the glad game

I’ve been thinking a lot about Pollyanna lately. That’s another film that I watched as a kid, which had a much greater influence on my personality than I think anyone realized at the time. I mean, when I was a kid, I laughed at the cheesy storyline and the happy-go-lucky Pollyanna. I was like the rest of the town, cynical and rolling my eyes at Pollyanna’s determined cheerfulness.

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But things change, and as I’ve matured I’ve come to see the value of maintaining a positive outlook in life. I’m no believer in the “power” of positive thinking to heal people, prevent illness, gain wealth, and so forth. Still, I do think that having a positive attitude (especially when you live in the rainy PNW and are prone to depression) is a good coping tool.

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Keshia Knight Pulliam as Polly in the 1984 TV musical adaptation of Pollyanna, which I love because it’s a musical.

I have a lot of things to be glad about, but (as noted in my last entry) I’ve been feeling kind of glum lately. So I figured I’d play the glad game real quick, and name a couple things I am really glad for today.

I am glad I have more time at home and less stress.

Shortly after we moved to this area 3 years ago, I took on a lot of stress all at once. I had some health issues I was not dealing with in the hopes they’d go away, my family was assaulted by a crazed neighbor and I had to file a restraining report and take care of my husband’s resultant medical issues, and I started attending college as a full-time student. At about the same time, I found full-time employment in a law office. Thought I was excited for the opportunity at the time, it quickly became apparent that it was a very toxic work environment with no clear chain of command.

In short, it was stressful and upsetting. I started taking hormonal birth control to try and manage the pain from my health issues, and because of the hormones, stress, and packed schedule I ended up packing on about 60 lbs over the next two years. I went from 165 to about 210. I’m told I carry it well and don’t look that heavy, but that part doesn’t matter so much to me. The point isn’t whether or not I look fat, the point is whether or not I feel fat.

Like, can I engage in all the activities I enjoy without getting out of breath and sweaty and worn out? Can I kick the soccer ball around with my kid, walk a mile to the grocery store, hike down to the waterfront? Can I row a boat, pull up a crab trap, and clamber over rocks? If I get worn out after only 5 or 10 minutes, then I’m getting too out of shape, too heavy. I feel fat.

I can’t do anything!

Well, this summer I graduated from college. Our medical and legal issues are resolved. I am no longer employed at the toxic work environment. In other words, although I am working on my book and looking for work, my days are still pretty open. So I decided that this was the year I would commit to eating healthier and exercising, which I’ve been documenting on my social media under the hashtag #exercisealifestyle.

I changed my diet, shifting my focus from storebought foods that were rich in carbohydrates, starches, preservatives, and sugars to homemade meals. For snacks, I started eating pickled asparagus and black olives, hoping to encourage the growth of healthier gut bacteria. I don’t believe in ever “banning” a food, because I think that just makes a person crave it more. It seems to be working — since I shifted to foods that encourage different gut bacteria, I’ve noticed a huge reduction how many sweets I actually want (which is way less than you’d think).

Once school started, I decided to incorporate some exercise. So every morning, I put the leash on Azura and head out for a quick 15-20 minute walk around the neighborhood. After a few weeks of this, my 7th grader felt bad that I was walking his dog (which should be his chore) and suggested that instead of waiting until after he left to the bus stop, I walk with him to the bus stop, so he can walk his own dog for a bit. He also joins me on Saturday and Sunday mornings for the weekend walks, which is awesome. I get some quality time with my boy and I walk the dogs and I get exercise! It’s a win-win-win!

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When John got his bonus, he purchased a new bicycle for the boy and (at my request) a bicycle for me. So now when I go shopping, I ride my bicycle and put the groceries in my little basket. Often, Kidling accompanies me on these trips — more quality mom-son time, and a chance to build health habits.

With all these lifestyle changes, I’ve lost 10 lbs since school started in September! I’m pretty excited, and I’m also enjoying the structure and routine these activities add to my day.

I am glad I have a supportive and appreciative husband who is understanding and patient.

I’m pretty privileged in being able to take the time to work on my book and be a little pickier about my job search, though. I don’t have to take another toxic job where I get paid below living wages and get pulled between two employers with conflicting expectations. I have the leisure to spend time applying to positions I really want to work at, positions I know I would do well in and where I would be fairly compensated. I have the leisure to work on my book and do some freelance work, and I have that leisure because of my husband and his employer– mostly my husband, though.

His employer is great, don’t get me wrong. They pay a living wage and provide excellent and affordable benefits. The position is stable, with almost union-style layers of protection for worker’s rights. My husband is a hard worker and has growth potential at the company. As in any position, there are hiccups and work drama that occasionally cause him stress, but overall he’s very lucky to have a well-paying and supportive employer in this economy, and especially in retail. We know that.

