keeping up with the jonesesBecause of some really stupid self-sabotage shit, my husband and I can no longer afford to build a home this summer. In fact, we can’t even buy a resale. We had been saving and planning for about a year, and somehow we still managed to fudge it all. We fought, we disagreed. Our sweet baby toddled around with no idea what was going on.

So it will be at least another year of renting while we attempt to grow the hell up. I thought I had come to terms with this. I had forgiven Shaun for his financial transgressions and he had forgiven me. We had, I thought, been able to see the big picture. We can still put food on the table, we’re not bankrupt, we still have lovesweetlove.

Then one night I darted awake at four in the morning. Baby was stirring at my side a bit, too. I don’t know if she woke me or if I woke her, but I was as alert as if someone had doused me in water. And I was angry. Enraged. Why, after a year of planning, did everything go down the drain? What did I do to deserve this? How could we, parents of a toddler, married adults of 27 and 36, possibly not have any savings to our names or own a house yet?

Baby woke up, so I took her into the living room and let her play around while I sat there and stewed. I journaled about it (well, word vomit pencil-ranted). I probably posted some kind of flustered incoherent status to Facebook. Then my husband woke up and, contrary to his often irritated middle-of-the-night persona, he said sweetly, “are you okay, honey?”

I couldn’t help but utter those two horrible, passive aggressive words: “I’m fine.”

Cue argument. Cue daughter clanging toys together and babbling spiritedly like we’re on vacation at Disneyland. As things escalated, I became more and more certain that my husband was a self-sabotaging ogre who actually wanted to destroy our family. I was so mad that I almost missed his very accurate comment: “You’re trying to keep up with the Joneses. Who are you comparing yourself to right now?”

My instinct was to refute it, but I was so exhausted that I actually stopped and thought about it. I listed a few people we know who are doing the whole life thing “by the books.” A few of these people were people three times my age, who had obviously had their whole lives to accumulate wealth and status. Somehow, the tables had turned, and Shaun had me thinking introspectively.

I told him that every time I envision my future or make an important decision, there are a few heads I imagine hovering above me. I won’t say who they are in case they happen to read this. But they’re like caricatures of their actual selves, and they’re telling me how irresponsible and immature I am. I imagine them gossiping with each other behind my back about how poor and uneducated and liberal and inappropriate and godless I am. What’s truly bizarre is that many of these faces are people I don’t see very often.

Even weirder is that some of them are imaginary. Representatives of unattainable things. There’s the super fashionable self-made millionaire mom who lives in a huge house and is still super involved with her kids and gives both time and money to her community. Or the super eccentric but famous and revered artistic mom who lives in a loft and doesn’t give a fuhhhhhck what anybody thinks of her. Who are these women and what did they do differently to deserve this bounty of awesome?

I told my husband all of this. He told me how ridiculous I sounded. Then, the practical stuff came up. I admitted that I was worried that our modest lifestyle does our daughter a disservice.

I never lived in an apartment when I was a child, and even though my parents struggled a little in the beginning, the childhood I actually remember was an upper middle-class one. By the time I graduated high school, we lived in a suburb of Chicago in a house valued at a million dollars. My childhood included a sister, and a pet, and vacations, and parents who could just run out and buy something when they needed or wanted it.

We have none of these things, and the kinds of careers we’ve chosen indicate that we may never have these things. This scares me, I said to Shaun. I don’t know if this is okay for our daughter.

“Look at her,” he demanded. “Is she happy?”

I hate it when he’s right.

We do need to take care of certain necessities, like health insurance and an emergency savings fund. But everything else is subjective, and it’s time for me to recognize it as such. Whether we pay rent or a mortgage means nothing to my daughter. She doesn’t care whether we buy our clothes new or secondhand, or if we hang on to gadgets rather than buying the latest technology.

There will come a time when she will recognize that some people are rich and some aren’t, and it’s my job to show her that money doesn’t guarantee happiness or strength of character. On the flip side, she must also know that having money doesn’t make someone a villain—and being poor isn’t necessarily virtuous. It just is what it is.

But first I must re-wire my own brain to believe that what the Joneses do is their own damn business, not mine.

(photo: kelttt / Shutterstock)