Only now, it isn’t pregnancy-induced migraines and hospital horror stories.
On Friday night I sat down to plan the week’s menu and write the grocery list. I used to love this task…perusing my favorite cooking websites, looking forward to trying new spices or cooking techniques, idly wondering what sort of wine would go best with which meal. That was back when I thought we were struggling financially, before I understood what that really meant. Now, meal planning is much different. These days, I sit down and try to figure out how to feed our family of five eaters on a shoestring budget without sacrificing nutritional content. It’s harder than it sounds, especially where we are; the cost of living in Naples is double the average cost of living in the rest of the country, and believe me when I say the cost of food reflects it. Trader Joe’s is a lifesaver for us now, because their prices are so much lower than anywhere else, making it worth the money we spend in gas to get there and back. But even so, meal planning is a complex task. First I call Whole Foods for their meat specials, which are often as cheap or cheaper than typical grocery-store meat and much higher in quality. Then I plan meals around what’s on sale. We eat lots of fillers to make the meat stretch, but because we are starting to suspect a gluten sensitivity in Liam, pasta and bread are now off-limits. That leaves rice, potatoes, beans…anything I can think of to round out dinners and make a pound of meat stretch for five people for two meals, at least. This is further complicated by my attempt to avoid the dirty dozen and embrace the clean fifteen.
On Friday night, I sat down to plan meals without gluten and still remain within our $150 weekly grocery budget. When I was finally done, I added up the totals: $174. So I went back and fiddled with the menu, then added them again: $158. One more time: $161. This time I made the hard decisions, cutting out eggs some mornings (that one always hurts, since eggs are such an important source of nutrition), skipping tea for the week, leaving out the dark chocolate I’ve been savoring in something resembling moderation. Still, I was a few dollars over, and it was time to put the kids to bed, and Lincoln was crying, and I was frustrated.
The Ogre was brushing teeth when I set the menu aside to help with bedtime. I got the kids in pajamas, picked up Lincoln and started nursing him while directing the older minions to pick a story. They meandered toward the bookshelf but got distracted by doing headstands, then Charlotte fell and crashed into a chair, let out a wail which woke up Lincoln and made him wail in turn, and I snapped. “Get a book RIGHTTHISSECOND and do not do ANYTHING else. Sit down and wait and be absolutely silent while I get Lincoln back to sleep. SILENT! I MEAN IT!” I practically snarled at them, trying to keep my voice down because loud noises push Lincoln into hysterics while still trying to convey how irritated I was.
The Ogre gave me the “you must calm down right now” look that I hate so much, and I calmed down grudgingly. I read the kids a story, during which I managed to turn my sour attitude around so that bedtime blessing and prayers were not a rushed, soulless affair. Lincoln mercifully fell asleep again and I turned back to the menu, sighing audibly.
“You know, you’re never this tense and irritable when we have more money,” the Ogre casually observed. “You mean I’m always like this? Because we never have more money,” I replied bitterly. I immediately regretted the venom in my words and apologized. The Ogre forgave me and let it go, but I kept thinking about it.
He was right, of course. And this week is particularly difficult, with the post-Christmas dearth of funds, the tax hikes, the new burden of trying to eat gluten-free, and the fact that we used up almost all of our food reserves during Christmas and New Year’s. The pantry and fridge were bare on Friday night (the night before grocery shopping day), and the kids had popcorn for lunch three days in a row. We had a stack of bills on the desk that I was dreading opening. The insurance company refused to pay for Lincoln’s surgery and wouldn’t tell me why. Our new dental insurance covers even less of the extensive work I need done to fix my pregnancy-induced gingivitis. In juggling our budget for the new year, we had to face the fact that if we couldn’t cut our expenses, we’d have to take the girls out of dance classes. And we did the budget the night after spending $45 on something frivolous. The next day I was sick over that money that we needed elsewhere. And everywhere else we tried to cut, we seemed to find new things we had to pay for.
My parents weren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. They worked hard, my mom and my dad. My dad started several companies by day while waiting tables by night. My mom found ways to work from home so she could take care of us and bring in extra income. They sacrificed a lot to give us everything we needed, and quite a bit we simply wanted. Oddly, though, that didn’t inspire a hard work ethic in me. It didn’t help that things came easily to me. School, cheerleading, writing, even college was mostly a breeze. If I came up against something that was hard, I quit.
My childhood was, perhaps, too comfortable. I didn’t have to work hard, or even work at all, and things were given to me simply because I existed, and my parents loved me. I developed a sense of entitlement that runs deep. When things get hard I rend my garments, pour ashes on my head and run to the internet, so that all voices might be raised to share in my lamentation.
When things get hard, the Ogre works harder. He laughs at the absurdity of rain on rain on rain. He teases me when I’m angry, makes jokes while I despair, and reminds me over and over of all the wealth we have. Four healthy children. Health insurance and access to the excellent medical care, even if we can’t always pay for it. Money for food, and enough money to get good food, even if it requires extra juggling and sacrifices. An actual house to rent instead of an apartment. A good school for our children. A job with a steady income. Our health. Our love. Each other.
It may be less than many, but it’s more than most. And I’m starting to realize that I like the person this particular brand of suffering is making of me. Late Friday night, when I had just about given up on the grocery list, I found two frozen chicken carcasses and a bag of carrot, onion and celery ends deep in our freezer. I rejoiced at the prospect of homemade chicken stock to use in soups and sauces, which would bring our grocery bill right where it needed to be and provide our family with a little extra nutrition in the face of flu season.
A year ago, I would never have saved the carrots, onions and celery bits. They would have been unceremoniously dumped into the trash can without a second thought. Two years ago I would have tossed the chicken carcass too. Three years ago I regularly threw out perfectly good leftovers because we just didn’t want to eat them. Four years ago I routinely spent the same amount of money I spend now on groceries every week, and that was with just three of us to feed and significantly cheaper food, plus a total ignorance of grass-fed meat, cage-free organic eggs, or pesticide-laden produce. A pinched budget and a little bit of suffering is turning me into a better person by far than I ever had to be before…a wife who respects her husband’s hard work to make our money by making our money work hard for us. A mother who cares enough about her children’s health to spend hours in the kitchen, to make everything at home instead of relying on the cheap, empty calories of packaged food, to figure out how to feed them healthy foods even if it means hard choices. A person who doesn’t waste what she’s given but takes care of it.
I’m not sorry (at the moment) that our finances are stretched to the limit. I’m glad for the lessons we’re learning, and I’m determined to teach them to my children so they will grow up understanding that work may be hard, but it is good. I am sorry that in the moments of difficulty that arise, I chafe at the burdens instead of bearing them joyfully. Because all I’m really teaching my children right now is that life is hard, and it’s okay to be miserable about it.
I made lots of silly New Year’s Resolutions and promptly broke them all in the first week of the New Year. I like doing New Year’s like that…it gives me an out, so I can always say, “whatever I screw up this year, it won’t hold a candle to the first week of the year.” But this year I’m going to focus on learning to be content no matter what life hands me, instead of allowing my happiness or lack thereof to depend on the ease of my circumstances. It’s not a resolution for the year, because I’m pretty sure it will take many years, maybe even a lifetime of years, to learn to find daily peace. So maybe it’s a prayer. Or maybe it’s just the first time I’ve actually realized that no one is going to come fix everything and make my life easier, and waiting for that to happen is only making me a miserable mother who’s raising miserable children.
The only thing to do is to keep my chin up, laugh with the Ogre at the absurdity of rain on rain on endless rain, and sing when I work, even when my song comes through gritted teeth. Maybe especially then.