Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Lessons from a Teen Mom

Baby swing gotten from a dumpster, decor on the wall is a cut-up greeting card.

‘First we are given the test, then the lesson.’
Buddhist proverb.

First of all, I want to put out this disclaimer: don't do what I did

Being a teenage mom was undoubtedly the biggest hurdle I ever faced, and there was nothing glamorous about it, no matter what the reality shows say. Looking back, I can't believe we even survived. Tough times change you, and it is up to each of us to decide if it will be for the better or for the worse. I know what it is like to face an angry landlord wanting his three months of back rent; I know what it is like to look outside and see that the truck has been repossessed. I know what is like to live in a motel room, to cook only in an electric skillet because the gas had been shut off, to have only rice for supper. I've washed my share of cloth diapers without a washer on premises and used bread sacks for plastic diaper covers. One of my infant sons slept in a stuffed chair shoved up to the bed so he wouldn't fall out. I walked to the grocery store almost every day for years with my children in tow, because driving really wasn't much of a possibility until my children were in elementary school. Everything learned the hard way has left its mark on me and shaped how I react to every current crisis. As this nation copes with joblessness and fears of the future, I am strangely compelled to consult my younger self for advice. This hapless girl stumbled onto wisdom without even knowing it. This is what she has to share.

My son is in a stroller we rescued from a dumpster. His little overalls are too short, but they still fit around his waist, so they are still being worn. No shoes, and I am shielding his little face from the sun with my hand.
Lessons from a teen-age mom:

1. Find your faith and grab on tight. 
Start to ask deeper questions about your purpose in life and why this situation might be happening to you. Ask yourself if this might be a perfect opportunity to reassess what you have chosen as your idols. Everybody is made to worship someone or something, and often it is not the true God. Maybe you've relied on your job or your bank balance to give you your sense of worth. I had to realize this lesson the toughest way possible--when I was just a lost high school kid who's only prior knowledge of the 'real world' was Michael Jackson videos. It is said there are no atheists in fox-holes. I cannot express to you how scared I was during those years, how helpless I felt hundreds of miles away from friends and family, with no money, no stable home, no sure way to even feed my babies, and a husband who brought more harm than help. Our money problems were largely caused by my late husband's hard core drinking problem. There were no cell phones; connecting with family would have meant plugging a pay phone with quarter after quarter, and we were distant in many more ways than just miles. I learned to talk to God constantly, and I learned that He really would get me through the day, no matter what it brought. I learned that He really does take care of the sparrows, and I was certainly a small terrified bird. I was in an abusive alcoholic marriage, and although I left often, I really did not see any real way out. Upon reflection, I marvel at how I got through that deep, pitch-black valley. But step by step He walked me through it, and now it is just a surreal memory.  If you think you're alone through the challenges we are facing, I am going to say flat out: you are wrong. Sharpen your eyes and look for the little things He is doing for you each and every day.

Gratitude is a force of nature. It can chase away the shadows of depression and self-pity. Inventiveness comes from seeing all we are blessed with.

Making homemade spaghetti sauce for the freezer, pennies per serving.
2. Eat like a peasant to eat well. And continuing on this topic of food, I learned to make dishes that are the staples of poor people around the world. Library books are free, and there I would check out cook books. We were 'vegan' far before it was cool, because rice and beans filled up little tummies. Apples and bananas are consistently the cheapest fruit in the store. Powdered milk can come in handier than you think, and makes no difference in baking. It can be mixed half and half with regular milk, or one can simply develop a taste for it, as I have. Think dishes like Spanish rice, Hungarian goulash, potato soup, cornbread, gravy on biscuits, spaghetti, breakfast for dinner, Asian fried dishes made with leftover vegetables and meat or egg. It should be noted that traditional Asian cuisine features meat as a flavoring or an accent, not as a main element. We're not talking fancy gluten free diets here; we are talking subsistence until things get better. We lived on things like tuna casseroles, and shepherd pies, where you combine browned hamburger with a can of soup and some vegetables, then put mashed potato on the top with some grated cheese if you have it, and pop it in the oven.
My Campbell's cookbook has torn pages from being used--and loved--so much. Most of the recipes I tried with great success, except for the recommended 'tomato soup' cake...which I wouldn't recommend. 

Here is kind of what I do, written down in a much more organized way. It comes from the book, 'The Tightwad Gazette' by Amy Dacyczyn.

The Universal Casserole
(the way to use up odd collections of leftovers for yet another meal)

1 cup main ingredient
1 cup secondary ingredient
1-2 cups starchy ingredient
1 1/2 cups binder
1/4 cup "goodie"

Main ingredient suggestions: tuna, cubed chicken, turkey, ham, seafood.

Second ingredient suggestions: thinly sliced celery, mushrooms, peas, chopped hard-cooked eggs.

Starchy ingredient suggestions: thinly sliced potatoes, cooked noodles, cooked rice.

Binder suggestions: cream sauce, sour cream, can of soup (cream of mushroom, tomato, cream of celery or chicken.)

"Goodie" suggestions: pimento, olives, almonds, water chestnuts.

