I spent time with old friends over the holiday weekend earlier this month, and they are both in the early stages of house hunting and preparing for a move. We talked a lot about houses and family life and why we make the choices we do to live as we choose to. Money is always the determining factor on this decision, of course. But I think within family budgets there’s always the question of just how much you want to devote to housing. And within the perimeters of each home, we choose what sort of things we want to surround ourselves with. Our conversation got me thinking about the choices and routines that make a house a home and how those things can differ for everyone.
I think one of the perks of single motherhood – if I am allowed to say that or “allowed” to see a silver lining here – is that you get to set the tone of the house on your own. You don’t have to ask someone else’s permission or opinion on decorative or practical choices. It’s something I didn’t expect to feel so liberating, but as I settle into our house and roots are beginning to grow five months after our move, I see how monumental this is to me as a mother in this chapter of my life. I can create the reality around me with intention and purpose without asking someone else – or the rest of society for that matter – what I’m “supposed” to do.
I was recently reading The Gifts of Imperfection (as I wrote about recently), and in that book, Brene Brown has a chapter on the importance of creativity. She reflects on her own childhood and sees it in retrospect as two distinct chapters: one with her family on a limited budget with her father in law school when they lived in New Orleans in a tiny duplex and the other when they graduated to a new lifestyle in Houston. I was struck so much by the simple description she gives that details how she remembers it through a child’s eyes. “In New Orleans, every wall was covered in art done by my mom or a relative or us kids… In Houston, I remember walking into some of my new neighbors’ houses and thinking that their living rooms looked like the lobby of a fancy hotel .. My parents were launched on that accomplishments-and-acquisitions track, and creativity gave way to the stifling combination of fitting in and being better than, also known as comparison.” Her description is much longer and more detailed as she explains the safety and comfort and encouragement she felt in the tiny New Orleans home (as her parents no doubt scraped together what little funds they had) and the more hollow feeling she absorbed in the Houston community when she was given a message to compete with others by striving for that shiny, unattainable perfection.
I’ve written a lot lately about how the comparison trap is losing it’s power over me as my life situation is not the “norm” anymore. The striving for a combination of fitting in and being better than? Not happening over here. In part because I’ve learned that comparison means nothing and you can turn yourself inside out to be as close to perfect as you can muster and someone will still deem you not good enough. And partly because I have broken the mold anyway. I know that I had the pressure before to create the pristine coordinated hotel lobby within my own house, and that pressure was coming from both outside my home and inside it as my partner wanted that life and prioritizes it so intensely. Like so many other things in my life, I didn’t realize the extent to which it was drowning me until I unloaded that weight from my back.
When I began reading blogs regularly, about five years ago as I was a stay-at-home mom, I stumbled on so many sites that detail how to create perfection in your home and what routines or purchases can achieve that for you. I now understand that it’s not that simple. Different things work for different people, and you have to decide what matters most to you and what routines bring the most comfort or benefit to your home. And the same goes for aesthetic choices. Like everyone else, I want my home to look nice. But I am beginning to see the difference between wanting it to look like a magazine because other people like that and wanting it to look like we live here – reflections of our own tastes and our own personalities in every room.
I’ve surprised myself at how quickly our home is feeling worn and comfortable, how these walls are already beginning to absorb and reflect the essence of my little family of three. The kids’ complete disregard for the “downgrade” in the size and newness and price of our home earlier this year speaks volumes. Much like the description that Brown remembers in her recollections, my kids clearly crave support and connection and space to feel a sense of belonging and a place to be creative. The rest is not important to them. It’s inspiring really. And a good reminder to parents and all the “grown-ups” in the world that the rest of it doesn’t matter. We are definitely not a shiny catalog over here, but it’s home to us.
Our house is busy and full of energy, and half the time it is also full of neighbor kids who run in and out as often as they can. The moment we walk in the door from school, my two are asking if they can head through the backyard to see what the neighbor kids are up to. Before long, they are into something here or somewhere else. Always imagining and always talking and always at play.
Jude woke up in the middle of the night last week and told me in a panicked tone that he had a bad dream. I did the usual shhhh and back rubs and asked him what happened so that I could soothe fears of imaginary monsters or catastrophes. He replied that “We were at the playground, and we came back home, and another family bought this house! They were living here! We had to leave!” It cracked me up. That was his nightmare. That I sold this house to another perfectly normal family.
