When we drove out of Chicago, on our way to Fort Wayne, I composed a letter to the city in my head. Dear Chicago, I thought, I'm so sorry it has to end this way. No hard feelings, Chicago, I thought. I love you, I will always love you, and I will cherish the memories from our years together. You're not perfect, but of course I'm not, either, and so I don't blame you. I have blamed myself, but I am trying very hard not to do that anymore. It turns out that we are just not a good fit, or maybe it's just that the timing's not right. I think you're beautiful and amazing, and I hope we can be friends. I've never lost interest in knowing you. I'll come to see you when I can, although I know it will probably never be the same.
The sun was shining, making the surface of the lake sparkle brilliantly. It was Chicago's answer to me, I thought - giving me farewell diamonds. I stared at the water, trying to preserve every detail of the view for myself forever. In that moment, at least, I felt at peace.
I have spent a lot of time feeling like leaving Chicago was a mark of failure, not because living in Chicago is the ultimate mark of success (although I admit that in the wake of all of this I do have sort of a New York, New York "if I can make it there I'll make it anywhere" feeling about it), but because in the end, we didn't feel like the decision to leave or stay was really our own choice, but one that we had to make. If we didn't take the job offer Geoff had gotten - or some other job in some other place besides Chicago - we could imagine a scenario where we ended up homeless. Looking back, I can still imagine that, although I think we are too lucky and blessed to have ended up on the streets, whether or not we had a home of our own, since we have family and friends who I believe would take us in, if it came to that. Still, in just over a week it will have been two years since my last day of employment. We have still not sold our condo in Chicago. It's been almost two years since Geoff and I had any health insurance. During this time, I cashed out my 401k. We have no savings or retirement funds of any kind. We own nothing of any significant value, except the Chicago condo (which we only "own," owing on its mortgage loan approximately three times what it is now worth), Geoff's piano, and the not-yet-paid-off Honda CR-V (the Beetle doesn't count as something of significant value, that's for sure). We owe hundreds of thousands on student loans.
On the other hand, every time I feel too sorry for myself about any of this, I can't help but also feel grateful. (It doesn't always get rid of the self-pity, but at least it tempers it.) Two years without health insurance has resulted in zero unpaid medical bills; we've been all been remarkably healthy. We live in a house with both heat and central air, an upstairs and a downstairs, a bath and a half, and each daughter has her own bedroom! We have our own front porch and our own fenced in back yard, and we live in a quiet, safe neighborhood, one where Katie even has a good friend her age just down the block. We never pay anything for parking, we go out to eat regularly, we have cable tv and cell phones and internet connections. We have enough food and enough clothes and even enough toys. When the cars have broken down or needed work, we've had enough money to pay to get them running again, and although we don't have health insurance, we do have car insurance. We exchanged presents at Christmas, and we can buy presents and cake for birthdays. I think of all of the other people who have been unemployed as long as I have - especially those of them, like me, who were the primary wage-earners for their families - and I am sure that we number among the luckiest.
I feel like an imposter, though. These days I'm at home with my kids, doing all the housework and laundry and most of the cooking, but I'm not a "real" stay at home mom, because I didn't make the choice to be, and if I could get a job that I liked, I'd rather not be. I love having more time with them than I had when I was working (especially since I had a 2-3 hour round trip commute most days), but I'll be honest: this much time is too much, especially since a huge amount of the time that I have available is not spent with them - Katie is in school for most of each weekday, and Annabel is at preschool three days a week. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Annabel is at home with me, but she usually naps for 2-3 hours, and even when she's awake, she is pretty independent - she usually spends an hour or two entertaining herself in her or Katie's room.
I worked as a lawyer for nearly 11 years, but I'm not a "real" lawyer, either, both because I'm not working right now (and haven't worked in 2 years), and because if I have my way, I won't work as a lawyer again. Yet people ask what I did, or what I do, and I find myself admitting that yes, I am a lawyer, because of course, even though I'm not, I also am.
I would like to be a photographer, but I'm not a "real" one. I have plans to start an official business here in Indiana later this year, but for various financial reasons, I won't be doing that for awhile. I'm not making any money from photography. I take very few photos (other than ones of my family and my surroundings). And I'm very aware of my lack of experience and training and equipment. (I also dream of being a writer, but it's hard to feel like that's real, also, when I only write a few times a month at the most, and usually much less than that.)
I imagine, as I make my way through the world, that others see me the way I've been seeing myself: as an example of wasted potential. As a failure. As a dabbler in many things but an expert at nothing. As a lazy self-pitying unmotivated ingrate, who needs to sit up and smell the coffee, or the roses, or something, anything, as long as it makes her realize that maybe this is as good as it gets, and if she doesn't figure out how to appreciate it soon, her life's going to be over before she knows it, without her ever having figured out how to get it (anything) right.
Since I am imagining that others see me this way, it might not surprise you to learn that - despite the fact that I often lonely - I have become something of a hermit, self-conscious and somewhat shy around others, especially others who ask me things like what I do for a living, or what I want to do for a living, or who want to compare notes about being a stay at home mom.
So many days are so difficult, even when I feel like they shouldn't be. It helps when the sun shines. It helps when the days are warm enough to enjoy taking a walk, even a quick one that's just around the block. It helps when I have upcoming plans to look forward to.
In about a month, Katie and I are going to go to London (England!) to stay with my mom, and when I believe that that's really going to happen, I get pretty excited. I am also really looking forward to this summer, when I assume I will still be unemployed and be able to be home with the kids. I enjoyed our time together last summer. I am looking forward to maybe taking a photography class or two at the university here, maybe next fall, so that I will feel more legitimate, more confident, more like I know what I'm doing.
This winter has been hard. I am ready for it to end.