on money, lots of it or a lack thereof

It was a glorious mid-September afternoon, and I was in the football stadium at my alma mater with a half dozen of my girlfriends. Our friendships span twenty-two years, and we had spent the morning tailgating with people we had known just as long – it was our annual tailgate and football game with everyone from the second floor of our freshman dorm.

Several of us had seats together for the game, which got off to a terrible start and only grew worse as the time passed. It didn’t particularly matter, though (okay, maybe it mattered a little bit)…and we chatted idly, mellow from the early morning, beer and the warm autumn sunshine.  And in that moment, sitting in the middle of the nosebleed section in the middle of a Big Ten stadium, wearing nothing more than a college t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, a wave of profound gratitude washed over me. This time, last year, if I went to a university football game it distinctly mattered what I wore. I learned quickly after my husband took his fancy new job that women of a certain age and means considered what they wore while occupying box seats at a football game, and what they wore didn’t include sweatshirts, jeans and sneakers. Instead, I had to think in terms of blazers and coordinating blouses, slacks and sometimes even high heels. This was particularly difficult for me because I hadn’t previously cultivated a life where this kind of fashion was necessary, and I was also, for the time being, a stay-at-home mom who had to wrangle two young kids from the house to the game as well.  I did it though, just like I posed for magazine photo shoots and attended faculty dinners, once even when I was recovering from acute food poisoning, just like I tried to tame my hair and do my nails and be the wife I was supposed to be in our new situation.

I didn’t really mind any of it. While this sort of activity wasn’t an innate reflection of who I am, I have always supported my husband’s career, and I am practical enough to recognize the importance, when you are part of a couple, to showing up. There is a reason the term “power couple” is as ubiquitous as it is, and it would be disingenuous to pretend I never referred to my husband’s position or career when doing so seemed like it could benefit us both.

But oh, to be free of it! To go to a sporting event dressed in jeans and sneakers – to curl up on the couch with my kids on a Friday night with a bowl of popcorn and takeout pizza instead of worrying about getting my hair blown out and my nails done for a dinner party – it’s bliss.

I’ve read over and over again that having money correlates to your overall happiness only in that, after your basic needs are met, having a similar amount to your peer group helps with happiness.  When we lived in the city, we earned the same general amount of money as our friends – more than some, less than others, but generally participated in the same range of activities and faced the same financial struggles (paying for daycare and making student loan payments, primarily). We could easily participate in potluck dinner parties, the occasional, fancier, dinner out, movies and theater and the odd sporting event.

When we moved, our income skyrocketed, which should have led to pretty quick financial freedom. We were on our way, and probably would have achieved it if my husband had been able to continue working, but I was surprised at the same time how many demands come with elevated income.  The Midwest town we moved to has very definitive ideas of what constitutes a good neighborhood, and it was important to live and be seen in one of the so-called good neighborhoods. Good neighborhoods, it turns out, have expensive housing.  So we moved into an expensive rental house and the best thing that could be said about that is it was close to S’s work place.

Everything about this house, and I mean everything, cost more money, from the electricity it required to the amount of water we used to the lawn care team we were required to keep, per the rental agreement. I quickly began to understand how household management could become a second career or even, really, a career in itself.  And I found absolutely all of it brain-deadening, except for the bills, which I found horrifying. Back when we lived in the city, I used to joke that I didn’t need any more money, I just needed thousand-dollar problems to stop occurring. As it turns out, thousand-dollar problems rarely stop occurring, so it’s how you manage the promotions and advances in life to guard against them that really count.

In the entirety of my life, I have had true financial security for the six or seven months after we left the city. But I had emotional security for the entirety of growing up, and half of my marriage. The second half of my marriage was rocked by my husband’s addiction, and my own co-dependency and enabling. I am preparing to return to the home we own (a more modest version of our rental, in the same “good” neighborhood) and my kids and I will be living a modest life, defined at least in the next few years by reducing debt, reestablishing our savings for retirement and college and positioning ourselves for a successful future. We will be clipping coupons and putting on sweaters instead of turning up the heat; when we go to sporting events, we’ll be in the nosebleed section most of the time.  We have enough money for what we need, and more than enough love to spread around

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vagabond-ish

The one aspect of Facebook I’ve really struggled with since separating from my husband is the TimeHop feature.  Every couple of days or so, Facebook will remind me of a photo or update from a happier – or at least more stable – time.  Most of the time these reminders don’t bother me, although I can’t imagine how I would handle them if I were suffering from something more damaging, like the loss of a child or parent.  The other day, however, Facebook provided me with a photo of my daughter, age three at the time, helping me make an apple cake in anticipation of her grandparents’ extended visit. The photo provided a full view of my much-loved kitchen in our first home, and my heart shattered.

