I Still Suck at Suffering

Still me

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.

I don’t do suffering well. Whether it’s pregnancy, migraines, a newborn, sleep-deprivation, or budgeting difficulties, I chafe against the burdens. It all seems so fundamentally unfair to me. Why should we have to work so hard, pinching and scraping, when others can just waltz into the grocery store and buy whatever they want?

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.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    $150/week grocery budget for five is tight. I have to say you do a remarkable job of planning. We just go to the store and buy ad hoc. God be with you on increasing your budget.

    Does anyone do suffering well? I sure don’t.

  • Anna

    This might not help in a practical sense, but my dh’s family did the popcorn (and apple pie, since they had a few apple trees) for dinner thing on a somewhat frequent basis when he was a kid. The boys thought it was fun, not knowing how hard it was on their mom to have nothing else to feed them. Tough on you, but at least the kids aren’t thinking of it as awful deprivation.
    Also (sigh), I recognize that snarl. And I hate it too. I did a novena recently to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots asking for help with that very thing and I think it’s been helping…

  • http://aknottedlife.blogspot.com Bonnie

    Perhaps none of these things will work for you guys but I offer them in hopes that they’ll help you the way they’ve helped us. We feed 5, going on 6 since T is now eating crackers, on $80 a week in Central IL. That $80 also pays for diapers for 3, cleaning items, make-up, shampoo, etc. So, it’s pretty tight.

    But we recently bought 1/2 a cow from a local farmer. It was a big expense up front but tons of savings down throughout the year. We also are able to sometimes get eggs from a 4H family, $1 a dozen. I tend to buy frozen veggies because they’re cleaner, cheaper, and maintain their nutrients better than fresh produce that isn’t locally grown. And lastly, we garden. We’re not great gardeners but what we do makes a huge difference, especially in the summer – but maybe year round for you?

    Lastly, “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. ” That one hurt, as I handed my kid fruit snacks after a lunch of chicken nuggets. I know you meant nothing by it but to all the other moms feeding their kids cheap, empty calories I say, “Don’t feel bad! We’re all doing our best.”

    • calahalexander

      Local eggs and meat are not really an option. When we first moved here I looked high and low for a local source of cage-free eggs, raw milk, grass-fed meat, etc., but the nearest source is 3 hours away, and the same price as Trader Joe’s. We did recently buy a large amount of meat for a low cost up-front, which was nice, but after running the numbers I found that it was only slightly cheaper than the sale prices for the same cuts at Whole Foods.
      I’m really sorry that I offended you about the processed food thing. When my parents come to visit they usually take us to the grocery store and stock us up, and we always get stuff like fruit snacks, animal crackers, chicken nuggets…fun extras that don’t fit into our normal budget. I don’t have anything against occasional empty calories. When I was in the last weeks of my pregnancy and the first weeks of baby-dom, we either ate food our neighbors made us or frozen meals from Trader Joe’s. Sometimes packaged foods are necessary. Sometimes they’re just delicious (I’m looking at you, Trader Joe’s Chicken Tikka Masala.) Sometimes nothing will satisfy a pregnancy craving like a frozen pizza or Kraft Mac & Cheese.

      What I do have a problem with is nightly meals of hamburger helper, easy mac, and frozen TV dinners. It would actually be easier to stay within our budget if that’s what our diet looked like, because those things are cheaper than dirt. They’re also about the nutritional equivalent of dirt. I spent the first two years of our marriage feeding myself, my husband and our daughter a consistent diet of crap. Frozen taquitos, pizza rolls, Stouffer’s lasagna…you name it, we ate it. Regularly. And we all got fat (well, not Sienna), felt awful, and got sick all the time.

      I understand that spending hours in the kitchen is not a practical reality for a lot of women. I have the luxury of time to spend in the kitchen, which makes it easier. I’m not trying to bash anyone for their nutritional choices. I personally have decided (after watching our medical bills skyrocket and then mainlining Nourishing Traditions) that my family’s nutrition is important enough to try and feed them the most nutritious food we can afford to buy and prepare. I also happen to love sugar and carbs more than friggin’ sunshine, and spend a lot of kitchen time baking cookies and bread and brownies and all manner of crap. I tell myself that it’s “better” than packaged food because I’m making it myself, but guess what? Our bodies process carbs as sugar, and sugar is sugar is sugar is sugar is sugar. I’m trying to cut out sugary desserts, toast, and treats, and replace them with fruits or vegetables, which is also an added expense on the grocery budget, because a batch of brownies is about equivalent to the cost of four raspberries or two leaves of organic romaine.

