One year ago, our family had barely hidden most of our moving boxes. We were paying two mortgages and enjoying a short breather in the mad rush of keeping our former home sufficiently kept up for showing. We had painted out the last of the bold colors that had garnered snarky remarks from house shoppers (a butter-yellow dining room and bubblegum pink laundry room were the final victims of the neutral paint). There was, for a month or two, no need to mow grass. We had not yet been invaded by birds or attacked by a massive hail storm.
The Christmas decorations had been put away, leaving corners and walls looking a little sad. School was in session. There were hints of drought, but only in the form of an unseasonably warm winter.
We were getting by. I guess that’s not too bad, in the grand scheme of things.
We were buried under too much credit card debt (too much for our own personal preferences, anyway, though it was a number that seems lower than many “average” credit card debt figures I see online). We were paying too much for a school where both of our children were struggling (despite both being well above average in intellect). Though were certainly paying our bills on time, we had almost nothing leftover for unexpected expenses, let alone niceties. We were frugal with extras for the kids, slow in signing them up for school activities, cringed every time they got a birthday party invitation. We shopped every grocery sale, cutting back on nicer items like steaks and alcohol, focusing on sandwiches and other low-cost foods.
I was stressed out and frustrated everywhere I turned. The house needed a few things (like a patio, and bedroom furniture, and some area rugs), but I had no money to make any of that happen. Lots of ideas, no way to implement them. I had finally achieved one of my lifetime goals—to publish a novel. But instead of basking in the fun of promoting a new book, I had no money to spend on a few basic items for giveaways or inexpensive advertisements. And I was published through a small press and digital-first, and really tired of other writers either rolling their eyes at the situation (after all, I hadn’t received an advance and wasn’t with a well-known press, didn’t have a print run, etc). I was tired of explaining to non-writers that I had an e-book and there were no print copies available. And really tired of folks asking me if that was a picture of me on the cover, or if the story was about me and my husband (its Fiction! Fiction means make-believe! Really! My real-life love story would put a reader to sleep because it is so wonderfully normal and boring).
I had too many people wanting too many things from me, and no one ever seemed happy with anything I did. My book wasn’t good enough, wasn’t legitimate enough, wasn’t promoted enough. The day job was full of conflicts. The new house felt unfinished. No one wanted the old house. My youngest was acting out in school and not listening (we were just learning that he couldn’t pass a hearing test, so “listening” was not his problem—“hearing” was), my oldest thought she was no good at math because she had bad handwriting and a messy desk (!). And all of our spare time was spent cleaning, painting, sprucing the old house, or else working extra hours to pay for its mortgage. There was no money in the budget for hiring a babysitter so my husband and I could have some much-needed adult time (nor was there money for a dinner out even if we had a babysitter).
I should have been feeling great about myself. New house, fancy school, beautiful kids, two blossoming careers of my own, a scout leader.
Instead I just wanted to crawl under a rock and hide.
If you are wondering what that kind of stress does to a person, well, if the person in question is a writer, it stops her from writing. I barely wrote a handful of pages for nearly a year. I mostly quit blogging (here, at my writing blog, or at my cooking blog). For the family, it made us yell. A lot. (I’m sure that didn’t help with our kids’ self-esteem or behavioral issues).
In some ways, it was good for us. We ate at home together. We got in the habit of having family movie nights (pulling from our collection of DVD’s or a free on-demand movie on TV). We found low-cost ways to play together (and I scrounged a lot of coupons for things like trips to the movie theater). We didn’t shop so much, and we all worked on fiscal responsibility. We appreciated how lucky we were (we weren’t “poor”—poor people don’t own two houses and attend private schools!). My husband and I grew closer, if you can believe it. Sometimes I think stress can drive a couple apart because of hurt and blame. But we both realized that we weren’t blaming each other, and that the way out of the stress was to work together and not against each other. We had to re-assure each other of that frequently.
After way too much time and effort and stress, we finally sold the house in November. No, the house was not the sole source of our stress. But it was the most visible sign of it. Getting it off our minds (and off our budget) brought a huge sense of relief, though it wasn’t really the first change that happened. First, We moved our kids from a more expensive private school to a more local parish school to save money, driving time, and sanity. While the youngest still struggles with sitting still and listening to directions, he has come a long way. My oldest was recently disappointed at her lowest grade—a 94%. My husband’s job situation both improved and stabilized. Then came the sale.
We have regained money, and time, and sanity. My day job has now shifted a little to one that allows me to occasionally work from home (helpful for managing the frequent school breaks and for squeezing in enough hours around the family schedule). I have actually been writing! (finishing one short work and most of another novel-length one, plus looking at my options for getting more of my work published) We started going out to eat again. We are starting to finish some of the unfinished work on the new house—buying some furniture, thinking about landscape plans, putting up decorations (like we intend to stay in the house for a while). We are even evaluating hiring out lawn care and house cleaning so that we can spend our after-work time on things like homework, soccer practice, and actual relaxation.
This year I hope for peace. I hope for a return to normalcy, whatever the new normal is for us. I hope to laugh more and smile more. I hope to help my children laugh more and smile more. I hope to be able to really enjoy my new job, really enjoy the writing and publishing process. And I hope I don’t need to move again for a long, long time.