Straight Outta Good Housekeeping

This Sunday my son and I went to a “play date” at one of his friends’ houses from school. I put “play date” in quotation marks because three other families also came and the hosts had out a full spread, plus they ordered pizza.

This family lives in a nice neighborhood. It’s actually the neighborhood where my daughter’s school is located, but very few of the local families send their kids to her school, opting for “better” (::cough:: whiter ::cough::) schools in other parts of the city. This neighborhood has been popular for a while, but in the past ten years has seen a massive increase in interest and now houses on this specific hill sell for insane amounts.

This family’s house was beautiful. The whole thing looked recently remodeled, with sleek, clean stainless steel and marble lines against shiny, dark hardwood floors. Their back patio sported gorgeous stone floors, surrounded by an unblemished, stained fence, a corner couch (big enough for ten!) AND A FIRE PIT! The walls were adorned with legitimate art pieces, and each room boasted a recognizable color scheme. The house was immaculate. And so, so beautiful.

And again I felt that familiar green eyed monster, peaking out from behind my eyes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why I get so envious of people with beautiful houses, especially when they are in desirable neighborhoods. Whenever I get bitten by that pesky, green beast, I spend a few days thinking about why I’m so jealous of what people have. Jealousy is an ugly emotions, but it can teach us a lot about ourselves.

I mean obviously, I would love to have an amazing, beautiful, house. And I would love to live in a funky, hip neighborhood with a bustling “main street” and palpable sense of community. I mean my house is okay, it might even be nice at some point, when the broken shit gets fixed. And my neighborhood is okay. Sure there is constantly trash flying everywhere, and the hum of the nearby freeway is constant, but it’s easy to get to work from where I live, and I love that.

It’s not just the “idea” of the beautiful house and the coveted location. It’s all the things I imagine someone feels when they live in such a house, in such a neighborhood. Surely those people must be happy, gloriously so. Surely they are happier than I am.

In my mind, only one kind of person can live in a house that looks like it materialized from the pages of Good Housekeeping, in a neighborhood that gets written up constantly as one of the cities foremost destinations. That person has arrived. They have money, and lots of it. They have professional success (that’s where the money came from). They are well-liked (probably because of all the get-togethers they host). They have arrived, as it were, at the life they wanted for themselves. They aren’t living in a “good enough” house, in a decent neighborhood, just thankful they could stay in the city. They are living in the gorgeous house, in the neighborhood people would literally spend millions to call home. They have ended up exactly where they always wanted to be.

But my assumptions run even deeper. I assume that when you live in a house like that, you are content. There is no reason to doubt your success because you reside in its very embodiment. Your whole life is proof that you’ve arrived. Everywhere you look, what you’ve achieved is around you.

People in houses like that, have lives that match. Beautiful, happy lives, that are lived with intention. People in houses like that have a lot of friends, and make home cooked meals, and keep everything organized, and never feel overwhelmed. How could you feel stressed in a kitchen like that?

Of course, when I follow the bread crumbs down that rabbit hole, I recognize how ridiculous it all is. One cannot assume happiness, nor be certain of how others perceive their own success just by glancing around where they live. The idea is preposterous. And when I am honest with myself about my preconceived notions, I recognize how ridiculous it is.

I also am brought face to face with my own personal demons, the ones that tell me I’ll never feel I’ve arrived, that insist I will always want something more (like a kitchen remodel) and never be able to achieve it. And then another part of me chides the former for even wanting a remodel because we don’t NEED a new kitchen (or a master bedroom downstairs, or even a second bathroom), and I should be grateful for what I have and content to continue having it.

I am brought face to face with the fear that I will never feel financially secure, that a part of me will always be waiting for the bottom to fall out, that someday we may not have the money we need to make the required repairs.

That at its very core, my life will be forced by reaction, not shepherded by intention.

I want to feel like we have enough, that we will have enough. I want my attitude to embrace enough, because certainly we have already achieved it. I want to look around my house and see all that we have, not everything that we could make better.

And most of the time I do see what I have. I am in awe of it. Really. Lately, as I’ve come across more and more personal tragedy, I am reminded of how little I’ve suffered, how incredibly lucky I’ve been. And I do feel like I process these stories with a lens more focused by perspective, that I am better able to recognize my incredible (and entirely undeserved) fortune, that my gratitude is not merely the echo of a sentiment I expect from myself, but a truth I hold deeply, in my very core.