And it is never exactly spotless in this house except for that one moment just before the kids come back from their dad’s house when I’ve had a day or two to catch up. But it never lasts long, and as soon as I’ve got them under my feet again, we just do the best we can. Each parent has her own routines that speak to her priorities. For me, food on the table and clean laundry in the drawers are the only demands I make of myself during the week. Beyond that it doesn’t happen, but I am okay with it. Bathroom counters are cluttered, and toys are strewn in the playroom a bit. But it’s lived in, and to me that feels better than a showroom. I want my kids to have memories of real life here. Moments when we are doing nothing at all or we are doing all the little things that regular life brings. No special agenda. Life moments as they happen in a house with two kids under six.
I make my bed before I leave each morning even if there’s clutter elsewhere. (It’s another routine that is a personal quirk and makes me feel better.) But by evening, it is crumpled as all three of us have piled on it to read and talk, and usually the dog joins us. This is my favorite part of the day. It might be a bedtime stalling technique, but it is definitely when Jude shares the most about his day and the details of school. We talk, all three of us, and even the most hectic of days can slow its pace a bit in that half hour or so before I turn the lights out and tell them to go to bed. The master bedroom in this house is ridiculously large, and it is sparse given that I don’t even have a headboard at this point. I’ve slowly added a lamp, an Ikea side table, repurposed some curtains from elsewhere. It feels like a safe spot despite the sprawling unused space. It’s lived in and comfortable.
I am fortunate that I was able to maintain a house in the town we were already residing in, with good schools and few worries about safety or peer groups for my kids. I am fortunate that I could purchase a house only ten years old with ample room for all of us. I understand this, and I can say with honesty that financial support from their father, combined with my own income, makes this possible (as it should, given that they are his children and we had a nearly ten-year marriage wherein I supported his demanding career). I don’t want to be dishonest in misrepresenting that, and I acknowledge that my situation is entirely different from single mothers who are given no financial support at all.
That said, I am still raising two kids in the suburbs on an income that is just enough to make this happen. And though I can’t spend money at whim, I am seeing value in this chapter and this lesson it is granting me. We live with so much more, on the whole, than what we truly need. We buy things to fill holes that can’t be filled with things. We see our worth in these material things, and I am not immune to this. It’s a lesson I am learning still. I am always asking myself why I want to buy something – if it is a want or a need. And if it’s a want, there is no shame in that, but I look honestly at why I want it. If we are honest with ourselves, the reasons are sometimes uncomfortable to admit. My restricted income has narrowed my purchases to only include things I really need or things I feel a connection to that I save for and consider for a while before buying them. It’s resulted in a home full of things I really love.
Necessity is the mother of invention, I hear. I am not at a place where I can spend volumes on making this house look like a magazine. But I’ve made conscious choices to do things with purpose and intention around here and create a space where my kids feel safe and valued and I feel inspired. I decided that a coat of paint that is far from professional but done is better than not done at all for fear of imperfection. I’ve asked the kids to weigh in on things along the way – what do you want here? do you like this color? what toys do you want to keep that you like to play with most? I want our home to be a place that continues to inspire them and make their friends want to gather here. A place that reflects who we are and also what we want to be.
I am human, and I look around and see so many things i want to replace or improve or touch up. My summer plants are waning, and the pine straw needs to be replaced outside. I have probably at most another two years left before I need to shell out money for a new exterior paint job. Sun has faded my wicker furniture and dried it out to chip away the paint, so I need to refresh that with the start of a new season. I still haven’t hung shelves in their bedrooms as I said I would. There are broken blinds that need to be replaced and curtain-less windows crying for attention. The table where we eat is old and scratched with stained upholstery. But I’m finding my kids don’t care at all. Not about any of these details. All they see is home and mom and friends and all the familiar comforts that come from belonging somewhere. We are making memories here. Special occasions and everyday moments.
I have moved three times in the past eight years. I am tired of it. Each time I move, I think this is it – this is where we are staying. But obviously it hasn’t turned out that way. This time, I don’t even know how long I will be here or if I will leave or what this house will be in my life path. I have no plan. Every day I wake up and do what needs to be done to keep the fires burning, so to speak. Mortgage paid, trash taken out, laundry done, school lunch packed, papers filed away, kids dressed, food on the table. I have no grand plan.
But as I wrote about earlier this summer, it’s liberating in ways. All that matters is here and now, and I scrape by with the routines that work for me and that grant us comfort and make us feel safe and cared for. I’m not sure where the story leads, but I know that home is where is starts, and this place is starting to feel pretty special. I look around and all I see is abundance – pictures on the wall, crayon art cluttering the fridge, plenty of food on the table, little voices always chattering. All I need is here and now.