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Fighting for a collective "we"

By Laura Camp

I recently saw Michael Moore's new film, Sicko. Overall, I thought it was a great documentary -- the personal stories were predictably touching, and at points I laughed so hard I literally cried, which was fun. But mostly I walked away from the film with a serious intent to discuss with my husband the possibility of moving our family out of the country.

Moore dedicates a good portion of his documentary to the health care benefits offered to all citizens in countries such as Canada, England and France, each who have universal programs in place. But as tempting as "free" health care is to a person such as myself -- whose family is covered, yet the monthly premiums are steep and the coverage is spotty at best -- it was some of the other social benefits listed that truly made me stop and think: Does life really need to be quite as difficult as our capitalist system increasingly makes it?

For instance, in England maternity leave is six months long -- paid! -- and you can get even more unpaid leave if you so desire. According to Moore's film, not only does France also furnish this to all its citizens, but they actually provide a government-sponsored nanny for a few hours a couple times a week so mom can get a break! When I gave birth to my first child, I didn't get any paid leave, not one day. My mom was able to get enough vacation time to help out for a couple of weeks, but after that my husband and I were on our own. No one really cared whether I was overwhelmed, or overtired, or needed a break.

And so by the time my son was four weeks old and our carefully saved "maternity-leave fund" had run out, I was back full steam, caring for a colicky infant who never, ever slept and working twenty-five hours a week to help pay for health care premiums that ran over five hundred dollars a month, as well as a hospital bill inflated by deductibles and coinsurance charges. My boss -- who offered no health insurance, no maternity leave and no sick days when I was working full-time -- did allow me to telecommute from my home. But editing for a living is deadline-oriented, detailed work, and didn't always mesh so well with my other life, the one with the month-old baby who, more times than not, spent the greater part of the night screaming. With how little I made, I couldn't afford to pay daycare rates. I remember there were days when I clocked in and out on my time sheet in fifteen-minute increments -- it would take me all day to get the five hours I needed. And money was tight -- no matter how tired I was, I had no choice but to press on. We had no family nearby to help us, and my husband's time was split between his full-time job, various business ventures and the constant repair demanded by a trailer that was falling apart around us.

Six years and another child later, it's definitely gotten easier. We live in a house now, with heat that works and a roof that doesn't leak. I still work from home with no daycare help, but as the kids get older and have started to attend school, that's getting to be much more manageable. We always seem to have enough money to pay our bills, though our health insurance costs rise every year as our coverage gets thinner and thinner. But it is exhausting, both of us working and trying to raise our two wonderful kids. And when I saw this film, it occurred to me: Maybe what I've come to believe is wrong. Maybe life's not meant to be this hard.  Perhaps there is something better than the "American way."

In discussing a topic such as universal healthcare and socialized benefits, it would not be difficult to segue here into the many much-revisited Democrat-Republican debates, such as what pro-family really means, and whose morals are intact, and what fiscal approach best serves the people. But I think we need to look beyond the political landscape here. I believe a large part of the problem strikes a little deeper to the center of who we are as Americans. How do we really configure the idea of government help -- or any kind of help -- at the core of our ideals as a people? Does asking for help when we need it make us weak? Needy? And are we really willing to help others down on their luck -- those whom we might perceive haven't worked as hard as we have to ensure their own economic security?

Like many I know, I was raised to believe that hard work was good, that it built character, that it defined who we are. "The struggle" is something to be proud of -- shame lies only in asking for help. But no one ever talked to me about what that struggle might feel like, how my husband and I would barely have the strength to speak to each other at the end of the day, how I wouldn't always feel like I had the time to wipe away my children's tears the way I knew they needed me to, how one day I would wake up so exhausted, I wouldn't really know who I was anymore.

Needless to say, my husband and I aren't moving to Paris anytime soon. Our ties to our families are just too strong and we really do love the little mountain town we are raising our family in. So it would seem that, by choice of geopolitical boundaries, we are stuck -- stuck living under a government that cares very little for our family by way of our health or our sanity. If I start thinking about this, really thinking about it, I begin to feel really alone. I begin to feel that despite the safety nets of welfare and food stamps and so on that our culture provides, if I want to be successful in this life, if I want to be proud, then it's really up to me (and my husband, of course) whether I and by extension my family make it in this world. Mentally, this is truly a lonely place to be.

Michael Moore talks rather insightfully toward the end of his film about the "we" versus the "I," and how it is these other countries' emphasis on the "we" that has let to the development of such supportive universal systems. It isn't really for free, after all. Everyone pays in to a bigger pot -- by way of taxes -- so that even the poorest get decent healthcare and services. I can't change that this country's government focuses so strongly on the "I." But I can change how I and my friends and neighbors configure our own "I" versus "we."

So, no, I can't take my child to the doctor for "free" anytime I want. But I can offer to watch an overwhelmed neighbor's kids while she takes a nap, or paints her toenails, or does whatever brings her to center. My friend may not get six months of paid maternity leave, but my friends and I can all bring her meals to save her family from having to cook for a week or two. We may all be paying exorbitant amounts for health care premiums and so on, but we can pass along clothes or pick up a pretty lavender backpack at a garage sale for a friend's daughter who's about to start kindergarten. And I and my family can graciously accept these acts of love in return, when it's our turn to feel overwhelmed by life.

So I can build this circle within my community -- not a circle that excludes but one that encloses anyone who wants to share their load. The thing is, our government may not care about us, and that is disheartening. But we can turn our backs on despair, turn away from the selfish role models so much of capitalism provides, and begin to care, really care for each other.

Throughout time, people have always carried the wisdom that sharing the work eases the load on everyone. What if we all went out there every day and consciously asked ourselves, "What can I do to help? Who's struggling a bit today? Is there something I can do?" Because what might be small and insignificant to us may be extraordinarily helpful in someone else's life. And as fellow mothers and fathers in this country, we're all we have, and we should never, ever feel alone.

Some people choose to protest the inequities of our society on the street, through lobbies and letters and political campaigns. For me, busy raising two kids and working, all that is beyond what I'm capable of right now. But I too choose not to remain silent. I am forming my own protest. Right here, in my own little space, I am striving to live what hope one day our country will be -- a place where I am part of a collective "we," all working together for the betterment of all.

Mmo : November 2007

Laura Camp lives with her husband, son and daughter in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she edits for a living. She can be reached at lauracamp2@yahoo.com.
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