16 September 2009

Going Without

The house I lived in while I served in the Peace Corps had running water and electricity. Most of the time. It was a cement block house with a tin roof and cement floors, featuring a western bathroom and "modern" kitchen and bare bulbs throughout. So much for the romantic vision of a mud hut with a thatched roof, but I can't say as I minded the modern conveniences.

Except when they didn't work. I had plenty of Peace Corps friends who never had running water or electricity, and this who learned to live without such luxuries fairly quickly. They had rain barrels and lanterns and a schedule that was based on the rising and setting of the sun. Part of their routine was fetching water or part of their budget was paying a local kid to do so for them. It doesn't take a genius to figure out how to wash dishes and take a bath with a system of buckets and cups. Doing without running water and electricity just became part of their experience, and, in time, just a part of life.

My water and electric service were frequently interrupted. The town would run out of fuel for the generator, or the generator would break, or a storm would knock out the power or countless other events would transpire to make my house dark and dry. There was never any warning and never any sense of how long the outages would last. A friend of mine lived next to the generator and could sometimes get information from the workers there about service interruptions, but even the town employees didn't usually have complete or accurate information to pass along. And so, in the middle of doing laundry or while trying to grade papers at night, I'd suddenly find myself without a way to rinse the soap from my clothes or needing to stumble through the house for the flashlights, candles, and matches.

The obvious solution to this was to be better prepared. There was no reason for me not to have a rain barrel to collect water for just these situations (well, other than that keeping mosquitoes from breeding in rain barrels is not easy, even with good covers), and I could have purchased some good kerosene lamps to have for when the power went out. But I confess that I felt somehow entitled to my water and electric. It was supposed to work, I felt. Life in Africa was already fraught with difficulty, and I felt I deserved to be spared some of that trial by the presence of water and electric in my life.

John died when the twins were nine months old, and before that he was in the process of dying. I liken my single-parenthood to the situation of my Peace Corps friends who never had running water and electricity to begin with. Not having those luxuries was just a fact of life. They can remember what it was like to live in another place, at another time, with those things (among other conveniences), but in the moment, they adapt and move forward and mostly just take the lack at face value. So it is for me. Oh, do I ever remember how wonderful it was to have John around and oh, how often do I wish he were still here, but he's not. And so I have created a life and a routine and a flow that is based upon the lack of a spouse. My coping mechanisms aren't always the best (Single Parenting: I Guess Poor Parenting Is Better Than None at All), and when I have an extra pair of hands around, it gives me a taste of what I'm missing—much like our occasional Peace Corps training weekends in "luxury" (it was the third world) hotels did for my colleagues who lived without much luxury day-to-day.

I will occasionally get e-mails from friends who have kids but whose spouse is away for an extended period of time. They are lovely e-mails that are usually filled with a newly deepened empathy for my spouse-less situation and an admiration for what I do to manage the logistics of single parenting. These messages often contain the sentence, "This is so hard!" I'd be the first person to agree that being a single parent is hard, but in all fairness, I think it's harder to be a part-time single parent than to do what I do. These friends with spouses who travel or are deployed in the military or who go take care of infirm family members are like I was in the Peace Corps. When you regularly have a support person in your life—or regularly rely on running water and electric—their sudden absence shifts your entire routine. For those used to have a spouse around it's not just a logistical shift of figuring out how to do it all on your own, but an emotional sea change for the kids and the adults. It creates a whole new family dynamic and a whole new rhythm, and it's something you can't really plan for because until it happens, it's hard to know just how it will feel.

For my friends who are going it alone right now, I'm sorry your water and electric are off. I hope they come back on soon. At least you probably have good information about when service will be restored. Until then, know that you're doing a good job at a very difficult job. Hats off.

18 comments:

Momma Mary said...

beautifully stated. :)

Domestic Goddesque said...

I always read your posts and would love to comment, but somehow feel that the words I have wouldn't do the words that you have justice. I really admire what you achieve every day with electricity and water. x

Keen said...

All I can say is, that is an absolutely fascinating comparison, and I'm still mulling it over. As one of those Peace Corps volunteers who did live in a mud hut with no running water or electricity, or toilet paper, I sure can vouch for the fact that getting used to doing without those things was easy. It was the other stuff that was hard. (And oh, I do remember those "luxury" training weekends.)

Thanks for that window into your life--and for bringing back some PC memories. :-)

CV said...

