I’m an older single mother with four children under the age of 12, two dogs and a cat, and since September 2009 we have lived in a 26-foot travel trailer in Southern California. Our story is very different from those of Penney and Browning, but we’re not all that different from thousands of Americans who don’t have wealthy and influential friends, robust retirement accounts or second homes to which we can retreat when the bottom falls out of our lives. Our story doesn’t have a silver lining.
Two years ago my children and I were living in a nice five-bedroom house in Colorado, and the decline of the housing market was just an abstract worry. I had plopped down almost all of my life’s savings (including cashed-out retirement funds) on the down payment for our house to keep monthly payments low. I was employed in the environmental-permitting field and able to pay the mortgage. My worry was more personal: My young son was not growing. Adopted at age 3 with a successfully repaired heart defect, he had weighed 28 pounds for the nearly two years we had lived in Colorado. After what seemed like endless tests and failed fixes, we learned his lungs had suffered permanent damage in the 18 months before his heart was repaired.
It’s a shock to go from being a responsible member of the middle class to being unemployed and without a home; I knew it would be too much for all of us if we ended up literally on the streets. I was directed toward “transitional housing,” but I chafed at the big-brother attitudes and the condescending insistence on mentoring and life-skill classes (and, of course, our two dogs and a cat were not welcome). Apartments were out of our reach financially. So I researched the local parks and, with my last paycheck, made reservations at as many campgrounds as I could. Losing my job and our home had been a double whammy, but the second loss somehow offset the depression of the first: I might not have had an office to go to, or deadlines to meet, but there was lots of work to do. (By the way, in telling my story, I often run into the “father” question: Well, there isn’t one. I’m a single mother by choice, having adopted my children over the course of a decade while my career was flourishing.
I can’t exactly send a kid to his or her room; nor can I retreat to my room when I need a break from family life. I once locked myself in my car for a job interview and still couldn’t drown out the noise of children arguing. Besides, that’s where my oldest daughter often retreats to practice her lines for the school play. On weekends, when we’re forced to spend extended periods of time together in the trailer, we snap at each other like rats in an overcrowded cage. I dread summer vacation.
For now, we live on my unemployment check. We haven’t applied for other benefits, reluctant as I am to complete the transition from middle class to certifiably impoverished. We appear, I’m told, to have adapted well to our circumstances. Superficially, all appears to be fine. The children are fed, dressed and attend school regularly. The older two are even excelling at their schoolwork. They participate in drama, choir and sports.
But the stress of uncertainty seeps inside me like acid rain. I am plagued by pain, headaches, toothaches, a nagging stiff neck and radiating pain in my shoulder. I don’t sleep well. I grow heavy and sluggish and irritable. New lines appear on my face and my graying hair betrays my middle age. I am losing essential parts of myself. Ambition, intellect, patience, dreams.
Yes, our life is much simpler and more frugal now that we’ve lost everything. But I haven’t adopted this life to be happy; I’ve adopted it out of necessity. I focus on the basics — food, laundry, the job search, getting the kids to and from school and extracurricular activities, and managing our meager finances. I have another job interview coming up, and maybe this will lead to something. But inner peace escapes me. It hasn’t a chance against all the anxieties about our future, about the long-term effects this will have on my children.
What keeps me going? It’s not faith. It’s not hope. I don’t have either. I think it’s just motherhood. That unsinkable tenacity that makes women do whatever they have to do for their children.