Going west, going broke, finding home: One mother's improved 'American dream'

May 06, 2011

Like many, Caitlin Shetterly hitched her wagon to the American dream and chose to move out west for new life pursuits. After changes in apartments, new adventures and more, she and her husband found themselves with a new baby, but without jobs.

Hers is a story of how one mother found what the American dream truly meant: not the acquisition of riches, but about holding on to the essentials.

Join author Caitlin Shetterly as she discusses her book (Made for You and Me), being a mother during the recession and what it's like to move in with your own mom on Friday, May 6 at 11 a.m. ET.

Have a question about being a mother during the recession? Can you relate? Ask your questions and join the conversation now.

Hi Friends!

Caitlin, here. My book,  Made for You and Me is about so many things--like love and music and food--but in essence, it’s about how my husband, Dan and I hitched our wagon to the American Dream and went west to California. It was the beginning of our current recession, the spring of 2008, and Dan’s job in Portland, Maine had been put to part time. So we decided to seek our fortune out west. The week we got to California I got (unexpectedly, despite knowing about the birds and the bees) pregnant with our first child. We had lots of adventures in California, including a crazy lady who lived upstairs from us, and a few more apartment changes than anyone would have wanted. But we kept going, we kept believing, until, suddenly, we had a new baby and Dan was out of work. The recession had hit California –and then our lives— hard. We were three thousand miles from home with a tiny baby and we were broke. Eventually, we had to pack up and journey back across America to move in with my mother in Maine.

This is not only the story of one small family--and the gift we got in coming home--but it is an American story about our challenges as a nation and our heart.

And, to me, this is a story about what has happened to so many of us during this recession.

I end each reading--in cavernous Borders' with six people, packed library halls or small book clubs--with a sing-along to Woody Guthrie's famous song: "This Land is Your Land." And, when we sing it together, I know that together we can get through anything.

So, today, I'm eager to discuss my journey and what the American Dream means to us today. Also, in honor of mother's day, I want to hear about the hard journeys you or your mothers have made for your families.

I'm here. Caitlin.

How did the recession affect your cooking or eating habits at home? Do you use different ingredients now? Do you cook less with certain items?

When Dan and I were in LA and things were going, as I like to say, to hell in a handbasket, I had to go back to my roots as a child of the back-to-the-land movement and make simple, homemade foods. I baked all our bread, soaked beans, made soups. Also, I had reread the entire Little House on the Prairie Series while I was pregnant and in bed with an unusual pregnancy sickness. In those books I was inspired by how Ma makes do with so little--she really knew how to stretch a hunk of meat for "flavoring" rather than the main meal. I did the same. In the end, amazingly, we ate all organic and fed two animals for under $100 a week ($88 to be exact!). Lots of beans and homemade bread!

What were some of the biggest challenges of moving back in with your mother as an adult -- and a mother yourself? And how did it alter your relationship?

This is such a good question. You know, I really didn't want to move home and in with my mother--I always thought that I'd be a faliure if I had to do that! Also, ever since my parents divorced when I was eighteen, home didn't feel like home. But five months of work got canceled for my husband, Dan, when our son was two weeks old. So, when my mother called and said, "Cait, come home. You can live with me." I knew she was offering us a lifeline. In the end I learned that the ties a mother has to her child are stronger than anything tough we endure.

What was it like having to move in with your mom? Was it tough or did it make sense?

In the end it was a gift. You know, my mother has this saying she often says, "gifts do not always come in the packages we expect." And I'd say I learned this two-fold: One I didn't move to LA to become a mom, I went for my career. But my son was a gift, one I did not expect. And moving home with my mother was also a gift--one I did not anticipate that I wanted. But I needed it.

How do you think your story compares to those of other moms and families? What advice would you offer anyone out there struggling to make things work?

This is a really great question. I think my family, like many of us, had to keep believing in something--and the question was, what? As I see it, the American Dream felt dead. I was brought up to believe that the "fruited" plain was mine to harvest--all I had to do was work hard and persevere! But that's not true anymore. There are over 14 million unemployed Americans--not counting all the freelancers, those who have given up the heart to keep searching or those who have fallen off unemployment--I don't believe those people haven't worked hard. The system is broken, is what I believe. And many of us are suffering. 