So how'd you go all soft on part-time-single parents all of a sudden? As I recall, the folks with no water/electricity weren't particularly sympathetic to folks in your (and my) situation when there were breaks in service chez nous.

Snickollet said...

CV--

You are totally correct that those who never had did not feel bad for us when our water and electric went out. It's more that having that experience, I have an appreciation for the fact that an interruption in the usual is in some ways harder than a difficult usual.

I guess it's not a matter of "easier" or "harder" in the end, more that I'm looking for comfort in the predictable! (Maddie is being quite the hellion these days so I need find comfort *somewhere*.)

-snick

mlg said...

This is just like the situation with the kid and I. People say that I mourn more what her disability has taken because I know what she is missing. As opposed to her, who has always depended on a wheelchair and hasn't had any life experiences taken from her.

As someone with on again/off again water and power, I wonder if my misfortune of finding myself single is easier than your much more heartbreaking situation. Even though we have different but equal burdens, it does seem like your going without is much more monumental than mine.

Deborah said...

Great analogy. I have done parenting alone and with another. And it does get easier alone after a while, although it's never easy. My partner and I split when my daughter was four months old. I don't remember a lot about that first year but I do remember this: She was maybe six months old, maybe a little more, and got sick at night, vomiting all over the crib and herself. And when I picked her up, she puked all over me. I remember standing there at midnight, dead tired, thinking what the hell do I clean first? And was about to pick up the phone and call my dad and ask him to come help me. And I thought, you need to learn to do this by yourself because that's the way it's going to be. So I did it, and I survived. And then I got in another relationship when she was about three, one that I *knew* in my heart wasn't the right one, but dammit, I was so tired of parenting alone. And we struggled for four years to make a family that wasn't meant to be until we finally stopped trying.

And now I've been a single mom again for a couple years and it's easier in some ways (no one to question my decisions) and harder in a lot of others. And I read your blog, and you make me cry. Thank you for your absolute honesty.

kristin said...

That was a very generous post. x

BiancaW said...

You really do write so beautifully!!

Sandi said...

When John used to travel on business, I became a part-time single parent. It was hard, but it did prepare me for becoming a full-time single parent.

Abigail said...

Widowhood as a mud hut without running water or electricity sounds pretty apt. It takes a while to adjust to the conditions but ultimately becomes the new normal.

Nice post.

Allegro said...

What an insightful and empathetic post. I often find myself wanting to complain (hell who am I kidding I whine on and on) about how tough part-time single parenting is and then I feel bad (mostly because of you ;) and others like you). I have a spouse and he's around a lot and does a lot! So what am I complaining about. In the end it is about routine. It's about what you're used to.

I find that having a routine (a little water on hand and a flashlight) does make it a little easier. I have some warning regarding when the lights are apt to go off (my hubby is a student with a somewhat predictable schedule but this is new for us) and its getting easier everyday to make do without his previously ubiqutous help.

Anonymous said...

I dunno. I have very little sympathy for anyone who lives in a 2 parent world. They better not whine in front of me because, baby...I do it all! lol

Yes, it is so very hard (or is it really just time consuming?), but there are so many rewards to single parenting that I really wouldn't want it any other way. But..shuuuush.. don't tell that to my 2 parent friends. I need them to take pity on me every so often and help me out!

Anonymous said...

Maddie and Riley are growing up in a world without electricity or water too, so I hope that in some way, that will be easier for them than if they had lost him at an age where they could remember him.

Diane said...

You are not a poor parent. You are raising secure, happy children even though it's hard for you. Don't be so hard on yourself. Sometimes two parent families raise murderers, and plenty of caring and concerned single parents raise super stars. Maddie and Riley know without a doubt they are loved, and that's most important of all.

django's mommy said...

Whenever friends' husbands go out of town, I hear a lot of 'how do you DO it?'. I just do. I'm used to it.

Absolutely spot-on, perfect analogy.

Sadia said...

Pondering...

Our situation is like those you describe, since my husband's in the army. I also can relate to the Peace Corps experience, even though I was only 8 when I lived in rural Bangladesh. (Urban B'desh doesn't quite compare.)

However, I do find that getting into the swing of things when my hubby returns from his 15-month absences is a little harder than when he leaves. Perhaps it's because I psych myself up for his return so much that letting go of being Adult-in-Charge is more of a challenge than I accounted for, whereas I anticipate his leaving to be difficult.

Transitions are hard, period. Just imagine how easy parenting would be if our kids didn't grow, change and develop!

Much to think about. Thanks for this post.

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