Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Street Cleaning, Solo-Parenting, and Margins

Tuesdays were my least favorite day of the week this year. 

Tuesday is street cleaning day on our street. (don't even get me started on how ridiculous street cleaning is) I'd guess that most of DC has felt the burn of waking up on "street cleaning morning" with a sharp pang of "argh. *&*$^&$^** I forgot to move the car." It might only be 7:01AM, but you probably already have one of those infuriating pink tickets. 

If you park before 6:30pm on Monday night you have to go out and move your car to the other side of the street before 7am on Tuesday. And then if you get home before 7pm on Tuesday night you have to move your car back to the normal side by 7am on Wednesday. I repeat, *@^&@&$*@!!. 

With Jonathan away in NYC during weekdays this year, street cleaning day has become particularly painful. Do I drag a newly bathed, ready-for-bed kiddo out to the car, strap him in, and drive around until I find a new parking spot? Do I wait until he's in bed, sneak out and hope he's ok and drive around alone to find a new spot? Sometimes I found a spot immediately, other times it was a 15 minute ordeal complicated by weather or traffic or other people's poor parking. 

It's such a simple thing, but each week it brought to surface the difficulties of solo-parenting.** 

If this year had a theme, it would be margins. I did a lot of living life in narrow margins. 

Margins provide extra space. Room to correct mistakes. Wiggle room. Cushion. Protection. 

Life without much margin feels tenuous, and perpetually vulnerable. Small deals become big deals. A kid with a cough becomes a potential day-care phone call that he needs to be picked up, which turns into leaving patients waiting or unseen. A patient close to her due date becomes a potential 2am phone call saying I need to go to the hospital and figure out what to do with my sound asleep kiddo. A night on call means planning weeks in advance about who can pick up munchkin from daycare, feed him, and be with him all night. Staying later at work means late dinner for munchkin means cranky-pants kid. Not being able to carry everything from the car to the apartment turns into worrying what item is least likely to be stolen while it sits in the backseat, and wondering if it’s ok to leave munchkin alone in his crib while bringing in groceries up 3 flights of stairs. Spending 2 glorious hours from 6-8pm feeding, bathing, and playing with legos means maybe my medical board scores won’t be as high.

I’ve never in my life spent so much time double and triple checking when I leave the house that I have everything- phone, keys, wallet, food, kid…etc. Forgetting those things becomes lots more complicated when you’re alone. I worried more about getting a flat tire or having the ER suck all the battery out of my phone and being unreachable more than ever before.

Small deals become big deals when life doesn’t have much margin. Distant worries become real fears. Potential snags in the day seem to become imminently possible and probable.

Were there friends to call? Sure. But this is DC. Everyone is busy. It’s hard to call for help at 2am when you have to go to the hospital no matter how good of a friend.

By the grace of God, I haven’t had any big emergencies. No 2am hospital calls that didn’t work out in the end. No late dinners or early mornings or street cleaning days or chief resident emergencies or lack of groceries that had any lasting impact. Practically and tangibly, things worked out. But life still felt vulnerable, hanging in a delicate balance between “things working” and “system failure.” There didn’t seem to be any middle ground.

I’ve learned how much I love margins. I’ve thought deeply about individuals and groups who permanently live life without much margin. Single parents, unemployed, homeless, disempowered minorities, the chronically ill. Small things become big deals. Life is more delicate.

Everyone needs margins and help on their “street cleaning” days.

**I use term solo-parent rather than single parent because, well, I'm not single. Jonathan may have been away a lot, but we're still together, and we're only apart for a year. He was always there for a supportive text or call or email. Once he even rushed back from NYC on a train (I wouldn't let me him tell me how much last minute tickets cost) when I had to bring Theo to the hospital. We saw him for long weekends almost each week. We mutually agreed that this was the best plan for us this year. I'm not single, but I learned a lot about what single parenting might be like. 


  1. I wish Philly regularly cleaned its streets, and some people are trying to make that happen in places. But that's different from Street Cleaning, which is a thinly-veiled municipal revenue source with cleaning of streets as a side effect. I guess it's politically easier to do it that way than to pass a tax.

  2. It's in my personality to despise margins a little bit. Leftover margin feels like a waste rather than a cushion. I habitually try to get by with as little margin as possible. There's a certain thrill with making it all work in those circumstances.

    A lot of that is made possible by my autonomy. No one really depends on me. A lot is also made possible by my disregard of others; have you ever had to wait for me when I was late?

    When I spurn margin it makes the one I love feel insecure and maybe undervalued. Instead of trying to live life at 110% productivity she would rather I shot for more like 80%. That's going to need to happen. I think it will be good for me.

    1. Margin, I've decided, is part of the 100%. 10-15% of time/space/energy that allows for love and care of self and other. I'm sure you'll find it is rarely a waste :)

      I'll assume the question about waiting for you is rhetorical ;)