That said, my advice is to believe in your family and your community: Together we can get through anything. When times are tough we have to be willing to ask for help and lend a helping hand. Also, simplify: Start with sewing the hole in one sock rather than throwing out the pair and buying a new pair--it's that simple. And, actually, it feels good to mend that sock!

What are you doing now? How is your family?

Well, these days I'm going around the country talking to people about my book and listening to their stories from the Great Recession. I'm talking about how we can come together to get through tough times. And I make everyone--at every reading--sing Woody Guthrie's anthem--"This Land is Your Land" (The original version with the political verses about people being hungry and feeling shut out of the promise of America). People love it--when was the last time you sang in a group of people--not just in the shower alone?
But I'm also being a mom and my husband, Dan, is graduating from grad school this spring. Like most families we patch our lives together with odd jobs and juggling and we try to do it all with grace and love--not always easy! I will tell you that when we sold my book about our journey through the recession, we had $16 in the bank account. So, in a way, mine is an American Dream story. The question is, what does that mean to us?

What was the most difficult thing that happened to you while making all these changes? Does one particular event stand out in your mind?

Yes. We were in LA, it was January of 2009, we had a brand new baby and Dan's work as a freelance photographer had been canceled up through May.  We were 3,000 miles from home and our savings was slipping through our fingers--fast. And then finally we made the decision--a hard choice to make--to pack up and drive home to move in with my mom. And then my cat, Ellison, got sick....well this is all in the book so I won't give it away, but it was a very hard moment in our lives. We felt like we were down and being kicked, hard by someone who didn't even know our names.

I've watched a show about Extreme Couponing and I was wondering if you are able to do what some of those people do. Does it help you much? I always found that the coupons in the paper were mostly for things I neither wanted nor used.

Great question! You know I never did the coupon thing. I just went back to what I knew from my childhood growing up in the big woods of Maine: Live simply. I baked bread, I made big pots of lentil soup and turkey chili with only enough meat in it for flavoring...and I bought cheap vegetables--no baby greens or tomatoes. In California, avocados where cheap and great with a little olive oil and salt. Okra was cheap and is very healthy when sliced thinly and fried in a little olive oil--and it fils you up. So, I say, forget the junk in the newspaper--eat simple, filling, healthy meals--and make them by scratch. If we go back to these values we'll stretch a dollar!

I think it is so wonderful that you have a 'home' to go home to. It is wonderful you have that relationship with your mom (mine is long gone, she never saw her grandkids) and I would have been the same as you - not feeling like a success if i had to 'move back home.' but it is a gift that you have a family that supports you and sees when you need help - they give it. that is so wonderful. many people today would just say: oh, just go on welfare - or whatever - rather than actually helping each other. a sad thing in our society, i think.

I agree! We have to learn in this country that the only way to get through tough times is to go back to what we know, intuitively: That we can get through anything if we come together. We've lost a lot of what it means--and what we used to know--about living multigenerationally. When family comes together and starts living sustainably--in that we all pitch in with the children, the meals, the jobs that need to be done--we have a lot more power. This idea that young families like mine need to rough it out there alone, it's just bogus! I am so grateful to my mom for inviting us home--my bond to her was strengthened by this (and we hadn't always had an easy rapport!)

Did Dan or you get a full-time job now? Are you and your family still living at your mom's house? Please update us on your climb back to being back on your feet again. Also, any words of wisdom? I am kind of in your shoes, except I turned down several job offered just before the recession hit in September 2008 and had to take contracting work for now until I get back on my feet. It was and still is a very humbling experience. The toughest issue for me is after applying or contacting an employer about a job, what is healthy balance to following up about those positions? If you come back to frequently, you feel like you are being too pushy. If you don't follow-up enough, you feel like you are not being proactive or are being persistent enough.