The truth is, I can live with intention. I have that capacity, more so than the great majority of humans inhabiting this world. I just have to want it enough. I have to be willing to sacrifice. That’s the thing you don’t see when you look in on a life of intention from the outside; intention it’s difficult and requires sacrifice and doesn’t always feel good.

I’m still figuring all this out, learning what I really want and coming to terms with what I’m willing to do to achieve it. The answers are not always what I expect them to be, and that can be both disappointing and thrilling. If I don’t actually want this, what do I truly desire? Most of the time I don’t know the answer, but I recognize how privileged I am to ask the question.

12 Comments

  1. You know, I used to comfort myself by saying that people who had more money weren’t necessarily happier or less stressed. And while it’s true that they can still have family drama, illness, and other problems, lately I’ve found it’s more comforting to acknowledge that yes, life IS easier when you have more money. And In fact, my life feels hard because it IS hard. Money doesn’t fix everything. But I know I’d be less stressed if I could hire a housecleaner, someone to do yard work, more babysitters, etc. not having to comparison-shop would make my errands easier, and I wouldn’t have to spend time making lists of what I have to pay for and planning out when I could pay it. I could automate my bills instead of arguing with my husband every week about them. The list goes on. I don’t know if that helps you. But for me it’s really validating. There’s nothing wrong with me – I’m just dealing with some legit challenges.

  2. That you implicitly connect their perfect house with perfect happiness is a great insight. It’s really difficult to get in touch with such subconscious associations, although they probably affect our daily experience a lot.

    It sounds like this family is rather…rich? Right? Because, I used to get jealous, but when it comes to things money can buy I just don’t compare myself to rich people. I have always known that my career choice will not bring me a lot of money and I’m totally OK with that. Also, I grew up in an atmosphere that was somewhat contemptuous of material things. That’s why I have never been jealous of the kind of houses that you described (although the house sounds beautiful). In contrast, I used to feel jealousy towards those with “cool”, old, interesting apartments/houses and personal, inventive decor. In fact I was jealous if someone had something really cool *relative to their income*. It could be a studio apartment in an old building, but if someone was able to make it look really cool and seemed liked really herself there, I’d feel jealous, because I felt that this person knew some secret of life that I didn’t. Of course, the bottom line was that I was not happy with myself and was horribly insecure. Like you connect an elegant house with happiness, I connected good/personal taste and “coolness” to happiness.

    Now I can honestly say that I’m happy and also satisfied with everything major in my life. We have an averaged-sized apartment in an apartment building in a really nice area (not nice in an expensive way, but nice in the sense that it is close to city centre, close to nature, and close to many friends). I really like the way we have furnished it, although we have few “quality” pieces and I never developed a really “cool” taste. It’s almost always messy. But I’m genuinely happy and much more secure now, so I don’t make comparisons anymore (not downward ones anyway – sometimes when I have visited friends who live in a big house far outside the city I wake up the next morning SO THANKFUL that we did not go that route, although their houses and gardens are beautiful and I’m sure that they are happy there, and that’s great).

  3. When I have those moments of envy, I think about what they give up to have the fancy house and staff. We have friends who have a place literally 4 times larger than ours in the fanciest neighborhood in the very best school district. She doesn’t work, exercises like 4 hours a day, has a weekly cleaning service and yard service, etc. To afford this, he works out of town 30 weeks a year. When he’s home he works 60-80 hours a week. Yes, they take 2 weeks of vacation every year to exotic locations. They give up privacy by having staff, they have to worry about their stuff because it’s expensive to maintain all that fancy stuff, and all of that time apart forever. To maintain that lifestyle they are stuck with the job and all that time devoted to work.

    Me? I want to be devoted to my family and helping others and enjoying life. That means I choose to have far fewer things so I can spend time on an adventure instead of maintaining my thing collection. It continues to be a conscious choice and I actively choose minimalism pretty often, but maybe some day it will be the reflex to notice the pretty things and not want them but be glad for the freedom fewer things gives me.

