I've been reading your column for years now, and love it. I'm hoping you can use your knack for getting to the heart of a matter to help me get a fresh perspective.
Where to begin.
About three years ago I married the love of my life. My husband and I have known each other 10 years. He is the kindest, funniest, most gentle man that I know. He is also my best friend, and always will be.
While I have a master's degree (granted, it's in a pretty useless liberal arts field), he has an associate's degree from a for-profit school. There has always been a big gap in the amount of money that we earn, but it has never bothered me.
Money was something neither of us have ever felt was that important. We make enough to get by. We buy our clothes at thrift stores, we share an older car, we live in a small apartment, and we go hiking and rent old movies for our entertainment. That always felt right to us.
Four months ago, we had a beautiful baby son.
After my son was born, I became desperate to become a stay-at-home mother. I suddenly realized that it would be nearly impossible for us to afford childcare. On top of this, it would also be impossible for me not to work, given my husband's salary, which is below the poverty line. My maternity leave has run out and I'm now back at work part-time. I have no idea how we're going to make ends meet. I adore my son beyond anything, but there are so many days that I wish we had never had him, because frankly, I don't think we can actually afford him. We do everything we can to cut costs. I feed him breast milk, not formula. We use cloth diapers I sewed myself. We rarely eat meat because of the cost.
What I am really struggling with isn't so much all this practical stuff. I don't know how it will all work out, but I can only trust that it will. What I need your help with is the extreme envy that I feel pooling in my chest and eating away at my happiness like some strong acid.
My sisters-in-law on both sides are able to stay home with their children. Their husbands earn large salaries at big corporations. They go on exotic vacations, they have new cars every few years, and they live in large homes in wealthy neighborhoods. Whenever we see them at family events, they are constantly talking about the great concerts and shows they've gone to see. The last time we saw them, one of my brothers-in-law mentioned going to see a famous stand-up comedian on his last tour. Later, my husband remarked to me that we'd wanted to see that same comedian, but couldn't afford the tickets.
I feel like before I had my son, the lifestyles of these other people didn't faze me. They had more than we did, but so what? We were happy. My husband abhors corporations and is not at all interested in working in the "rat race," which I used to deeply appreciate. After all, I feel the same way. We both knew we'd probably never be able to afford to buy a house, but we didn't care. We liked living in our little apartment near a college campus.
But ever since my son came along, I cannot stop envying these people. Their lives seem absolutely, perfectly wonderful in every way. While they get to stay home with their babies, I have to figure out a way to go to a job that I don't even like in the first place, and pay someone else to watch my child while I'm there. And then hope that at the end of the day, we can still pay our rent. Vacations are something we can only dream of. We will likely never be able to afford to buy a brand-new car. We will live paycheck to paycheck for, well, for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, I will miss out on my son while I have to go out and scratch just to put food on the table.
This focus on our plight versus the plight of others has overtaken me completely. I lie awake at night thinking about being one of the "have-nots." I cannot spend time with my relatives or my husband's without feeling like a complete loser who has failed at life and cannot provide properly for her son. It's gotten to the point that I pass people on the street and I imagine that they have lives of ease, effortlessly paying bills and looking toward a bright economic future, while we are teetering on the edge of homelessness. I have never told my husband this, but there were times after our son's birth that I would rock him in my arms and cry, telling him I was so sorry we didn't think hard enough before getting pregnant, and that he's been born into a family with a precarious financial outlook.
All this worry and total envy has me unable to enjoy the little things I used to treasure. I take my son to the park and instead of enjoying my time with him, I see other moms and immediately feel envious. Of course they have it better than I do. They must. Look at their stroller, I'll bet it cost twice what mine did, and I'll bet they didn't buy it used on Craigslist. I see my nieces and nephews and think that they will grow up better adjusted and happier because they live in houses, not tiny apartments, and they have moms that stay at home with them. I attend a postpartum depression support group once a week, and several of the moms there are stay-at-home mothers with husbands who make good money. Sometimes in my head, instead of sympathizing with them, I think, "How bad can they have it? They have husbands who make enough that they can stay home. Jeez."
This envy is turning me into a totally unhappy person that I don't even like. I feel like everywhere I turn, I see abundance, and when I turn inward, I see lack. It's eating away at me from the inside, and I don't know how to neutralize it.
How can I change my outlook and attitude? How do I stop feeling anger and resentment toward others for what they have that I don't? How do I relax and accept my lot, and enjoy the things that are mine?
Eaten by Envy
Dear Eaten by Envy,
I love this letter. It gets to the feelings. We talk about the economy but we don't talk so much about the feelings. My heart goes out to you.
I think the way you will stop feeling so much anger and resentment toward others for what they have and you do not will be to first acquire some gratitude for what you do have.
Make a list of all the things for which you are grateful. Make a long list. Include even silly things. Make a big long list and post it up somewhere where your husband can see it. Let him add to it. It doesn't have to be just things. You have lungs. Lungs are good. You could include them. You have fingernails too. Fingernails are essential to a happy life. You could include them. I'm serious. Get radically grateful. You may be wealthy before you are halfway through. Or maybe not. You may be angry too. That's not so bad. I'm pretty angry. But first you have to get happy before you can be angry in a useful way. That's one of the first lessons of protesting. If you're angry but unhappy you come off like an asshole. But if you are angry and also joyous you can move nations. The two are not exclusive. A joyous anger can come of knowing what's what. It helps to have lots of gratitude.
So make your long list of things you are grateful for. Do not forget your eyes. If they are in working order they count. And your hair. You may not think your hair is the greatest hair. But consider the indignity of being bald at your age. If having hair is better than being bald, then put your hair on the list too. Gather your things and look at them. Take them out and enjoy them. If you are grateful for your toes, take them out of your shoes and wiggle them. If there are books and records in the list, take them out and enjoy them. If there are favorite clothes on the list, take off the clothes you are wearing and put on your favorite clothes. If there is a favorite piece of jewelry or ornament, put that on. Have your husband do so as well. You don't have to go anywhere. Put on your favorite clothes and play with the baby. And do not forget to be grateful to your parents, even if you are mad at them.
Being grateful doesn't mean be passive. It means be strong. If you are feeling "less than," if you are pissed off and irritable then you are not as strong as you are when you are fulfilled yet passionately aware of inequities.
What has happened in our country is bad but you will not be able to work on the economy or on social justice while you are still so angry your teeth hurt.
It may be that this unhappiness is a call. Did you ever think of that? Maybe you are supposed to work on social justice. Your unhappiness can be useful to others. In that way, you can become grateful even for your unhappiness, because it led you to your right livelihood. In order to work in your right livelihood you first have to get healthy. So get some gratitude, get healthy and kick ass.
Then you will be able to work on getting more money. Which is certainly worth doing. There are many experts and much wisdom in that realm. You could start by reading "Your Money or Your Life," and "The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way."
This will take a while. Meanwhile also get angry. There's no harm in that. I still envy those who have more.
You and me both, huh?