I struggle with some of these same questions! In my field, being a freelance writer, you have to be pushy. But sometimes it can be too much and you turn people off. That said, I'm a terrier--I rarely take no for an answer. So, I suggest the same for you--swallow your pride. Also, the phone is always the best way to contact people. Email can be weird.

Dan is graduating from grad school this spring. Much of this journey is in my book, but he gets into graduate school and I sell my book about the recession--this success we finally had is in the book, too. When we sold the book we had $16 in the bank! Our lives were not magically fixed, but what happened is that I became suddenly--sort of laughably because it's not like writers make much on books these days--the primary wage earner of my family and Dan went back to school and starting being a full time Dad when I was working. So we had to invert our ideas of what we thought our lives would look like, you know?

Also, we do not live with my mom anymore. We live in a small apartment in Portland, Maine. But we live communally with our landlady downstairs and Dan's mom much more now that we ever would have--this is the lesson we learned about how to be in the world.

What advice do you have for working mothers who are being forced to make do with less money during this recession but forced to work longer hours? Are things like prepping meals, stretching ingredients to save money, etc. possible when you work 12+ hour days?

I think so. I also work long days. Bread can be made very easily--you can put the ingredients together and let it rise in the evening while you put your kids to bed or do the dishes and then bake it before bed. We make bread 2-3 times a week. Soak your beans overnight then cook them the next night BUT make enough for the whole week. Then also make a huge pot of rice. You can cook up beans and rice all week with a fried egg on top, some salad on the side, with some tortillas--you get the idea. Also, make soups on your weekends--big pots. Use beans--they're cheap and filling. Lentil soups and turkey chili are both in my book with recipes. And biscuits--I make the Fannie Farmer biscuits all the time. Pg. 544. They're easy, filling and great with eggs for breakfast and with soup later. Also they take no time!

Have you seen the documentary movie The Company Men? Your story sounds a lot like Ben Affleck's family in that movie. They survived by working together as a family and a community. However, in that movie, two other fired individuals and their families reacted differently then Ben's or your family (i.e., one committed suicide and the other was in the position to help others in need out by starting his own company).

You are so right! I have not seen it but I'm going to write it down RIGHT NOW to see if we can get it to see. Dan and I both wanted to see it and forgot about it with all my book craziness. Thank you for reminding me about it.

That said, as I say in my book people have lost a lot in this rcession--some even their lives. Many many people have not had a home to go back to as we did--with a mother whos arms were wide open to us (thanks Mom and happy Mother's Day!). The truth is about this recession that the greed of a few has made us all--the working people of this country--suffer. It makes me angry and it's devastating.

Why do you think there is shame associated with moving back in with your parents? In some cultures it is normal for multiple generations to live together. I wish that was the case in the US.

You are so right. This is what I learned. And, actually, we don't have to go too far back into the US history to know that many people of this country have also lived this way! we have this faulty notion that we need to be out there on the prairie with nary a neighbor in sight! This is just not true. As I learned from rereading the Little House books, Pa would sometimes walk 100 miles to help a "neighbor" sow his wheat and that neighbor would walk 100 miles back to help Pa. We need to live this way with our communities and our families--this is the message of my book.

I listened to your story on NPR, often as I was cooking dinner. I really felt that experience of listening to your story distilled the American dream for me: my family rooting for your family to make it and flourish. I hope your hard times are behind you now as you continue on your way. Our thoughts are with you.

Thank you so much for writing me this note! Really, it was listeners like you that got us through hard times! When my first piece aired on NPR, Americans from all over the country reached out to us offering us money, land, shots for our son, plane tickets and food. We didn't take anyone up on any of these things, but what we learned is that the heart of America is good. People all across this country offered us their homes to stay in on our long journey home--they didn't know what color we were, what our religion was or what our politics were. I recently met one of these people who had offered us a place to stay. She drove 2 hours each way to meet me in Florida. When she came up to me, we hugged and cried. If it hadn't been for her kind notes as we crossed America, we would have felt so alone. But what I learned is that we're here for each other--we just don't always know that.

