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.

  • Heather’s Hodgepodge

    I have found The Tightwad Gazette book series (I believe they are out of print, but most likely available via your local library), The Simple Dollar blog, and Frugal Upstate blog to all be good sources of frugal living help. Maybe you could get some additional ideas for your situation.

  • http://aftertheecstasythelaundry.wordpress.com Cynthia

    There are so many comments I want to make here about how hard it must be for you and how I can relate. As a woman with manic depression, it’s sometimes days and days between cooking, because I just don’t even want to move. We eat WAY too much crap, and I know it’s really bad for us in so many ways.

    I applaud your efforts, just in case you can’t hear Jesus doing it. Love and prayers.

  • KK

    How about rice pasta – it might not be ok for Liam if it isn’t actually labeled gluten free so just a thought.
    Are there stores there that allow for couponing?
    Also, one idea that I am going to start is making my own laundry detergent. Apparently you can do all your family’s laundry for something like $15 per year.
    To save on groceries I make a big soup every week – generally squash carrot soup or a veggie bean soup with a beef stock or a lentil soup. That really helps lessen the cost of lunchtime b/c we then eat a lot less meat and cheese at lunch. You probably already bake your own bread. Also, I probably make a vegetarian dish for supper once or twice a week. If it isn’t entirely sans meat then it is something like a pasta dish with a few slices of bacon like a pasta carbonara type of thing. Quinoa is great too…. although it is pricey in an of itself it is a complete protein and it goes a long way.

    Good luck with all of this . Is there an end in sight for your financial situation to change? Sometimes it helps to see the light at the end of the tunnel and focus on that.

  • http://onecatholicmama.wordpress.com Amelia

    I suck at suffering too, and I totally know where you are coming from..where you just want throw a temper tantrum and be “WHY ME, GOD”. I’ve been there SO MANY times. However, I do find that each little suffering and difficulty draws us closer to God and each time I go through a trial, I come out stronger at the end (until the next trial starts, anyway).

    I have no advice on the food budget. I was just talking with a friend the other day and we were commenting on how much food prices have risen in Naples, even in just the past few months and year. My family is the same size as yours (but mine are almost 11 (eats as much as an adult), 8, 4 and baby) and I would find it extremely difficult to feed us on 150/week, and that is with all real food…nothing processed or convenience but most things conventional (not organic).

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for this. This was perfect timing for me. I’m having a very hard time with suffering too. Just this morning, I was crying and telling God that I really wish things could be just a little easier. I know my husband and I are very blessed, but things are very, very difficult for us financially. We’re in debt from some major, unexpected expenses after the birth of our daughter; we live in northern VA where the cost of living is 2.5x the national average; and now we’re facing more medical bills because I had to have a d&c after a recent miscarriage, pushing us deeper into debt (to add insult to injury). Anyways, thank you for sharing this.

  • daphne

    I know it seems endless, and i am right there with you when it comes to being “positive” or “thankful” when i am in times of peril, but i really do believe that Christopher pointing out the “good” in your situation is a definite blessing to you.

  • KK

    Easy and nutritious snack for your kids and you!
    1/2 cup sunflower seeds – grind in coffee grinder or processor
    1/2 cup sesame seeds – grind in coffee grinder or processor
    1/2 cup cocoa or carob powder if you are more virtuous than me!
    1/2 cup honey
    1/2 cup nut butter (such as almond butter) or a seed butter if allergic
    1/4 cup unsweetened coconut
    1/2 cup ground flax seed or wheat germ or oat bran
    Mix all ingredients together and roll into 1 inch balls.
    Store in fridge or freeze
    Makes 36 balls or cookie shapes.
    Really good, lots of protein and super easy and inexpensive.

    • calahalexander

      I actually made something really similar this week and I’ll try these next week. Thanks!

  • http://meagainstthegrain.blogspot.com/ Domini

    Girl, you have kindred soul right here. Reading this post was like reading my mind two years ago. And I only have 2 kids! If you’re anything like me, advice isn’t really what you want (unless you do, then that’s okay too!) — just know you are not alone. Only now I’m working full-time again (long story) and we’re not a whole lot better off than we were before. Most days I’d rather be broke than come into work. Talk about not bearing suffering — or blessings — joyfully. Oy.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    Chin up. Hard times are like any other times: they have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

  • Lena

    Wow! You really work hard at that grocery budget and cooking. You probably could teach me a few lessons. You have courage to complain publicly because I do not have that courage.

    The more I read about processed food, the less I want to eat it. So I understand your high standards for real food. After all, it’s our health we are talking about. So I strive (and don’t quite reach) for the goal of real organic food.

    What is CSA?

    • Karen

      Community Supported ( or Subscribed). Agriculture. You buy a subscription to a farm that delivers produce to you at stated intervals, usually once a week. You don’t order anything; the farm sends standard boxes containing whatever is in season there.