I have been trying to discard some of my old things I have no use for. While looking through a box of old letters (I used to be a prolific letter-writer, and hung on to those written to me in return by family and friends), I was taken way back in time. Funny how we call them “the good ol’ days,” but in actuality they weren’t so good at all.
Although I had a college degree and had started (just barely) working in my career, I married young, especially by today’s standards. When my husband decided his history degree wouldn’t put bread on the table, we moved a year and a half after getting married so he could go to graduate school. By then, however, we already had had our first child. A second was born when we were away in a new city, with no friends or family and no one to help with the kids. We went an entire year, when our firstborn was a baby, without any income. We lived off of student loans and the savings we had accumulated, which of course wasn’t much. We had no help from our parents–nor should we have, really. After all, we were adults, making big-boy and big-girl decisions.
When my husband was away at class all day (he took a train into San Francisco, while I stayed in our apartment on the Peninsula) or working at the school library to make a few bucks during his second and third years, I was raising two babies by myself basically. That included taking the girls and myself to doctor’s visits (since I had no one at all to watch them, they came with me everywhere I went); handling all the feedings; doing all the housework, the grocery shopping, the cooking, the cleaning, the bill paying, the banking, the car repair visits; and working at a job from home, at which I called subscribers of the two big daily newspapers to ask about their service. A lot of that job was performed while feeding, rocking, and holding my infant or during her naptime (no, I never could take the wise advice given to new moms about resting when the baby naps–and that may be why I cannot, for the love of God, force myself to nap to this day). I was beaten down, exhausted, stressed out, and, above all, lonely. Good ol’ days? Hah!
We were stone-cold broke and I recorded each and every expense so as not to go over our budget. We had only so much in student loans to live on until the next year’s allotment. So every month’s rent, every power bill, every newspaper we purchased, and every McDonald’s cheeseburger we bought on the handful of days we treated ourselves to a meal out over the three years was written down in a notebook. I never was able to afford cute little clothes or toys for the girls or anything I wished I could give them. My older daughter’s favorite item of clothing was a skirt I’d found for two dollars on the clearance rack at Target (it was a splurge, believe me). But it was too chilly where we lived and she was back to her KMart pull-on corduroy pants until she outgrew them, reserving the skirt for our drives back home to Southern California.
We made weekly trips to the public library, and I’d stock up on books for them and for me. This was a big part of our lives. I taught the older one her letters, numbers, and colors and eventually how to read. We had the most basic cable service imaginable because we couldn’t pick up TV reception from San Francisco. We were, however, able to get two fuzzy San Jose stations that were almost impossible to watch when the fog rolled in. The basic cable only allowed us the local stations, including PBS, and a few cable stations, like CNN, MTV, and VH-1. Nickelodeon and other children’s programming networks were additional, so the only show my daughter could watch was Sesame Street, first on an old color TV that had been a wedding gift from my brother and then a 12-inch black-and-white when the color one gave out.
We didn’t socialize at all, being that most of my husband’s classmates were single city dwellers and we were a married couple with kids living on the tightest budget possible. And we resided outside the city in a more affordable suburb. Our entertainment, if you can call it that, was watching the occasional NFL game on TV or direct-to-TV movies and series, and reading all those library books. I felt really cut off from the rest of the world–the world I had barely gotten a foot into before having kids. Since we couldn’t afford long-distance phone calls, our friends and family would call us, and only between certain hours on Sundays, when rates were lower. So getting a letter from a friend of mine or maybe my mom or sister was a big deal to me. A letter was often my only connection to that other world and it made me feel as though people cared.
Finding and reading those letters today didn’t quite give me the morale boost I would get when I opened them for the first time. Instead, I became melancholy and sad for the young woman I was and the woman I never got to become. I don’t know if I felt trapped, because it was a life I willingly walked into. Maybe enmeshed is a better word. I was enmeshed in a world I had wanted but was too naïve to understand all the ramifications of. I was mature enough to realize, though, that it was a temporary life and it would improve.
And yes, my life has changed for the better since then, but some things remain the same. I still work from home and I’ve been a stay-at-home mom my entire thirty-plus years of parenting (now with four kids, the youngest of whom is in high school). Life has gotten so much better, though. To all the struggling young moms out there, I am living proof it turns out OK, but it was rough in the eighties and nineties. At least the moms of today have online forums in which to share feelings and Facebook pages and Instagram accounts to keep them in touch with long-distance friends. I didn’t have that, but I did have all those letters to keep me sane. They represent a tough time in my life, but also, they were my lifeline. I think I’ll hang on to them.