In the darkest parts of night, when my kids slept peacefully in rooms nearby and my then-husband snored somewhere in the house, the panic would set in. The thump-thump-thump of my racing heart made it feel like my chest would burst. My breath would catch.
It felt like my world was crashing down around me, seeing fissures form in the glass facade of the carefully managed life I’d worked so hard to create. It was failure, loss of hope, fear and worry all bound together in a barbed wire parcel that I’d hold in my trembling hands.
Numbers bounced around my head: the paychecks I was expecting, the bills I had to pay, the money I'd have left for gas, groceries and activities for the kids. Then there was the things we needed, wanted or otherwise should budget for. And what about savings? Would I ever have one again?
On the worst nights, the only relief came in extracting those numbers into a document or onto paper. Columns of income versus expenses was the salve that slowed the panic. I would get up after he came to bed, sometimes pacing, sometimes retreating to another room to make lists and compare my income to expenses. I'd then brainstorm ways to make more money, and I'd feel my breathing get closer to normal. More sponsored posts on my blog, more ad slots, more pitches for freelance work, more reaching out to contacts, more, more, more.
What about savings? Would I ever have one again?
I'd keep at it — numbers, ideas, plans, emails — until my eyelids would droop and my head would bob with exhaustion. Only then could I sleep.
There never seemed to be enough money, and I seemed to be the only one really feeling the pinch associated with keeping status quo on our life. My concern — my forever concern — was how to give my kids a good life. How could I make the numbers work to do that?
Each year, I'd earn more and more. Each year, it felt like I was so close to having my income be enough to live the life I wanted my kids to have. But each year, I also took on more financial responsibility for my family. And each year, I'd have nights like the ones I've described more often.
It was never that my freelance career wasn't successful. It was. But living in an expensive state in an expensive home that had long since become beyond our means, sending my kids to preschool (there was no public option), with expensive car loans I didn't want and a second income that seemed to decrease each year ... it was all too much.
And worse, it was thankless and lonely.
There wasn't a sense of "we're in this together" in my marriage. We always kept our finances separate, and somehow that morphed into barely discussing them — beyond the occasional terse argument about the rare tax return I wanted to put toward bills and he wanted to spend. There wasn't even a feeling that we could lean on each other. Instead, it felt like one long, difficult business venture gone awry. Marriage should be more than that. It needs to be.
There wasn't a sense of "we're in this together" in my marriage.
Then a dream job in Maine — editor of features sections for Maine's largest newspaper — appeared before me. I leapt. I had to. Something had to change.
And it did. Everything did. First, the kids and I moved into an affordable rental near my job. It was the right-size for us at the time, and in the area I wanted to live in. The separation, de facto at first and then intentional, was freeing. I could breathe again. I slept. The panic attacks subsided.
Living alone with my kids and financing our life alone, I created a sensible budget that met our needs. Instead of a hefty cable bill, I opted for the simplest plan. Instead of shopping as a pastime, we started hiking and taking advantage of local events for families. Instead of a constant drone of television, we explored our world and tried new things. We could live within our means on my income — prioritizing needs like rent, electricity and food over wants like the newest gadget or video game on the market.
But most importantly, the world seemed like a brighter, happier place. I guess I never grasped how unhappy I was until I was happy. Moreover, my family commented on how much happier my kids seemed too.
And then, finally, we divorced.
Those sleepless nights are a distant memory now. I rarely find myself awake in the darkest hours. That’s one of the many reasons I know that changing our lives was for the better. (Other reasons: my growing savings account, my improved credit rating, my happy and involved kids, smiles and laughter in our house, my availability to volunteer in my community … it goes on and on.)
I guess I never grasped how unhappy I was until I was happy.
In my mind, for a long time, the ideal of marriage — of a lasting commitment, of raising children together for a successful adulthood, of sharing in a life — was so important to me. But it was an ideal, not the reality of what we were living and ideals don’t make a marriage successful. The right two people together do — and we weren’t the right two people.
Sometimes being independent is more important than living up to those ideals. Sometimes you have to accept that all the trying in the world can’t change the fact that a square peg and a round hole don’t work together. Sometimes you have to accept a different reality in order to live a better life.
My kids are happy. We live in a warm community where they are active in sports, arts and so many other activities. They’re learning about budgeting, saving money, setting goals and being selective about what you spend on. They’re watching me cut back to save for a house, prioritizing that over upgrading our car or buying a new laptop. They see their father regularly, too, because he moved to Maine as well.
This wasn't where I expected to be at 37, but it's where I am, and I am happier for it.