I kind of had an inkling something was up on Monday evening when I got the e-mail to convene for breakfast at the Sears Tower, just a couple blocks from my office, for a mandatory meeting. It also concerned me that we weren’t all invited. And while expected them plying us with sweets was the precursor to bad news, I didn’t expect them to tell all 175 of us that we were being laid off. It wasn’t immediate – even the earliest layoffs aren’t occurring ‘til April – but damaging enough. And while I feel confident that I’ll land on my feet, especially since I was ready to move on from this job anyway, there are others I worry about.

One friend at work has a new baby at home. His wife quit her job on the previous Friday to stay at home with their son. Others have large families, many are the primary breadwinner. Some of us are fortunate that a number of jobs are open in our fields, while others have been here so long, their duties so diverse, that they’re even not really sure what they do. It’s great that there’s time for people to find new things, but it’s still devastating for many.

I’m sad to leave this place, however, because it’s the only place I’ve worked where not having kids didn’t matter. Maybe it’s because it’s downtown Chicago, where people are more open-minded and more likely to know others like me (or to also be childfree), but I don’t have people using the fact that I don’t have kids as a reason to make ME work the extra hours, or to have ME give up time. I’m asked to do it, but it’s never because my life doesn’t matter as much as others’.

That’s not to say it’s not stressful. I am not only the primary breadwinner, I am the sole breadwinner, plus my husband’s student loan debt is piling up. Ironically, I took this job (after freelancing full-time for a year) for the stability, so that I knew we'd have insurance and stable income while he was in school. SURPRISE! I feel like we need to apply for his loan for next year NOW, while I’m employed, just in case I can’t find anything. My father has been unemployed for nearly 6 months, the former VP of Engineering going from making that sort of salary to nothing, and my folks are facing the loss of their home because they can’t seem to sell it in this market. My brother, who FINALLY moved into his own apartment with his daughter and got a real, full-time job, just broke his hand severely and is faced with losing HIS job. It’s a very real possibility that I will be asked to help them out, and that terrifies me. Plus, we’re entering a recession that, if trends are the same as they were when recession hit in 2000/2001, will mean graphic design jobs will dry up completely and start paying much less. I don’t want to find a job in an employers’ market. I need a job NOW.

But, when it comes down to it, I know we’ll be fine. Our expenses are low enough, and we’ve been able to save enough over the last few years that we’ll be okay. I look at the situation and wonder how much it would change if we added a kid to the equation. We’d need so much more saved in an emergency fund, if it comes down to being unemployed the insurance would be so much higher. And then I wondered, would my husband have even been able to go back to school full-time, with me supporting us both?

His decision to go back to school is going to mean so many opportunities for us. It will open great doors for his career and is a necessary step for us to reach the goals we have. We’ve been together 5 years… what if, in that time, we’d had a child? We’d never be able to afford to take this risk, to go to one income, to incur a great deal of debt while risking our insurance and our livelihoods on my income. Would I have been able to move up as I have in my career, or to move up more where I can carry us both? Can you imagine the additional costs, childcare and more, that a child would add to the equation? I can’t. There’s a great potential that we would be stuck in that situation, with my career plateauing because of a newfound aversion to the risks that have taken me this far and will certainly take me further. It would take my husband years to finish school part-time, if he even found the motivation (he’s a full-time student kind of guy; it’s just his personality), it would take him years, and his degree wouldn’t mean as much as it does from the great program he’s in right now. It’s staggering.

It’s no surprise that a child doesn’t fit into our lifestyle at this point, but I look to the future and just can’t see us settling to a point where we would want to be parents. I know, even with this layoff and future layoffs that we’ll surely face in our careers, that we can provide for ourselves. I’m a big risk-taker, but a child’s effect on that aspect of my personality is an interesting paradox. Is a child too big a risk for me to handle, or do I simply not want to have a child because I’ll no longer want to be a risk-taker?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Step away from the boobies

I could write quite a sizable list of the weirdness of on of one particular family that stayed at the retreat we stayed at in Ek Balam, Mexico. They seemed to forget they weren’t in their own backyard, letting their toddler (she looked about 3 or 4) run around the place naked. This made both my husband and me extremely uncomfortable and we were one instance away from a confrontation before they left. The worst of their offenses was at dinner, when the toddler latched onto mommy’s breast. TODDLER. I’m sorry, if your child is walking around and talking to me, they have no business sucking on your teets, especially at the friggin’ group dining table.