For eleven years, I lived in a city far enough away from where I grew up that everyone in my Michigan family considered me as living “out East” while those who lived in proper eastern cities like Boston and Philadelphia considered me a Midwesterner. Neither one was particularly accurate. I loved almost everything about city living, from our rambling old Victorian home to the museums to the ability to grab Thai food and see a movie whenever I desired. I lived in a city of rivers, bridges, steel and light and I had friends – so many friends! My babies were born in city hospitals and from the time they were wee babes I took them on the best kind of walks – journeys through old cemeteries and down the hill to our neighborhood farmer’s market – around the park to the corner Italian groceria, where my daughter learned to ask for her salami “sliced thin,  please.” We rode the bus short distances to see impressive dinosaur displays at the natural history museum and immersed ourselves in interactive children’s theater performances. It was wonderful.

S., however, had a love-hate-hate relationship with city living. I think he wanted to like it, and occasionally he was able to embrace it, but for the most part he found the traffic jarring, the politics infuriating and the neighborhood we lived in – which was borderline when we moved and gentrifying by the time we left – unnerving. Once we had children, he and my in-laws and my parents all considered our neighborhood inappropriate for small children,  and I think it is this disparity that separates me from so many people.  They all viewed our small yard as completely unacceptable for children to play in long-term, the different characters who walked past our front yard to the bus stop each day as threats instead people. And it’s true that while we lived there we couldn’t let our children run loose in the front yard, and the backyard was so small it almost didn’t deserve the name, and there was the occasional drug deal on our street, but I remember thinking our fantastic park system was more than sufficient to make up for lack of a yard, and that our close-knit community served as a better neighborhood lookout than a secured homeowner’s association ever could.

Always antsy and uncomfortable in the city, S. was constantly searching for the right opportunity to justify leaving, and about 15 months ago, he found it. A job description that seemed tailored to his exact skill set, solidly in the Midwest – when I read it I told him he would be crazy not to apply.  We knew we would make money on our home when we sold it, and while I didn’t agree with his points about our yard and the neighborhood’s safety, I found negotiating the city school issues extraordinarily complex and was routinely worried that our kids would end up in a pretty awful education situation. Beyond that concern, this position would bring me closer to my family. While it broke my heart to consider leaving the city, I also knew that if I were unhappy where we lived, S. would move for me.  On paper it was the right move at the right time, and while I would certainly make a different decision if I could, knowing what I know now, I felt informed and confident in our choice.

I was, of course, aware of S.’s dependence on alcohol at the time – I had been for years.  At that point I had already threatened to leave once and he had sought help in response.  The help didn’t last but I wasn’t able to recognize it as the beginning of the addiction/co-dependency/enabling roller coaster that it was about to become.

The move itself was nothing short of disastrous. From the time we relocated it seems like not a day went right. We were confronted by obstacles large and small, from our dog falling critically ill to a woman sideswiping my car while I was driving the kids to two months of bronchitis for me – it felt like the city we moved to was determined to undermine and ruin our decision at every turn. In the novel 11.22.63, Stephen King creates the past that his hero returns to as this living, breathing, tangible thing, resistant to change and able to push back and place obstacles to prevent change. Our move felt very much like this – I am not sure there could have been more signs that the kids and I at least should run screaming back to the city. But real life isn’t science fiction and great credence is given to following through on decisions, and so we stayed, and it was there that everything fell irrevocably and terribly apart.

During this time, we had a terrific struggle securing housing. It wasn’t for lack of money – as it turns out, money really can’t do everything. So we moved from an apartment, to a rental house, back to an apartment, and then to the home we purchased, where the kids and I stayed for less than a month before our home life became so unstable we had to move in with my parents. I was able shortly thereafter to rent a different home for us, and now it is more than likely we will return, for what I hope is the final move, to our purchased home in the middle of the rust belt and really begin the process of moving the fuck onward.

I have, through all of this, kept up two parallel lines of thought. When I am mentally bemoaning our situation, the vagabond-ish way my kids and I have had to live, I also feel absurdly lucky and blessed – blessed to have family I can – and did- live with when I needed to, a job that allowed me a grace period to work remotely – and all the resources an advanced university education and strong family network provide. It has never been lost on me that hundreds of thousands of women go through what I am every year with far fewer resources and I have no idea how they do it.  When the kids and I are more fully back on our feet, hopefully in January of this year, I am going to make it part of my life’s work to find a way to help these women.

I came across this silly little quote on Pinterest awhile back – I was an avid collector of quotes as a child and something about the way Pinterest allows me to approximate that appeals to me now. The quote simply said grow where you are planted. Over the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time mourning the life we had in the city, undoubtedly revising reality at times. At this point in my life it would be utterly irresponsible to return but I also can’t stay up near my parents forever – there are very few opportunities and those that do exist rightfully go to people who have put in the time up here.

My great hope is that this is the last move for my children for a good long while. We’ve received so much love and support that my entire concept of home has changed – we have been fortunate to find home in the arms and support of others – but it’s time to make it more concrete, more real.  My life looks nothing like I thought it would this time last year, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be good, or even better than, before.