      Sorry for the epic response.

  • http://egregioustwaddle.blogspot.com/ Joanne K McPortland

    This post proves that you do suffering exactly the way it’s intended. You bear (the literal meaning of suffer–as in carrying or accepting) the burdens you’re given, consciously and prayerfully, until the bearing moves you to a new understanding, a new gratitude, a new resolve. Yes, we idealize those who suffer silently or patiently or heroically, but there’s nothing in the contract that says you can’t grit your teeth or cuss or drink a brandy along the way. The point is to bear the cross, not to do baton twirls with it. Even Jesus fell. And got back up, with help. Thank you for the help you give to others by talking about it. You’re in my prayers.

    • Erica

      I love Joanne’s comment. It is very eloquent and well expressed. I’ll add that I think it’s wonderful that you admire the Ogre’s way of handling suffering and aspire to be more like him. I know that you’ve already thought of this, but you and he are undoubtedly different in some ways, maybe you should cut yourself a little slack that you are not as calm in the face of privation as he is. I think growing in virtue might be similar to developing a talent. I really admire Arthur Rubinstein as a pianist. He got to be great by talent and hard work. I’m a good pianist, and I’ve worked hard to develop my talent, but I’m not (and won’t ever be) as great as he was. I keep working at it, knowing that it’s a far off goal. Maybe growing in virtue works the same way. Some people are born being about to “twirl their crosses,” and some of us have to do serious weight training just to be able to drag them a few inches. Not fair, but as my Mom used to remind me,”Nobody waid is was going to be fair.”

  • Saiorse

    Calah – As a woman with not one but three gluten sensitive children and one celiac husband, I feel your pain over the grocery budget. I really do. I go to 3 grocery stores per week -and have many of my staples delivered from online sources. I struggle to keep my budget for my crew under that $150 mark. I will that I have boys – and they are slightly older than your kids – they eat an absolutely frightening amount of food. I have seen trays of Shepard’s Pie that I was counting on leftovers from fly off the table before I have a taste. I live in fear of their teenage years, and have already informed them I will be taking a grocery tax from each of them when they get their first jobs.
    I have a few hints. The first thing is go to Costco or on line or somewhere and get a 5lb bag of rice – you know the kind that look more like they should be part of food relief for starving nations. If you have freezer room – chuck it in there. If not – get a big airtight storage bin. Then, get yourself a bag of quinoa in the same size – store in the same way. With those two bags of stuff, add in a bag of organic potatoes every week or two and a few bags of Trader Joe’s gluten free pasta – and you have your base grains for months. Work around these staples and it brings your cost down. To make the expensive g/f pasta last longer – buy the cheaper gluten pasta for the rest of the crew. Precook your g/f son’s pasta on Sunday or whatever day you have a half a second to breath – and freeze in individual serving bags. This way – you just heat his pasta up – add sauce etc. while the rest of the family eats the $0.99 box you got on sale. Also – skip the gf bread when you can – it SO expensive and tastes gross anyway. I have been known to wrap my kids’ lunch food in corn tacos or just skip it and give them left overs.
    If you can, join a CSA – we did this last year – and got a 40lb box of veggies/fruit weekly – though most want the $ upfront before the season starts. There is , of course, the adventure of identifying CSA items and figuring out how to cook them in a way that young children will eat them. But, that keeps it real. My oldest developed a taste for my pickled beets last summer – quite interesting to see the looks on the faces of some of his friends when it appeared in his lunch at the playground. :-) He kept telling them – you don’t know what you’re missing. LOL. Good luck to you. And, I’ll be honest – I am downright grumpy when I have to watch every single cent. It makes you feel miserly to not be allowed to buy a little treat like dark chocolate. It is hard – but as my mother says whenever I complain about budget grocery shopping taking over my life – “offer it up”.

