Friday, January 11, 2008

Staying True to Your Inner Values is Exhausting. Plus You Never Get Anything Done.

My spouse and I--for some 13 years now, if you can believe that--have always maintained a one-car household.

First, we were extremely poor graduate students living in a very large city amidst a huge public transportation system; back then, we went 5+ years with no car at all. Then, we were newly-graduated Ph.D.s with massive student-loan debt, living in a different large city; this one had poor public transportation, but we haphazardly made do with one vehicle, a nearby bus line, and a heck of a lot of scheduling craziness. Later on, when we theoretically could have afforded a second car (two incomes, no kids yet), there was no need--I took the car on my commute to a job in the suburbs, Christopher walked a half-block to a bus line that took him straight to his downtown high-rise cubicle--and we felt strongly about maintaining our one-car status for environmental, economic, and anti-consumerism values.

Later still, we had babies, gave up one salary and over half our household income so I could stay home to raise them, and moved to a small town where work is so close for Christopher that his commute is ten minutes on a bike. This allows us to still remain a one-car household, despite the logistics involved in having one parent away at work and one parent at home with two small children and their attendant pediatrician appointments, playdates, Target necessities, and early-childhood classes.

But tonight I had a revelation.

It feels like we are always, always busy. Yes, I know everyone feels that way, but hear me out.

It seems our weekends, even when nothing is planned, are one long rat-race of chores and errands and to-do lists. It seems like we never get anything done. The smallest chores--open a safety-deposit box at the bank for the will; cash that old birthday check; return that stuff to the store--take weeks and months to get done. We never have free time, not even during our "free" time. There is always, always something forgotten, that still needs doing: pick up the girls' prescriptions, get another gallon of milk, drop off that library DVD. We never have time enough to let a weekend go by in a pleasurable blur of pajama-wearing, book-reading, pancake-eating, DVD-watching bliss: there are always ten million things to do, and it's always some sort of superhuman feat to get even a handful of them done in any one week. Why?

What's wrong with us? Our kids are only three and one; surely life isn't nearly as busy as it one day will be. Surely we're not actually supposed to feel this unorganized and time-crunched. We've got nothing much going on--"just" raising babies, like the rest of the country--so what's up?

Ah, but you see. We've only got the one car. That means that no one ever, ever gets anything done while the other is taking care of something else. If I drive up to the suburbs tomorrow to return the curtain rods--even if I were to take the children with me!--Christopher can't, at the same time, run to the bank and the grocery store. If he takes the girls for some fun at the library's open-playtime, there will be no Target-shopping or dry-cleaning pick-up or coffee-bean-buying for me. We can't ever divide and conquer on those long weekend mornings: you take the baby and get the groceries; I'll take the preschooler to try on new shoes. Or even: you take the baby to run errands while I take the preschooler on her playdate. Or even still: you take both kids to the park and I'll do all the unpleasant errand-running-around-town.

There is no simultaneous, time-efficient errand-running going on in our household. We are caught in one big relay race of you go-then I go, a car-hand-off marathon whose end result is a lot of lost time and a lot of things left undone.

I have major mixed feelings about this. I still feel strongly--for all those reasons listed above--about having only one car. I'm proud of us for doing it, for having done it all this time. I disapprove highly of our culture of get-more-buy-more-waste-more-want-more. I'm glad that our family of four is doing our share to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by limiting the amount that we drive, and the number of gas-consuming vehicles we own. We don't have the income, right now, to add a second car payment and insurance premium to our monthly bills. But this was a serious aha! moment for me, the moment I realized that a major contributor to my constant feelings of busy-ness and disorganization and lack of unscheduled time is the fact that we only have one car (and do not live in an area where public transportation is an option, anymore). As "green" and health-conscious as you are, you cannot take your bike to go grocery shopping with a 1-year-old during January in Minnesota.

And there you have it. Stress and exhaustion: revelation: shock and unhappiness: determination to stay true to inner values: and yet, frustration: and--oh yes--stress and exhaustion. Huh.

Maybe I shouldn't do so much thinking. It only gets me into trouble.


Jordan said...

I think this is a good observation. We too have never had more than one car (and none for the grad school years), Matt bikes or rides the El to work, and are happy with that decision. (I realized recently, as an aside, that I've never known so many other families who only have one car as I do in Chicago...kinda cool.)

We are very lucky that we have stayed in big cities, though, so that when one person has the car the other can more easily do errands - not that we have too much by us now, but at least there's Starbucks, the bank, cleaners, and 7-11 nearby, so that's pretty helpful. But for sure we feel it on weekends when we can't divide and conquer with the errands. We will often do an errand at night when the kids are in bed to relieve the burden on the weekends.

Shan said...

Yeah, we do that too (the evening thing). It's tiring though: by the time the kids are in bed, I'm in my pj's (or wish I was!). And so many places in our small town aren't open past five (though of course the grocery store and Target are). It's quite a conscious struggle, isn't it? Like I said, I'm proud of our decision to stick to one vehicle, but it makes the logistics of life difficult...and I'm sure that will only increase with the years as school, activities, etc., come into play!

donna said...

I don't think having only one car is your problem; it's having kids.

We have two cars and yet I find myself the same predicament. After work, one of us always needs to rush to pick up the kids on time, and the one who is not picking up the kids is usually working late.

And taking the kids to the bank after picking them up? Not gonna happen because the priority is to get the kids home, make dinner and feed them before they get too cranky and so that you can finish early enough to spend some family time together before the kids go off to bed and you can tend to your mail (snail and electronic). (I too like running errands at night, although it is hard to get out of the house at the end of the day.)

I'm told it gets easier when the kids are older and don't want you around so much.

I'm both looking forward to that and not.