Topping suggestions: potato chips, cheese, bread crumbs.

Thoroughly mix your combinations of the above ingredients. If it seems dry, add 1/4 milk or stock or even water. Place in buttered casserole dish and back at 350 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes, until bubbly.

(I rarely use "goodies" in my casseroles, since they are expensive, except I do splurge on hard cheese.)


Cooking in our first mobile home. I was so proud of it.

  Simple Goulash

Cooked macaroni (you decide how much you want to use, depending on your family size. I use about the amount you would find in a box of mac and cheese.)

Tomato sauce
Paprika, salt and pepper to taste
Browned Hamburger with Onion (you don't need much)

After you brown your hamburger with onion, drain off the grease. Add the cooked macaroni and then add the tomato sauce. I typically use a couple of cans, but this will depend on how much macaroni you have cooked. Add seasonings and heat through. A can of corn can be added, but it is quite good without it.
Think whole foods instead of prepared ones. A plump fresh orange is far healthier, and cheaper, than a glass of orange juice made from concentrate. The only canned foods I still stock up on are canned creamed soups for hot dishes, any sort of canned tomato product (sauce, diced tomatoes, or paste) and cans of fruit. During tough times, we didn't have potato chips or pretzels or--God forbid--soda pop. Homemade banana bread or oatmeal cookies would be our snacks. This is not a time for pickiness for children--or adults. Buy some lemon juice for about a dollar and use it to make some homemade lemonade for an occasional treat. But a pitcher of chilled water, from the tap, was--and continues to be--our main beverage.

When I couldn't afford baby food, I would cook instant oatmeal mixed with milk, (powdered milk would work great with this) or I would make homemade rice pudding for baby where I lowered the amount of sugar. Most of the casseroles we had for dinner would be cooled to lukewarm and then went into the blender for my babies...this method wound up to be preferable to jarred foods, as I realized it was cheaper and free of preservatives.

3. Integrity is free, but precious beyond belief. There are few things as humiliating as being unable to pay one's bills. If there is a silver lining to all this, however, it is that the entire world is going through similar hard times, too, and this is not your fault. Use this tough time as a test of your self-control and self-respect. Don't let anyone think that you are not a person of your word. If bills are behind, make sure to talk personally with the bill collector. I began this policy in 1989, when my husband and I split up for the last time, and I had $10 to my name. I will admit that it has gotten more difficult to make money arrangements as things have gotten more and more bureaucratized. I struggle currently with settling medical payments. However, the alternative of burying one's head in the sand and pretending the bills will just go away only leads to being turned over to a collection agency, a place no one wants to be. There is no shame in asking for public assistance if you truly need it, but try to polite, patient, and calm. Preserve your dignity. This is a time you are going to get through, but no one wants to remember that they handled adversity by screaming at someone at the front desk.
Ironing borrowed maternity blouses.
4. Don't panic, get organized. Now is the time to get resourceful. Now is the time to see what you really have, as opposed to focusing only on what is lost. Maybe selling things in the over-stuffed garage would bring in more grocery money or pay a back house payment. Maybe it's time to inventory what is at the bottom of the chest freezer or in the corner of the pantry and make a few weeks of frugal meal plans with what you already have. Maybe it's time to plant a garden, or look for sales on bulk food. Maybe there are clothes that just need a little mending, or can be handed down to a younger child. What could you do without, what could you sell, what do you need to buy? What could you make do with, or what could you stretch for a little longer? Or even better yet, what can you make yourself? I make my own salad dressings, barbecue sauce, granola instead of boxed cereal, and I can vegetable and fruit produce whenever I receive it. I don't have a sewing machine, so I sew by hand. I dilute all of my soaps...laundry soap, dishwashing soap, and hand soap, and it still works as well, while saving a great deal of money.

Organization and cleanliness are not frivolous time wasters, the behaviors of crazy neat freaks. They are qualities that literally smooth out your life and stretch your resources. Now more than ever, take care of what you have. Study the values of the people during the Great Depression and learn their strategies. There is a saying that clean houses and clean cars require fewer repairs, and I wholeheartedly believe this is true. I cannot count the times I have saved us money--sometimes hundreds of dollars--because I could pull up an old receipt or warranty.  All because I devote a couple of hours a week to filing.  Keep your home clean and neat, and keep a tidy schedule of to-dos for your family that regularly get checked off. When I was a teenage mom, one thing that helped alleviate some fear was creating structure in my day. Consistent nap times, meal times and play times helped me anchor to the reality of the present moment, instead of pacing around in fear.

"Be miserable. Or motivate yourself. Whatever has to be done, it’s always your choice." – Wayne Dyer

We will get through this, and who knows what lessons we might learn, and how much stronger we will be when this is over?  I think teenage me would agree, and then she would turn up her George Michael 'Faith' album.


Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Legacy of Housewives Past

I am an empty nester. Even though my house is no longer clamoring with children, I certainly had my own Mount Everest to climb back in the day, when I was a twenty-something widow with two little boys, a full college schedule, and a job besides. So, don’t think for a minute that I don’t empathize with the struggle of millions of moms and wives out there right now. At one point, I ran an in-home daycare when my little ones were toddlers, and I well remember the endless scurry of cleaning sticky jelly fingers while the Sesame Street theme endlessly rattled around in my head. 

