Lesley's Austerity Diaries, Part One: So, My Husband No Longer Has a Job
The anxiety dream I woke up to this morning was a bug dream. In it, my husband and I were staying in a hotel -- a nice hotel, and we had a nice big suite, although for the length of our trip I was constantly plagued with a sense of imminent foreboding.
The feeling was satisfied the morning we were supposed to check out, as I was packing. I discovered, to my horror, a massive army of exotic-looking insects marching out of the bathroom toward the hotel bed, on which our open suitcases rested. Curious long-legged creatures, shining black millipedes, and those fat hissing cockroaches from Madagascar. They crawled slowly but inexorably toward our bags, climbing the sides of the bed, clinging doggedly to the sheets.
I threw whatever was left into our suitcases and quickly zipped them closed, moving them to the door. Then I thought, Wait, what if some of the bugs already got in there, and I didn’t notice? And then, with a chill of horror, WHAT IF SOME OF THEM LAID EGGS IN OUR BAGS? I would bring them home and unpack, and soon our home would be filled with horrifying enormous insects and I would never get them out.
I’ve woken up with a start from one anxiety dream or another every morning since last Wednesday, May 1. That was the day my husband become unemployed.
The dreams have varied, ranging from the familiar dream-dread of helplessly searching for an escaped cat, to facing an approaching nuclear holocaust. But they have been consistent in their occurance, and so I wake in the morning with my heart racing, nauseated, panicked. What did I forget? Oh, my husband has no job.
It’s strange, how well I have handled it when I am awake. This shift in our fortunes was not entirely unexpected -- there was a reorganization, there was a change in positions, it was probably inevitable that this was how it would end -- and so I had convinced myself that I was handling it well. And indeed, in my waking hours I believe I have handled it well, I have been patient and calm, I have done great heaps of spreadsheet math, I have cut down household expenses, I have been rational and logical and I have planned everything methodically, as much as anyone can plan for an outcome that is ultimately unkown.
I have even felt gratified and proud that I am in a position where I can (almost) (not quite) (but very close) support us both single-handedly. Primary breadwinner! That’s a big deal to me. I am bringing home the bacon even though I have neither time nor inclination nor energy to fry it up in the proverbial pan.
But when I sleep -- when I sleep, all my secret worries that are so much constant background noise in my waking life come bubbling to the surface.
I am a person who craves stability and predictability. Thus these unstable anxieties have sunk their tiny creeping tendrils into pretty much every corner of my life. I hate anything that disrupts my routine. Sure, later I might see that whatever occurred was ultimately a needed change, but in the moment I despise upheaval. And working from home has allowed me to set my own routines and schedules, with virtually none of the obstacles that come from sharing an office, and to get REALLY comfortable with them.
For example, for the past year and a half, I’ve gotten up early every weekday morning to drive my husband to work, and then to drive myself home again. I did this for a couple reasons: for one, me driving him in meant I could keep the car all day. For another, the consistent necessity of waking up at the same time every day and showering and getting dressed and leaving the house was enormously useful; me being an easily-obsessed type of person, without this motivation I always suspected I could spend days without going any further out of our condo than the mailboxes in our building’s lobby.
Well, it turns out I was right about that. I went three consecutive days this week without stepping outside. And then I wonder why I feel like some sluggish subterranean animal crawling back and forth through the same familiar tunnels. And then when I do make a Target run, I feel weird and exposed, like I’ve forgotten how to be outside, like there’s something not right, like my parts are all disarranged.
I know, IT’S ONLY THREE DAYS, but for me the ability to leave the house and be normal is a muscle I have to keep exercising or else it atrophies.
There’s also the fact that my husband is at home, with me, literally 24 hours a day, with a couple short exceptions. Having him home is weird. It’s like some epic holiday in which he is on vacation while I have to work.