There are so many unexpected events that could destroy career, lives, etc. I worked for a time in the inner city of Richmond. There are a couple of homeless shelters, but during the day they close for cleaning. So the homeless wander around the streets. One older woman would sit on the steps of a vacant building that I passed when I took a walk-break for lunch. I decided to talk with her, and learned just how easy an uncontrollable sequence of bad luck can play out. I was introduced to several veterans who suffered mental disorders that were obvious. They are stuck. No one will hire them. Even churches turn them away.

This is heartbreaking! We have no good solution in this country that gives people a real safety net. I recently met a family that, like mine, had traveled east from California. They were homeless: two little girls and their mother. I bought them some food that day. It breaks my heart the suffering many are enduring right now.

very good to have. easy to use. just throw it all in and it'll cook while you're at work...

Great idea! I don't have one, but I know people who do. Is it safe to leave on while you're gone?

You have an amazing resilience and you've found your blessings in hard times. I am terrified of experiencing what you did. My parents are dead, my ex-husband left the country and I am raising our daughter on my own. I have no safety net. You are so fortunate to have a loving mother--Happy Mother's Day to both of you.

Thank you! We are your safety net--your community. And now that we've met, I'm a part of that. Americans will help you--we have to start thinking that way--ask for help and HELP OUT! I'm here for you.

I'm sorry, but your life doesn't seem very pleasant to me. And I HATE beans.

What do you love to eat?

Hi Caitlin - I'm currently living in DC, and I have a job. It's not a great job, but it's at a prestigious institution and I have benefits (finally). But this is not home, and I don't feel like I'm thriving and I'd really like to go back to where I come from. I've been trying to get a job from afar, but no luck yet. At home, I have plenty of people to stay with, and a huge community who know me and love me, but fewer professional opportunities. My heart says move, my head says stay. What would you advise?

Follow your dreams. I know that sounds crazy, but for a time there Dan and I thought it was dangerous to dream. When we moved back home with mom into her tiny house in the big woods of Maine, dreams started to come back within reach because we felt safe and with our lives simple again, we had the space to dream.

Do you have your own garden? I ask because you have an outside photograph. Gardens are a good hobby, and also becoming a good way to supplement the food budget in these tough economic times.

I don't, alas! I live in Portland. Some day I hope Dan and I will have enough money to buy a house and have a garden--this is our dream. But both of my parents (divorced) have gardens and as I write in the book, I grew up with both of them growing most of what we ate! When we moved home with mom we grew the food for that whole season in her little garden!

Do you think you'll stay in Maine? I'd love to go back "home", but with jobs that are tied to the government, we'd have to telecommute or find new lines of work. I'm torn between the exciting life we have in the DC area, and the restful (some would say boring) life in the woods.

I know what you mean! I write in my book that Maine is more like a relative than a state--you can't ever let go of it fully. I love Maine and it will always be in my heart. I hope to live here forever, but I don't know what will happen next. Dan is looking for teaching jobs at universities all over the country, so who knows --we might need to pack back up again and go...somewhere!

It has been mentioned by several recruiters and job boards that some companies have a policy to not hire the under or unemployed. Care to comment? Considered this past recession, I think the public and politicians need to frown on this approach since I know several who lost there jobs, sometimes remaining unemployed for long stretches, for no fault of their own. To then have a negative perception by potential employers (some of whom layed off these individuals) seems unfair.

This fact just disgusts me. I have heard about this, too. That employers want to hire people who already have jobs. There are millions of people out there who are willing, ready and able. Like my own husband was. And to not give them a job because they're unemplyed--or in a job that's beneath them to put food on the table for thier family--it's just absurd. And heartbreaking.

Was there ever a point where you genuinely felt like there would be no way out? That things were just never going to get easier? & if so, how did over overcome those feelings?

Of course! If you read my book you'll see in the prologue we're already home with mom and I'm freaking out. I thought our lives would never come back into any kind of shape that made any sense to me.