When he first starting working with his current employer, he was also working at a big-box retail store we’ll call Trendy Red Dot, which is pretty similar to this other Big Mart retailer, but trendier and with better marketing. Both TRD and Big Mart pay minimum wage, discourage unionization, and have faced issues with discrimination due to factors such as gender, race, and sexual orientation. They also have high employee turnover due to the poor employment conditions, pay, and beneits.

The thing about jobs at TRD and Big Mart vs. an employer which pays a living wage, invests in their employees, offers affordable benefits, and provides job security is that a job at any of these places can suck sometimes. Even the best employers hire managers who get bogged down in the petty drama of inefficient management and personal vendettas, and every job has the occasional issues with personality conflicts or some employees doing less and refusing to pick up the slack. That’s how jobs are.

The biggest difference between these three places is that when work at TRD or Big Mart starts sucking balls, the employee knows perfectly well they can walk out the door and find another crap minimum wage job with awful benefits somewhere else, and maybe, just maybe, those people will be cool (although, lets face facts: even if the employee decides to stick it out at their shitty job with their shitty bosses, at-will employment is pretty much the law of the land in most of America, and the job is never secure).

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But when the work environment at a Good Employer starts going downhill, the employee has real incentive to work with the employer to resolve the issue– retail jobs paying a living wage with good benefits and job security are not exactly a dime a dozen. My husband and I are both glad that he was lucky enough to land a job with his current employer.

So with all that in mind, it really is my husband who’s the gold star here. He could insist I go work at TRD and contribute with positive income to the household finances. Even though his income can support our family of three and our menagerie, he could still insist that it is only fair for me to work for money. He could be the type of person who views the money he earns as solely his, instead of income for the family. He could be the type of person who views the work I do as not actually work, because there’s no paycheck to validate the efforts.

What I do– saving money, budgeting, managing household appointments and necessities– I sometimes refer to as negative or neutral income. I use my time as a stay-at-home to reduce costs by handling the budget, shopping, meals, and clothing repairs (yes, I can sew. A little.). Instead of being angry that our finances are about $20k/year less because I am choosing to look for a job with more stability and long-term growth, my husband is supportive of my dreams and goals and grateful for the benefits of having a stay at home parent.

I’m available on his days off so we can enjoy family activities, and I handle the chores, meals, budgeting, childcare, legal, medical, and all household paperwork. If our son calls from school, I can be there in a hot minute to bring him lunch money or homework or pick him up. If my husband forgot his nametag, he just needs to text and I run out to his workplace. It makes life easier for everyone to have a central command, so to speak.

The downside, of course, is that most households can’t survive on a single income. Additionally, the reason I am the stay-at-home parent instead of my husband is because of social reinforcement. I would very much like to work. I am educated, I have a BA, and I am driven. This summer, I arranged several informational interviews, and received extremely positive feedback. I was praised on my work history, education, and career goals. My work history is spotty, due to the time spent in college and as a stay at home parent. Career counselors tell me the work history spottiness is less of a problem in this depressed economy, but I still have trouble finding work.

When we looked at the incomes from our two jobs a year ago, I was working for a law office at $10/hour with no benefits. I was expected to do all the receptionist work, take on legal secretary duties, train new front desk employees, handle the rent payments for their property management firm, handle marketing and holiday planning, manage the office budget and inventory, shop for my bosses groceries and deliver them to her home, pick up laundry, deposit the checks at the bank, and handle all mailing duties. If my bosses did not provide enough money for an errand, I was expected to pay out of pocket and be reimbursed in my paycheck. I was not allowed to work overtime and was discouraged from taking sick days, even when I had surgery. I have a college degree.

My husband, meanwhile, has a high school diploma and is getting paid double my hourly income. He has benefits, yearly cost-of-living increases, and bi-annual bonuses. He has a chain of command — if his supervisor starts trying to make him pick up her groceries, he can talk to their manager. His job has clearly outlined duties, and if he is called to perform tasks that he isn’t trained on, the manager is the one who will get in trouble.

When we looked at our relative work-life balances and average incomes, my husband’s situation is clearly superior, although we have invested in a degree and white-collar skill set for me. On top of that, I am the one who has consistently lacked the job security provided by a just-cause clause in my employee contract. After my most recent employment experience, it just made sense to have me stay at home and focus on searching for a position that was more lucrative, secure, and offered better work-life balance. The stress a low-income job brought to our family was not worth the financial benefits, such as they were.

And I am so glad that we are in a position that we could make that decision. I am so glad my husband is supportive, understanding, and loving about the reality of social structures that shape our lives, instead of demanding that I just get a job, any job. I am so glad that I have this opportunity to focus on my marriage, my family, and my book. And I know that I am so privileged and lucky to have this opportunity, which makes me even more grateful for it.

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