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

March 21, 2011

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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.

By **Brittany Shoot**

From Alternet.Org.

In 2008, newlyweds Caitlin Shetterly and her husband Daniel Davis, along with their dog Hopper and cat Ellison, headed west. Leaving their families behind in Maine, the two freelance artists—a writer and public radio producer, and a photographer, respectively—hoped to make it big in California. As they drove, Shetterly read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books and envisioned a promising future for her small family.

Instead, Shetterly found herself unexpectedly pregnant, ill, bedridden, and unable to work for several months. As the recession swept the nation, Davis began losing contracts, eventually unable to find any work at all. Even though Shetterly sold their story to public radio in a series of audio diaries, between a new baby and mounting relocation debt, they were soon too broke to afford the basics. Like countless Americans over the past few years, they felt they had no other choice. They headed home again, back across the country, and moved in with Shetterly’s mother.

In her new memoir, Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home, Shetterly sifts through complicated emotions: the devastation of spiraling into debt, the joy of motherhood, the painful loss of a pet. At times overwhelming and heartbreaking, Made For You and Me is also a comforting tale about the importance of family, making sense of shifting gender roles, and believing in the goodness of others.

Brittany Shoot: Some people were put off by your public radio recession diaries. The criticism seems to stem from the idea that you have enough privilege to overcome the difficulties of the economic downturn better than others. Why do you think people responded to your story with such hostility?

Caitlin Shetterly: There are so many good people in this country—so many people reached out to us after they heard our story on the radio and offered places to stay in their homes, plane fare, and shots for our child. They checked in to make sure that we were ahead of a tornado in Kansas, or how we were coping during a snowstorm. It really made me believe in the goodness of Americans.

As far as the negative reactions, I think there is sometimes a tendency, when you’re scared and angry, to want someone else to be worse off than you are—and to beat them up for it. It’s the same mentality that explains why people don’t want to make universal health care available. There are some people who have worked really hard for their health care, and they pay through the nose for it. Oddly enough, those are some of the people who don’t support universal health care. I think that’s counterintuitive.

Also, people can be mean. They can be really mean on the Internet.

Brittany Shoot: Many people have been displaced by natural disasters or conflict in recent years, and it seems as though some people have less sympathy for people who choose their circumstances, as you and Dan chose to move west. How do you think that’s also tied into the idea of the American Dream?

Caitlin Shetterly: In this country, right now, we’re all trying to figure out where we fit into the American Dream, and if it still exists. Is the American Dream dead? It’s a really important question. I would argue that it’s not dead but it needs to change. It got hijacked along the way. The idea that you can make it with enough grit and perseverance, and that you can make it if you just try hard enough, isn’t necessarily true anymore.

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.

Brittany Shoot: 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?

Driving across this country seeing so many beautiful places ruined just broke my heart. This is what we’ve done. I don’t know what this means for the future.

Caitlin Shetterly: 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.

Brittany Shoot: 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?

Caitlin Shetterly: 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.

Brittany Shoot: 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?

Caitlin Shetterly: 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.

The benefit for him is that he’s gotten to know his son a lot better than he otherwise would have, and that’s been an awesome experience. I think—and this is not a male or female thing but a personal thing—that I had been really looking forward to a period of time after my child was born to just be a mom. And I still never had that. The way things are set up in this country, with us all trying to manage our careers and home lives, working so hard, it’s hard to just be present for your child.

My marriage has really grown because of this, but there were some bumpy spots where we had to find the spark between us even though the gender roles were shifted. There’s such deep care between us that we were able to talk about it and work it out.

Brittany Shoot: Your relationship with your animals was a huge part of your story. Can you talk a little bit about why you highlighted those relationships and how your animals are an indispensable, vital part of your family?

Caitlin Shetterly: I’ve never felt that you can remove animals from the equation. My animals are a part of my family, as I think they are for most people. You have very intimate moments with your animals. If you think about it, your animals come in when you’re going to the bathroom. They’re often in the room when you make love. They get into bed with you. They see you in all kinds of fragile moments. You may not show your kids that you’re having a fight with your spouse, but your animals are there witnessing it. They see everything, and their presence is somehow this grounding force, constantly in your life. How many times have you felt yourself raise your voice and your cat looks a little shocked? And you realize you shouldn’t do that. I’m not just impacting the person I’m yelling at. I’m affecting this totally innocent creature. I think we all need to be sensitive to that.

I have always been disturbed when I read a book and an animal disappears from the narrative. A couple gets a divorce, and then their dog disappears. The dog was just jumping into the car with them! But then all of a sudden, I don’t know what happened to the dog. How does that happen? There’s a casualness as if this other being doesn’t matter. When you start being insensitive or cruel to animals, or not noticing that they are equal in their desire to be in the world with us, and their desires to have their needs met, and their feelings are as valid as ours, I feel you’re ignoring part of yourself.

Brittany Shoot: You write about the way that the landscape across America has been changed by what many people call “progress,” the stores and strip malls that have overtaken open spaces. What do you make of the way people simultaneously mourn the loss of nature and patronize big box stores and fast food chains?

Caitlin Shetterly: If I’m honest, I have lived within that contradiction myself. It was impossible, coming back across the country, not to eat McDonald’s. We went and bought a couch at Ikea, which was, when I think about it, totally absurd; we’re still paying that couch off.

But, I don’t live that way anymore. At all. I think about it much more now. Driving across this country seeing so many beautiful places ruined just broke my heart. This is what we’ve done. I don’t know what this means for the future.

Copyright 2011 Brittany Shoot

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This post originally appeared at Alternet.Org.

Brittany Shoot is a freelance writer based in Boston and Copenhagen.

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