What I learned was to be flexible. I had to be a new mom on the fly---changing diapers in the car, having my first child without a nursery all set up, without all that gear you're told you need...I just had to go with it.
 I truly believe that motherhood saved me during this time--I didn't go to LA to become a mom, I went for my career. But motherhood was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I would say to anyone: Be kind. Be gracious. Smile at everyone--really. It's amazingly affecting. Say thank you. And proceed with love. That's all you can do.

the reason to have it is that it cooks while you are gone!! (also, we have a bread maker - same thing, set it and forget it, no need to be there while it's working its magic).

Great ideas! Thanks for sharing!!!

Hey the little things in life become enriching and fun when you don't have much...I guess some people haven't gotten there yet. I think your life sounds better than one filled with meaningless objects.

I believe this wholeheartedly. This is the message of my book. Life is better with less!!!! We don't need all that crap we see on TV or the world is trying to make us buy. Consider all those huge box stores--we used to drive by them in LA--Target, Sam's Club, Walmart, Home Depot--they're all filled to the brim with stuff--junk, mostly--made in China. Do we need this stuff, really? What can we make ourselves? Why aren't we making our own things here in America? These are the questions that need to be asked. We can start answering it buy putting a patch on our kids' jeans rather than buying a new pair. Also buy used! For kids in particular!

I love that, thank you.

I love what you asked! Thank you for being a part of this discussion today and becoming a part of my community.

I love cheese. Hate, hate, hate beans. But what do you do up there in Maine? I've been to Portland. Nice place to visit, but I'm a Suburban DC girl.

I love cheese, too! I eat it on my homemade bread. Try to buy local cheese--really. Investing in our local communities strengthens our personal economy--this is proven. Portland is beautiful. As far as what I do--I'm a mom, I'm a writer, I make our food...walk my dog...hmmm....I'm pretty busy! What do you do?

Do you have a link to any upcoming book signings in the Portland area?

Come to my website at www.caitlinshetterly.com for signings. I'm signing books today at the Maine Magazine First Talk from 3:30-5:30. Also I'll be doing a few more events throughout Maine, New England and then heading west to LA this summer. If you want me to sign a book for you, though, I can always sign it and leave it at Longfellow Books if you're local.

My husband & I are going through a very rough time right now, pretty much with nobody to fall back on for help, & your book inspired me to keep my head up. You are a very inspiring person. I wish you all the best! <3

Thank you! You inspire me, too! And, listen, we can all get through tough times--just hang together. It's hard on marriages--believe me I know--when this stuff happens. But remember this is not your fault, it's not your husband's fault, it's just the fault of corporate greed and deep dsyfunction in this country. So be kind and loving to each other--you need each other. Remember how my book ends with a Townes Van Zandt song: If I needed you, would you come to me?

I love to read, but I buy my books on Amazon so I get them right away. I either pass them on to my (grown) kids or donate them to the library. I watch our sports teams on television (games are way too expensive to go to). I want to travel. I've been to England & to Paris. This year was going to be our Italy trip, but youngest daughter's first baby is due this summer, so Italy will wait. I go to granddaughter's soccer games. I'd go to the theater much more but it's SO expensive.

Theater is very expensive, it's true. It's too bad because I love theatre--and actors, I believe, are the most courageous of artists! BUT if you buy my book on Amazon, for instance, that helps me and it helps books in general--so I'm not anti-Amazon. Also, my book is on sale --7$ cheaper than other places--there which makes a difference to a lot of folks right now!


Dear NEW Friends,

This was really really fun. I loved your questions and I loved being a part of your day!! We made a little community for an hour which was lovely to do! Happy Mother's Day to all of you and I hope you have lovely weekends.

You can BUY my book here: http://www.amazon.com/Made-You-Me-Going-Finding/dp/1401341462/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1302829214&sr=8-1

If you’d like to connect with me and continue our dialogue I’d love to hear from you:
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/login/setashome.php?ref=login#!/pages/Caitlin-Shetterly-Author/276291072609
Twitter: authorcaitlin

Here's a video from my story: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9a1pVf1IzQk. If you like it, I hope that you'll share it this week in celebration of mothers like yours and mine.
Happy Mother’s Day!

Love, Caitlin.


In This Chat
Caitlin Shetterly
Caitlin Shetterly is the author of Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home and is a frequent contributor to National Public Radio.
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