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Leaving Home in Search of the American Dream Only to be Forced to Turn Around and Go Back

At times heartbreaking, the memoir is also a comforting tale about the importance of family, making sense of shifting gender roles, and believing in others.

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But maybe the American Dream is something else. Maybe it's that we invest in our communities and families. We have this notion in America that a young family should be out there on their own, with no help from multigenerational family, two parents working themselves to the bone: taking care of their children, paying for health care, paying for college. The pressure on families is enormous, and this isn't how many families in the world exist.

BS: Right. In many cultures, multigenerational families living under one roof is completely normal. Even a few generations ago, for many Americans, it was commonplace, as your mom mentioned in one of your NPR pieces. How do you feel that the experience of living with your mother again has given you perspective about the benefits of that way of life?

CS: It completely changed me. It's not that my dreams are smaller. It's that now I realize that I had this false idea of the pioneer who goes out there with nary a neighbor in sight, about someone who does it all by themselves. Neighbors, as we know from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, from as far as 100 miles away would help each other with sowing the wheat, for instance. That was the nearest person! Pa would walk all the way to that neighbor, help them for a few days, and then they would come back and help him. This idea -- that we're out there on the plain, by ourselves, and that if you don't have the grit and perseverance to make it work, then we fail -- is silly.

We need each other. That's the message of this book. I don't know that I would have known that. It wasn't just coming home to my mother that taught me that. It was the goodness of the people across this country who reached out to us just because they heard us on the radio or because they read my blog. That was really amazing, and it taught me that I needed them.

BS: Your narrative seems to have an undercurrent of dread, of the constant threat of violence. How do you think women's choices, especially in tough economic times, and while traveling, are impacted by a fear of violence?

CS: I think that we live in a culture that is saturated with violence, and I often felt very vulnerable on the road, especially as a young woman. I think when you take your life into your hands to cross oceans or continents to make a new life somewhere, you are vulnerable. Think about the experience of immigrating. I read this terrific book recently called Minding Ben. It's a nanny story, but it's really an American Dream story also. It's about this young girl from Trinidad who comes to New York City at age 16 to become a nanny. When she arrives, the woman who is supposed to pick her up never shows, and she's all alone. Women are particularly vulnerable in situations like that, and you feel so vulnerable when you've made those kinds of choices and come that far.

BS: The story of your journey seems to hinge on a lot of gendered assumptions; that Dan needs to provide for the family, to fix the situation, and that his gender identity is linked to those things. Did you have the same sorts of expectations about your gender roles before the recession, or do you think financial strain and experiences like being alone with a new baby changed your relationship dynamic?

CS: Our assumptions and gender roles certainly got all turned around. Dan talks very eloquently at times about how all of a sudden, he couldn't get a job. I was hired to do a few pieces for NPR, and so things were switched. He needed to do whatever was needed for him so he took over the bulk of the house stuff -- cooking and baby care -- while I was trying to work. That persisted because now he's in graduate school, and I've been working on this book. That's been a huge gender shift within our marriage that we had to figure out. I think in some marriages, that's really hard to do. It's been really tough for us to do, at times, because that's not the dynamic I expected.

 
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