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Hey Jealousy: money, moms, and envy

by Meagan Francis on May 25, 2011

When I decided nearly a decade ago that I really, really wanted to be a freelance writer – perhaps the world’s most envy-inducing occupation – I joined several writing communities both online and in real life for support and advice. The dynamics in these groups were often tense. We all liked each other, and really wanted the best for each other…but we also wanted to get our own great assignments, awards, and book deals, too. No matter how much I was rooting for a buddy of mine, it was hard – sometimes really hard – not to let jealousy and envy cloud my excitement when something great happened for her.

After a while I began to realize that I experienced several pretty distinct kinds of envy, depending on the person and situation. One kind of envy said “Wow, I’m so happy for her! I can get there one day if I try.” That kind of envy was actually pretty inspiring. It was a longing for something I knew I could get if I put my mind to it – because now I had proof via my peer’s success.

Another kind of envy seemed to say, “Wow, that’s great for her, but I really could have done that if I’d tried harder.” That was a more negative kind of envy; the envy of missed opportunities.

And then there was the third, worst kind of envy; the sort that sat like a heavy sickening ball in my stomach and made my shoulders tense up and my heart race in indignation. It sounded something like “She doesn’t deserve this, she’s not that talented, I could have done better, it’s not fair, this makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry and stab things, I HATE HER STUPID FACE!” Ever felt this way? It’s actually jealousy, not envy. The difference is subtle, but basically, envy is desiring an object (that car or book deal or house) that belongs to somebody else. Jealousy is feeling negatively toward the individual who has the thing you want. In both cases you feel discontented, but with jealousy, it’s personal, baby.

I’ve been thinking on my experiences with jealousy and envy since our discussion about keeping up (or not) with the Joneses last week, and while freelancing isn’t a perfect analogy, there are definitely some parallels. The good news is, envy and jealousy can – with some work and reflection and self-awareness and all that jazz – be contained, or even channeled for good. But before you can come up with strategies for squelching jealousy and muzzling envy, I think you have to know where it’s coming from. Some possibilities:

  • A fixed-pie mentality. The way you see the world, the more somebody else has, the less that’s left for you. No wonder you’re jealous!
  • “I should have that, too.” So why don’t you? I’m not asking to be flip, but simply to point out that there might be factors you aren’t considering. For example, maybe Mrs. Jones has to travel a few times a month to land her fantastic salary and you know that would make you miserable. Perhaps Mr. Jones went to college for twelve years, something neither you or your spouse were up for. Perhaps they work harder. Perhaps they just got lucky. Unpacking why the Joneses actually have what they have can help you get really clear about a) whether you actually want it, after all and b) how somebody might go about getting it.
  • Looking outward, instead of inward, to set your priorities and find your self-worth. ‘Nuff said.
  • A skewed idea of what is “normal”. Nicole – or was it Maggie? – said: “There are some psychological tricks that cause us to base our beliefs about what is average on things that are vivid rather than average. So the one really nice lawn sticks in our mind, the really nice car etc. (even if the person with the lawn doesn’t have the car).” Yes! This is heightened if we hang out mostly with people who have more than we do, no matter how nice and great they are. You start to think that‘s the normal, that everyone lives that way and you’re the only one who’s missing out.
  • Sometimes, people are just jerks. I don’t think that looking down on people who have more than you is a great strategy for getting past envy, or making friends for that matter, but let’s face it: sometimes, people really are just jerks. And yes, it is unfair when jerks get ahead. Especially when they can’t stop telling you about it. However, it’s also a waste of your time to worry about it, because they’re jerks, and that is its own punishment.

As a writer, I experience envy far less than I used to. Why is that? I think it’s because I’m so busy doing my own thing, I don’t really have time to worry about what anyone else is doing. I’ve been in the game long enough to see the way it works: sometimes you draw a great hand and are riding on top of the world, and other times, you can’t seem to get anyone’s attention and wonder what you’re doing wrong. It happens to everyone, even to those people who seem, on the surface, to have fabulous careers and perfect lives.

Tomorrow I’m going to post some of the strategies I’ve come up with for squashing jealousy and using envy as a tool for self-improvement. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you: did any of the possible reasons above seem to apply to you? Do you believe that somebody else’s gain is your loss? Have you lost perspective on what’s normal because all your college friends drive brand-new cars and live in mansions while you’re clunking down the street in the car you got in college to your modest three-bedroom home (you know, the one that used to seem so big…) Or is there another reason for your envy or jealousy? Let’s talk!

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Kyle May 25, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Hey Meagan, I just came across your blog yesterday and totally love it! Jealousy can definitely grip all of us in the worst way sometimes. Sometimes I don’t even realize it until all of the sudden I haven’t talked to one of my closest friends in over a week! Fortunately, forgiveness is even stronger and we can all pick up the pieces and move forward together.

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Meagan Francis May 25, 2011 at 3:25 pm

Thanks Kyle, glad you’re here!

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Maman A Droit May 25, 2011 at 2:50 pm

One thing I face falls in the “why” category and is simply that I’m younger than most moms I guess-I was 23 when I had my son which isn’t all that young, but younger than average around here. Anyway, my husband’s only 1 year out of grad school so we’re obviously in a totally different financial situation than someone who has their first kid at 30 or 35 and maybe had time to pay off student loans and buy a house before having kids. Anyway, it’s easy to feel like “all the other moms” at church/the park/ the library have nicer clothes than me and can afford expensive Mommy N Me classes, but that’s why. And I’m happy with our decision to start our family sooner rather than later!