I actually don’t have a problem with public breastfeeding. I have an issue with the women who are “HEY, look at my BOOBS because it’s NATURAL” about it -- because seriously, there's a reason we wear clothing and undergarments and nobody needs to see that -- but discreet public breastfeeding doesn’t usually bug me. The idea of breastfeeding in general creeps me out like little else, but not so much that I’m offended. But this was just plain CREEPY.

What the hell is a three-year-old (at least) getting out of breast-feeding? This was in addition to eating the yummy vegetarian goodies cooked by the kitchen at the retreat, so it’s not like it was all the kid was eating. She had teeth, after all, so clearly she needs more than what this tiny woman’s boobs could pump out.
It was seriously horrifying to me.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Traveling Light

It seemed to me, as my husband and I wandered around Disneyland Chichen Itza on our recent trip to the Yucatan, among the families with kids more interested in taking photographs of themselves making silly faces than actually caring about where the were, what happened there, that they were standing among structures built thousands of years ago, some of the most ancient and certainly the most magnificent structures that exist on our continent… I wondered if the kids would remember the trip fondly, or if, the moment they got bored (and they ALL got bored) if the experience would be colored as a great big “not much” in their minds. Granted a great many of the adults (mostly American it seemed) also wandered the site rather aimlessly, never reading the little plaques that explained the structures, never really looking at anything except the main pyramid. Perhaps my husband and I are just pompous in thinking that we appreciate historical and culturally significant sites more than the average bear, but it made me wonder why people bring their kids to sites like that. I mean, of course they want to see them themselves and have these grand ideas about instilling a love of history in their kids, but for the most part the parents looked irritated that they couldn’t explore as they wanted to, or like they just wanted a moment of silence, to experience the place serenely. Indeed, when the tour buses left-- and with them most of the families and many of the merchants-- the place got ten times, maybe a hundred times more magical.

It makes me understand why parents like places like Disney World so much. It’s like automatic engagement. You don’t have to worry about entertaining your kids; it’s simply a function of the location. But in Mexico, time and again we saw families with bored kids (or kids playing their Nintendo DS while sitting on 12th century ruins), and frustrated parents who just wanted a moment to appreciate where they were without being asked when they could go swimming again.

There was one exception, a Canadian family with teenagers that stayed at our retreat. A Mayan language class was held to get us closer to the Mayan culture and the kids just ate it up. Again, it’s kids like these that make me think, sometimes, that raising kids might not be all bad (again, if you got lucky enough to get a good one). The boy, 16, had a natural aptitude for language acquisition and was asking all the right questions. It was remarkable! He and his 15-year-old sister were very mature and very friendly, unlike the sobbing toddlers and whiny pre-teens who passed through the retreat over the course of the week. These were kids who got it, who appreciated where they were, the opportunities to learn and the good fortune they had to be traveling through Mexico on their winter break. It was a site so rare.

A woman I work with was extremely jealous of my trip. “Before I had kids I traveled all over the world, I lived overseas for awhile and I loved it.” Her voice then kind of broke, filled with what sounded like regret. “I really, REALLY miss it.” Of course she loves her kids, but no one thinks about that kind of regret when they ask us, the childfree, if we’re going to regret not having children. Y’know what, maybe we will, but we won’t regret not seeing the world the way we wanted to, or not having enough time for each other. Life is full of choices and regrets, and our choice to travel fulfills in a way children would not.

The mere fact that children would have made it impossible for us to take this trip to the Yucatan, compelling us to stay in a more “comfortable” hotel (read: one with a TV) rather than the eco-lodge that bored the tears out of the kids who stayed there with us, pressuring us to skip the cultural tours of the villages in favor of more swimming in the pools… we may have taken the trip, if we could have even afforded to fly as a family, but it would have been completely different, filled with something other than the magic we felt while we were there. Traveling as a couple suits us, and we eagerly look forward to our next trip: to London to visit a friend who’s taken an assignment there, and off to Budapest, Hungary, the home of my own ancestors.