    • calahalexander

      I know we need to get a Costco card. I’ve been putting it off because I don’t want to have to go to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Target and Costco on Saturdays. But the time has come, and it will factored into our budget soon. Brown rice pasta had not occurred to me, so thanks to everyone who suggested that. We’ll definitely try it. Quinoa, however, is my nemesis. I’ve tried to cook it a million different ways and it always tastes dirty and gross. No one will ever eat it, so I’ve given up.

  • deltaflute

    I know it’s totally none of my business so I’m not asking as a sort of wanting a response thing, but more of an information thing…Have you looked into WIC for the younger guys? They give you eggs galore, milk, cheese, beans, rice, tuna (if you’re breastfeeding), etc etc. I’m sure that you qualify. I hated going on WIC, but I hated having to sacrifice my children’s nutrition more. They give you a produce stipend too so you can buy organic if you want (we don’t because we can’t afford to).

    The other thing is starting your own garden and learning how to can. That saves in the produce department and is totally as organic as you want it to be. There’s also couponing if you want me to teach you how. couponing101.com was my biggest help. Just bought four tubes of toothpaste and four protein bars for free yesterday. Yeah, I said free.

    In other words, there are ways…they require a different sort of sacrifice on your part (time) so I’m not sure which you’d rather lessen~ time or grocery budget.

    Hope that helps. Hang in there, Momma. It can be done. It just won’t be as easy as waltzing into the store as we all wish we could.

    • calahalexander

      We do, in fact, qualify for WIC and foodstamps. We were on foodstamps in Vegas, and while it was completely necessary at the time, it was also humiliating. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s become a point of pride for me to juggle the grocery budget so that we can eat decently and still pay for our own food. If we absolutely had to, I guess we would go back on government assistance, but neither of us want to. I’d rather have medical debt and never eat out again than stand in line in a welfare office with my hand open.

      As far as couponing goes, it has never worked for me. I gave it a serious try when we moved to Vegas, joining this coupon website that gave me local deals and which papers they were in, clipping coupons excessively, and driving to a bazillion different stores each week. I’m not sure if I was terrible at it or what, but it never seemed to save us any money at all. I usually ended up spending more because I’d stock up on something, and sure, we had a lot of it, but our costs didn’t go down a month or two later. I also think we don’t eat a diet that could be particularly helped by couponing. I try to make my own stock and soups from scratch, we don’t eat canned tomatoes because of the BPA, we hardly ever eat canned anything, actually, and the prices on a lot of food from Trader Joe’s and paper products from Target (the Target brand) are often just as low as coupon prices. I felt like I was expending a ton of time and energy without getting any results.

      Our HOA does not allow gardening, even if our landlord agreed to it, so that option is out. I am considering using a standing tomato planter thing, though, and trying again to grow herbs in pots. I kill everything I touch, so I’m hesitant about it. Ave is starting their own gardening initiative, however, which I am keeping an eye on.

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  • http://stmonicasbridge.wordpress.com Kristen

    We struggle with the grocery budget conundrum as well. Why does processed food have to be cheaper than REAL food? I will offer up prayers for you all. God is good all the time and He will provide.

  • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com JoAnna

    Calah, have you ever heard of http://www.foodonthetable.com?

    I don’t stress about the organic vs. non-organic thing too much. I was raised largely on prepackaged/processed foods and lived to tell the tale. Moderation is the key in everything.

  • http://geeklady.wordpress.com GeekLady

    I need to tell you what an amazing job you’re doing with your grocery budget! You’re feeding a family of six (Lincoln eats too, and milk production requires more calories in your diet) on $150/week. This is below the weekly food expense of the USDA ‘Thrifty’ plan for a family of five. The USDA food plans use a national average, but you live in an area with above average food costs. And you’re feeding your family high quality, healthy food.

    It might not seem like much, and I know it probably doesn’t matter when the uncertainty of your life feels like it’s about to drag you under. But you’re doing a good job. A really good job. Remember that.

    • calahalexander

      Thanks. That does help, honestly.