During this time of worry and the daily heavy-lifting of optimism, even though the house is very full, it can still be a very lonely place for the housewife.  

'But Those Who Trust in the Lord Will Find New Strength,' Isaiah 40:31 A reminder that I look at every day above my kitchen sink.

Crisis brings out the mama bird—or even mama tiger—in a traditional woman. It is a biologically proven fact that pregnant women in the weeks before birth tend to have an irresistible urge to ‘nest’, to prepare their home for the new little arrival. And emergency has much the same effect upon us. Suddenly, I find myself looking for gaps in pantry shelves and reassessing the contents of the medicine cabinet. I wake up in the morning wondering how to stretch the leftovers in the fridge to make another meal. There are more rounds made wiping down doorknobs and telephones with disinfectant, and the washer seems to run constantly, as I try to keep bedding, scarves, and clothing a bit more sanitary. There is a new, more intense focus on the budget, as emergency funds are used for extra supplies—within reason, as I abhor the behavior of hoarding. And so many moms out there are running on overdrive formulating lesson plans and activities for the kids. There is an old Mexican saying, “A house is built upon a woman.” And there have been established psychological studies that demonstrate the female brain is significantly more focused on details, while males are all about 'the big picture.' As we cope with shortages and caring for the needs of people who are suddenly without work or school, it is easy to think there is just too much on our shoulders. It is easy to get lost in the fog of gloom and doom and fears of the future.

Library of Congress
But we are not alone, not by a long shot.  History quietly but firmly bears witness to how important home--and especially the housewife--have been every time our nation has hit hard times. I am reminded of how desperately the men of 1600s Jamestown tried to persuade women to come to the New World, putting out vast sums for the hope of a hand in marriage. These men knew that family, settlement, and even civilization simply could not happen without the domestic management of women.
Library of Congress: Rural Life in Nebraska, Solomon D. Butcher, photographer, 1886. Prints & Photographs Division
I personally come from settlers in North Dakota, and on one side of the family tree the ancestral home in the 1800s was a sod house. I imagine the challenges my great-great grandmother must have faced, sweeping a dirt floor, continuously trying to get clean water and keep things clean, keeping bellies full with only the contents from bags of flour, cans of lard, occasional salt pork, and whatever could be scavenged from the brush. The loneliness must have been a constant enemy, and I cannot imagine the courage it would take to deliver a baby in the middle of the wilderness with no doctor. There is many a story out there of women chasing off snakes and wolves from their very doorsteps. No shrinking violets here, no women ‘with a problem that can’t be named’ as Betty Friedan famously said…these were women willing to fight right alongside their husbands and definitely for their children.

Library of Congress: Mother of family of five to be resettled on Ross-Hocking Land Project near Chillicothe, Ohio, 1930s 

When times are tough in my home, I think of the Depression era housewife and it never fails to give me perspective on my own troubles.  My husband and I live right on the cusp of middle and working class, and on one income. We live by the old time slogan, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”  Whenever I am feeling sorry for myself, I think of what it must have been like to battle huge waves of dust blowing through a tar-paper shanty, what it must have been like to coax the company store shop-keeper to put a few more essential food items on the debt list--just to feed my babies and man for one more day. It must have seemed that they would never get through to prosperity again, but they scrimped and they worked and they prayed, and yes, they made it. 

In the past few years, feminists have rallied around the icon of “Rosie the Riveter” from World War II. They claim the famous poster as their own, a symbol of the birth of the ‘liberated’ woman. The problem is that they are only looking at a small part of the story. 'Rosie the Riveter' was crucial to the manufacturing effort, this is true, but she could not have supported the troops if housewives were not in turn supporting her. Women in aprons kept up the home front, prepared meals under the limits of extreme rationing, tended to the children, rolled bandages and mended clothes, volunteered in social events and raised morale in hospitals.

  So, what am I trying to say in this rather long-winded speech on trial and tribulation? I am saying, 'Remember, ladies, you are stronger than you think.' Seeing the challenges from the past should not frighten us, in fact, it should inspire us. It's easy to fret when sensationalized hypotheses and death tolls are flashing constantly across the TV screen, but it is crucial to remember that, although every death is a tragedy, tens of thousands of people are recovering from this virus too--as we speak. I am not saying this lightly. In 2016, I contracted bi-lateral pneumonia that turned into infection in my blood, and if I hadn't gone to the doctor that day, I was told I would have died of cardiac arrest. I deeply empathize with those who are ill, and know what it is like to use an oxygen tank to breathe. But I carry on because I know other women before me have carried on, too. The housewives of the past triumphed over tough times because they believed in their God, and they believed in themselves. They didn't whine about their circumstances; they just got on with what the day ushered in. Today, as you pick up the living room for the umpteenth time or perhaps settle yet another squabble, remember that not only are not alone, you are among some of the best company in history.