Plus, he is not a quiet person. Indeed, where I am contemplative and taciturn he is a bombastic hurricane of attention-grabbing energy. Our differences compliment each other in normal circumstances, but I’m not sure how they’re going to work out in 24-hour-a-day contact.
Truthfully, I thought I might enjoy having him home, and it hasn’t been all bad. Besides having been a person with a regular job he is also a freelance writer and I thought, hey, it might be nice to have a writer-partner around! Like we’re one of those supercool smartypants artsy couples! Or maybe we’ll just learn to despise each other with a searing keenness that makes our work all the better! It’ll be ROMANTIC!
Like three times now my dad has kindly and gently said to me on the phone, “This unemployment period could put pressure on your marriage, just be aware of that,” and I’m all “DO YA THINK?”
And then there is the money thing.
The money issue hasn’t been a huge focal point for my anxieties, believe it or not -- we have savings to draw from if we need to, and although this has impacted our formerly comfortable budget in a dramatic way, I am not a person who’s ever believed that money alone could make me happy (although certainly money has the power to make us all miserable, and it seems terrifically unjust that it shouldn’t work the other way too).
Also, I have the extreme privilege of being in a situation where my biggest financial worries are mostly psychological. I know our mortgage will get paid, and it is exceedingly unlikely (barring any additional catastrophes) that we will find ourselves out on the street. We’re just implementing austerity measures on areas of our budget that are flexible.
In most respects, I’m cool with this -- I, like most of us, will benefit from living below our prior occasionally extravagant means. I have a bit of my own money squirreled away, so that I can still occasionally buy stuff (or take my husband to a cheap dinner once or twice a month, just so we get to leave the house). I'm not totally broke just yet. It's just that now I have to be more judicious in my choices, as what I've got is going to have to last me for awhile. Do I NEED another pair of shoes at this moment? No. GOD no. Do I need more books in my book-filled house? Absolutely not. Do I NEED that awesome purple Maybelline Vivids lipstick? Yes, yes I do.
It does mean no more expensive dinners for awhile. And it has also meant I’ve made some ridiculous choices in fits of stress. Like when I decided that ordering a few cheap magazine subscriptions from Amazon might help me feel better about not buying any new books for awhile. So I did. And then I realized I had already ordered a few cheap magazine subscriptions from Amazon, like three days earlier, and somehow totally forgot. (Please tell me I’m not the only person who does absurd shit like this sometimes?)
So much for that being a psychological help.
There is also the grocery budget. I’ve written about my mild food-hoarding behaviors before, and how I have this pervasive psychological need to know that food is available -- not to eat! just to sit in the cupboard or fridge and go bad! -- if I require it. This need is a direct result of having spent a goodly portion of my childhood years on one diet or another, and how I confronted that self-imposed hunger by hiding food in my bedroom -- again, not to eat, just so that I could know it was there.
Our grocery budget has been cut dramatically and thus far I’ve dealt with it by accumulating a wide selection of fine international ramens -- because they're cheap and shelf stable and I know I have a large box of available food if I need to look at it.
Also, we signed up for a wholesale club membership at the hilariously named BJ's, which I had thought would be a bulk-buying money-saver, and it totally is! But it is also feeding my hoarding tendencies like whoa. Being able to buy a jar of giardiniera that is literally the size of my head feels better than it probably should, were I only a normal, not-obsessed-with-food-security person.
If nothing else, this first week of single-income married life has shown me one thing: the stuff that I think will destroy me pretty much never does. Had you asked me six months ago how I would handle my husband being out of work, I probably wouldn’t have even been able to formulate an answer, instead giving you a thousand-yard stare and silently envisioning myself wailing and rending my garments and maybe throwing myself on a sword. Because I do not like situations in which I have no control. Indeed, they are situations I have spent my life trying to avoid.
But life goes on, like it does, and things change and we all just keep climbing uphill because what else is there to do? I’m not destroyed yet. I’m managing. Just a little tired. Because of the bad dreams.