Two months ago, my husband and I moved into a new house, in a new town, in a new state, for his new job, expecting our new baby. We left his steady corporate job (that included excellent health insurance for the entire family) and a house that, though in a terrible location (only seven miles from where he worked, but twelve miles from a grocery store, and a thirty minute drive from my daughter’s daycare) had been our home for ten years.  We had just finished a minor kitchen remodel (the pictures never even made it on Facebook by the time we were in contract with our buyer.  That’s how new the kitchen was), had replaced the roof, stained the back deck, finished landscaping, decorated and furnished a nursery for Honest Girl and a joint office for Honest Dad and me, and basically had turned our starter home into as much of a representation of our selves and our styles as we possibly could. And then we left it all to start again. From scratch.  Ten years older, and with a second child on the way.

I’ve called the last two months “the Downgrade” in my head.

The goal has been to minimize or eliminate as many monthly expenses as possible.  We bought a used van outright (getting rid of my new lease car).  We cut back on our cable.  We downgraded our cell phone services.  Stopped eating out.  Stopped buying coffees (Saturday mornings, we treat ourselves with pastries and chai teas from Starbucks, or greasy hash browns from McDonalds).  I make Honest Dad’s lunches every morning before work, have almost entirely cut red meat from my shopping list, and only buy us name brand cookies when I think we need a “treat.”  I’ve eaten one steak since moving, and we’ve only had three “date nights” (Honest Girl was there for two of them—and one was at a buffet—but we were at a restaurant, so I’m counting it!).  We have no health insurance, and until I give birth, we won’t have any (in Indiana, my pregnancy is a “pre-existing condition” for the entire family, even though I wouldn’t even be on the policy.  We carried over the good insurance for me, since we knew that I’d need a C-section.  They won’t even give us a policy for our infant daughter.  Suck my dick, insurance companies).  We sent Honest Girl to her 15-month checkup, and paid the $245 out of pocket, which hurt a lot, because Honest Dad’s new salary constitutes a major pay cut.  We drive one car.  Honest Dad is in the process of trying to sell his car, which he’s desperate to do, so we won’t have to pay the monthly car payment.  He loves that car.  It hurts me to see that he loves it so much.  I want more than anything to be able to buy it for him.  He’s a car guy.  An engineer.  He researched his vehicle choice for weeks, maybe even months.  It was a pretty rare car that he wanted.  Finally, he found one that he thought would work.  We drove all the way up to Michigan, just to test drive it.  It was love at first sight.  We both knew it.  Now, it’s sitting in the garage, unused.  He carpools to work with his dad.

Our house is bigger.  And I love the layout.  It’s perfect for our young family.  We have enough rooms for both of our girls, a guest room, and even a library/study for me.  In a few years, we can make room for a third child.   We live five minutes away from my in-laws, two minutes from Honest Girl’s daycare, ten minutes from the hospital where I will deliver our baby, and three minutes from the middle school.  The girls could walk there in twelve years if they wanted to.  We are now in a college town, with a beautiful downtown, lots of parks and walking trails, and like-minded people, both educationally and politically.  I’m involved in a local Mom’s group.  Our neighborhood is incredibly friendly, and, though still new and a little strange, everyone we’ve met has welcomed us openly.

I am grateful for all of these things.  Really, I am.  I wanted all of these things.  I wanted to raise my children close to family, in a place with excellent schools and far more opportunities than I ever had growing up.  And they’ll get that, if only because of where we now live.  I’m happy that we could provide that for our girls.  I know that we are not the only ones who have worked and sacrificed to make this move, this change possible for us.  Our families have been wonderful.  My mother-in-law has watched Honest Girl for me so I could have a few extra writing days a week.  My father-in-law has arranged it so that my husband not only has a job, but opportunities for advancement, improvement, and promotion.  I think about these debts that I carry with me every day, and I wish I knew how to properly show my gratitude.  I love, respect, and honor them all for the help they have provided, the love they have shown.

But for me?  The Downgrade has been the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.

What the Downgrade has taught me is that communication is hard, marriage is hard, motherhood is hard, family is hard, finances are a pain in the ass, and, sometimes, keeping all your shit together is impossible.  I’ve broken down.  Multiple times.  I’ve needed my husband to put me back together.  I’ve needed my mother to put me back together.  I’ve needed my dissertation committee to put me back together.

But more often, I’ve needed to put myself back together.  And done a piss-poor job of it.  Like some kind of macabre comedy, I’ve imagined my body, headless, groping, stumbling, running into walls and doors, trying to find my head so I could get it screwed back on right.  And meanwhile my head, me?  I’ve rolled under the couch.  It’s dark under here.  I can’t see where the rest of me is.  I can’t help to guide myself back to me.  I can only hear myself crashing around and making a bigger mess of things.  I could call out.  I should at least try.  But there’s something a little akin to relief in just laying here, in this dark space, next to a half-eaten Nilla Wafer and one of Honest Girl’s bouncy balls.  Even though I know that I’ll be the one who has to clean all that chaos up, somehow it’s nice to just let it happen.

