January and February brought unexpected medical bills, and due to a few technical difficulties, a lack of income upon which I had previously relied. This was not a welcome surprise, coming so quickly on the heels of Christmas. My kids never went hungry, though I personally was getting tired of creamed cauliflower (no it really doesn’t taste like potatoes).
During those months, I often thought about how when I was married, I would go to the store and throw anything in the cart I wanted — I rarely even acknowledged the total bill. These days, I shop at several stores, just to save twenty cents on cauliflower. Avocados…I can save almost a dollar, if I’m willing to buy them bright green and wait a few days before I can eat them.
I know there are marriages where both partners have equal say in the finances. This was not the case with mine. Sure, I could buy pretty much whatever I wanted, as long as it didn’t take me away from the house. Marathon fees and family vacations required extensive negotiation.
God and my husband (who were basically the same person) said that my job was to be at home with the kids. The refrain I heard most (like when I wanted to meet friends for coffee or go to a bible study) was, “Why can’t you be happy at home?”
As my marriage became unbearable, there was a point where I realized the financial ‘security’ was just a well-appointed prison. I had four children, a twelve year-old masters degree and no professional work experience — where the hell could I go?
People ask how I stayed in the marriage for over twenty years. Part of it was religion. I always believed God would fix things, or that God would change my spouse. But a big part was money. I simply could not support the kids on my own.
There is a sick feeling you get as a single mom, a nervousness on a molecular level, which stems from the knowledge you cannot pay rent or buy cereal for your own kids. It gives you migranes and insomnia and fatigue and acne and basically drains the joy from life. At first, I was hopeful, and I did manage to find work. But my income wouldn’t come close to covering our expenses— even if I worked ten hours a day.
However, if someone said they would pay me a hundred and twenty thousand dollars a year to re-marry my husband, there’s no way I would do it. A lifetime of misery is not worth being able to buy ripe avocados.
I know I am extremely lucky — despite leaving my husband, he has always supported us financially. But the reliance on that is something that eats away at me. As I get rejected for job after job, the finances hound me like a starving street dog. Sometimes, I get panic attacks from it — I wake up, my teeth grinding and heart pounding.
So, yesterday, when the insurance check came through, I was immediately relaxed. It wasn’t something I thought about — but the difference in my mood was so striking, my boyfriend commented on it.
Does money buy happiness?
Yes and no.
I feel so self-confident when I have work lined up that will pay rent. I am ecstatic when I can buy the kids new shoes when their old ones fall apart. I love it when the kids say, “I need five dollars for our school field trip,” and I don’t cringe.
But I can’t be sold back into slavery after such a narrow escape.
It leads me to the conclusion that financial independence affords a certain amount of happiness. I fantasize about the day I don’t have to worry about paying rent.
It is difficult coming of age at mid-life.
These are things I never thought about, because I always thought God and my husband would take care of me. That was part of our ultra-conservative religion. I was told everything we had was from God. We should be thankful to God for providing. But, newsflash: God doesn’t do the grocery shopping. He can’t babysit. He’s not a roomate who pays half the rent. He doesn’t wrap his arms around you when you cry.
My advice for girls and boys and people with good marriages and bad: become self-sufficient as soon as possible. Finish that college degree, even if you have to do it secretly online, or even if your spouse makes fun of you. Get a job — any job. Start at the bottom. Build your career. If you have kids, be sure you can support them if the worst should happen. If you want to stay home with the kids — do that, but work online or volunteer at their school — do whatever it takes to have something of your own. Most importantly, be financially independent before you even dream about getting married. Also: have dreams and pursue them — no matter what.
These are things I wish I had learned twenty-five years ago. I know it sounds naive, foolish, ignorant, stupid; and maybe most of you grew up learning these things — I didn’t.
But I’m learning this now in my typical style — the hard way.
My greatest hope (aside from writing best-selling novels) is that I can impart these lessons to my kids; so they can buy their own happiness.