  4. I think what Deborah said is absolutely true, and there are some things that are legitimately easier with more discretionary income. Yet, reading this, I kept thinking about Big Little Lies, and all is not as it seems….
    I feel a bit like Sofia. I don’t get jealous at people who necessarily have nicer houses because they have more money…but I AM a bit envious at those who just have that knack at making their living spaces look so GOOD. I want that talent.

  5. I see both sides of this. Yes, in some ways money DOES make things easier, but at least in my experience, so far more money = way more stress in our household. When we weren’t making much and had very set bills and set wages and set lives, it was easier and less stressful for us. Now we probably make close to double that, but with way more fluid income and higher bills and such, and it makes me WAYYYYYY more stressed. Sure, the house we live in now is way nicer than the one we used to live (though still 20 years old and 1,400 sq.ft. – so it’s not like we’re rolling in money)… but man… some days I just wish we made a LOT of money so that we wouldn’t be so stressed (but what qualifies as “a lot”?). But the reality is that I think the stress would still be there, it’d just be different and I’d be sitting in a pretty kitchen worrying about the same damn things.

  6. Those people with nice houses and everything together? They probably look at others with even nicer/bigger houses with envy. We live in a culture of consumption where nothing is ever enough. I agree with other comments above that to some degree having a certain amount of money makes things easier. But there is a limit and honestly, having more money just means you spend more money on slightly nicer things. Your standard of living keeps increasing with income increases but it never gets you anywhere.

    There’s happy people in nice houses and unhappy people in nice houses, just like there are unhappy people in shitty houses and happy people in shitty houses!

  7. You got to the same point I am going to make ~ but I think of it differently. Consider our current FLOTUS~ Do you really believe she is ‘Happy’ and ‘Full of Joy and Laughter’ and ‘Without Problems’? Then I remind myself to think of the starving war-ravenged women who are trying to walk for days and weeks carrying their dying children to possible medical care where maybe they will live to starve again. Money does make many things easier in life, but it doesn’t create happiness….. that happens inside you. (WHICH YOU CLEARLY DO GET AND DID SAY!) (And if the FLOTUS image doesn’t float your boat remember Princess Diana.)
    Admire the house, remind your self you have NO IDEA what happens behind the walls and doors when the family is alone. YOUR husband does love you, and he tries, just as you love him and you try too.

  8. Ha ha. I live where big little lies is supposedly set although they took liberty with the range of the location of my town to encompass the towns nearby to where I live where the very very wealthy live.

    I have similar experiences. My house is currently a disaster because my husband is renovating the kitchen but normally it’s messy but not that bad. And much of the time I’m grateful that we have a house at all considering that for a long time and it appeared out of reach and we do live in a very expensive area even though we don’t have a mansion overlooking the ocean. And we are so privileged compared to much of the world. But then I will get the same kind of house envy as you. Our almost 1300 sf house with its poorly designed floor plan seems not good enough. And having more $ to hire people to clean or to renovate (my husband’s competent at renovating but trying to fit it in on weekends and the occasional hour here and there is really dragging it out) would really help…

  9. “How could you feel stressed in a kitchen like that?”. That’s exactly how I feel when I see a gorgeous, BIG kitchen. I LOVE cooking and have a nicely laid out kitchen (thank you, original owners!) But I’d love more space and for the kitchen to be brighter because brighter is happier! 🙄 I see houses for sale and the kitchen is what hooks me every time if it screams, “nothing but peaceful cooking here!”

    I grew up in a shiny family in a shiny house and I know first hand that those lives do NOT instantly equate to happy lives. I’m grateful for that experience because I’d probably feel the same as you if I hadn’t been raised the way I was. I know you know this, but shiny exteriors don’t equal shiny interiors/family lives (my parents would tell you I’m lying to you, but they’re obsessed with exteriors and they aren’t the kids who were raised with emotionally absent parents).

    Houses like the one you describe make me uneasy. I always like to have a bit of a mess/clutter when people come over so they don’t feel weird in my house the way I feel weird in houses that show no signs of kids living there!

  10. We live in a house in a desirable neighborhood where you get the same sense that everyone is content. I guess we have been, and it is a great. neighborhood, but there’s downsides too. It’s too white, and our street isn’t very social, so we haven’t met many neighbors, and haven’t connected with any of them. The grass is always greener….

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