Part of it is due to loneliness: Honest Dad now works for and with his father in the family business.  He wants to prove himself.  To show that he deserves to be there, and to one day (maybe soon) to be the boss.  He leaves our house at 8:15 every morning.  I usually wait until 7 before I call to ask if he’ll be home for dinner.  He never knows.  He usually gets home sometime after 8.  He sleeps.  Then he leaves again.  He feels no connection to our new home.  How could he?  This hasn’t been his home.  It’s his crash pad.  Honest Girl misses him.  When I finally start making dinner (sometime around 7:30) she stands by the door, looking through the window, waiting to see Daddy come home. She cries and falls to the floor when I come to get her for dinner.  We shouldn’t be starting yet.  Daddy’s not here! Just wait a few more minutes, Mama! He’ll come.  I know it.

We eat alone most nights.

I reheat his meals for him just before putting her down for bed.  About every other night, he’ll rock her to sleep, letting his food get cold (again), just so that he can have those few minutes with her.

Even though I’m in a new town, surrounded by exciting people, with potential friends all around me, I miss the hell out of my husband.  God help me, he’s still my favorite (grown) person to be around.  I’m lonely.  And I know that he is too.  We lie in bed at night and talk about the vacation that we can’t take.  Suddenly, for the first time for both of us, a vacation of doing nothing—sitting on a beach, reading books, eating food until our bellies hurt—sounds like the most wonderful thing in the world.  No dancing.  No events.  No projects.  No adventures.  Just the two of us, feeling what it’s like to be still. We’re thinking summer 2014. A long weekend.  Just the two of us.

Part of it is due to exhaustion: Through all of this, I have been pregnant.  And I have a fifteen-month-old. And a new house.  That I have to maintain.  And I’m trying to navigate a new town.  And finish my PhD.  So I wake up early to squeeze in as much work as possible.  And still figure out how to prepare all of my own meals, as well as the meals of my daughter and husband. And activities for my girl to keep her stimulated throughout the day while still accomplishing all that I need to do around the house and for the house (often, admittedly, not without the help of television).  And I was diagnosed with dangerously low blood pressure.  So I’m supposed to be taking it easy. Right.

Part of it is due to stress.

Part of it is due to finances.

Part of it is due to trying to find how I fit, what my place is, in my husband’s family, and adjusting to their habits while trying to start some of my own.

Part of it (a large part) is due to guilt.  Every day, the things that I’m not doing, the chaos I’m not addressing, scream at me, remind me that the things I’ve left unfinished don’t just reflect upon me, or affect my life.  They carry the weight of my entire family now.  I’m afraid of it.  The guilt.  So I pop off and roll back under the couch.  Shielded from the rest of the world by the dust bunnies and the darkness, I can let myself lose it. Cry, worry, bite my nails, but mostly just sit, paralyzed.  Until the fear finds me again, driving me back out to face the mess.

This is not what this blog post was supposed to be about.  I set out to write a post about how to live in the Downgrade, how empowering it has been to realize that, though money is tight, I can manage finances, run a household, and still have a happy child, still, occasionally, feel productive at the end of the day.  This post was supposed to be about the good tired, the good fight, the storms that shake the walls and rip branches from the crabapple trees, but leave the sky clear for miles.  That’s what this post was supposed to be about.  But we haven’t gotten to that point yet. There’s still thunder rumbling in the distance.  The front hasn’t passed through.

But this, right now, is a moment of calm, and relative clarity. Though I miss my husband, and have fought with him more than I’ve wanted to since making this move, I also realized that he still is the person I want to be around most.  He’s the person that I miss.  I’ve realized that I’m more capable than I thought because of the Downgrade, and more independent.  My marriage has been tested, is being tested.  Day to day, I realize that I don’t “need” my husband.  But I need him.  Every single day, in some way.  And lying next to me at night.  I need him.  My love hasn’t diminished in any way.  It’s shifting, adjusting, changing, solidifying.  And that’s a good thing to realize.  And a scary thing. But I’m not rolling under the couch.  Not right now.

My budgeting skills, my parenting, my patience, my creative and academic self, all of these things have been challenged, questioned, cast off, reshaped, blown to bits, reassembled, duct taped back together, and melted down and reforged from the scraps. But maybe that’s part of life, of adulthood, of stretching out my fingertips and reaching up on my tippy toes, trying to find the limits of my self, my mind, my cleverness, my soul.  And the good part and the scary part and the exciting part and the uncertain part of that is, even in the Downgrade, I haven’t hit those limits yet.

So, maybe this isn’t a Downgrade. Maybe it’s a Defragging.

Either way, the sun has risen, it’s Saturday morning, and I’m going to get my family some breakfast.  Then, all together, we’ll sit on the couch, turn on cartoons, and laugh at the lovely chaos we have created.

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