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Meagan Francis May 25, 2011 at 3:26 pm

I’ve been there Maman – I used to really wonder why everyone else who had kids my kids’ ages seemed so much better off. Then it occurred to me, duhh, most of them were at least ten or fifteen years older than I was at the time! They’d simply had more time to become established, pay off those student loans, and save up. It was unreasonable to expect to be where they were right away. I think that’s similar to how a lot of parents with young kids compare their financial situations to the lifestyles they remember having as teenagers…but by the time we were teenagers, our parents were simply older, and for many of them that meant better pay, more savings, etc.

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Cate @ Liberal Simplicity May 25, 2011 at 4:58 pm

I feel like you wrote this for me, because I struggle with exactly the same type of envy! I had my first baby when I was 19 and my husband was 28. I was unable to even work and save up during my pregnancy because I was literally bedridden with morning sickness. My husband is a teacher, which doesn’t exactly rake in the money. So I find myself comparing our financial situation to families with higher-paying jobs or a decade or more of saving up before having kids–and that’s when I’m not comparing myself to my former classmates, who are still single and spending money freely. :-) But when I really think about it, I love my husband and our daughter and the life we have crafted together, and I wouldn’t give that up for more money.

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Jenni May 25, 2011 at 3:06 pm

I have struggle with this too, but I when I find that I am feeling envious or jealous I ask myself:

Do I really want “that”? I realize that for a moment I may want “that”, but when I really look at “that” most times I wouldn’t trade what I have now for “that”.

If the answer is “Yes, I do want ‘that’ “, I then ask myself: What do I need to do to make “that” happen? No situation can be replicated exactly, therefore there is no use to try. But it is possible to create a similar situation – that is within my capabilities.

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Meagan Francis May 25, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Jenni, that’s very similar to a little mantra I often say when I’m feeling envious: “I couldn’t have THIS and THAT and right now I’d rather have THIS.”

But like you, I sometimes really DO want that. And sometimes envy is a great tool that way. You can use it to get inspired to make changes in your own life.

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Karen L May 26, 2011 at 11:54 am

A couple of related sayings I’ve picked up from a wise friend are: “It’s great to have choices but you still have to choose.” and “You can do anything but you can’t do everything.” at least not all at once. I’ve usually thought of those in the context of choosing how to spend time but they’re pretty apt for how we choose to spend our money, too.

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Crystal May 25, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Hi Megan. 1st i want to tell you that i came across your book a little over a week ago. I was really struggling with the sense that I was surviving motherhood when what I really wanted to do was enjoy it. I felt so trapped. You book got awsome reviews on Amazon so I got it. All I can say is thank you so much for writing it. I feel like it was written for me. I needed to hear that it was ok for me to raise my kids my way. I plan on reading your book over and over just to help me keep the positive perspective that I now enjoy. I will admit there are some things that I know will be hard for me – like asking for help. When I read the chapter about taking care of yourself I kept thinking “yeah but….” I’m working on it. : )
So now to the question at hand. I had my second child end of last year. I really started to struggle with jealousy. My husband works part time and goes to school full time. It’s been a long road and there is still a few years to go. There were so many things that felt like these huge road blocks – like the semester he was ready to transfer to Cal Poly Pomona was the same semester they annouced they wouldn’t be taking applications for another year due to budget cuts. After I had my second I found myself so jealous of all the other moms with their big houses and maid services and newest cars with the newest gadgets. It feels like I am the only one with out a smart phone. ( I laugh now – but for a while it seemed essentail). I stopped going to playdates and hanging around the usual groups because it was eating me up inside. I had to step away from it. I think that I really felt like it was the norm. i took some time and really thought about my life and my husbands. I believe the experience we have had – before we meet and after – have brought us together and made us who we are today. If doing things different just so I could have a big house would mean not having him in my life or my two beautiful children – then it’s not worth it. I realized that there will always be a bigger house. I always felt that happiness is a choice – having a second child shouldn’t change that belief. I knew if I couldn’t be happy now – I wouldn’t be later either. I won’t say that it went away over night. But I did change a few things. I started hanging out with more of my friends in the same boat as me. Not only has it helped me see what my norm really is – but I’ve found a pretty nice support group too. I am really learning to appreciate the little things every day.
Sense I finished your book over the weekend – I can honestly say that Monday and Tuesday were very successful days! Even though they were nothing like I used to think they should be ( course it’s only Wednesday – lol).

thanks again for sharing your story with me. I don’t think I can express to you how much it saved me : )

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Meagan Francis May 26, 2011 at 7:36 am

Crystal, thank you so much for this comment – it really made my day.

“I believe the experience we have had – before we meet and after – have brought us together and made us who we are today.”

Yes, yes, yes. You are so right, and it’s something I try to keep in mind whenever I’m wondering if my life took the turns and twists it was “supposed” to. If I hadn’t had all of those, I wouldn’t have the life I have now.

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Jen May 25, 2011 at 3:48 pm

This is such a great reminder for me. I have worked very hard this year as one of my resolutions to be satisfied with what I have whether it be my house, my blogs/writing, etc. It is a struggle sometimes for the reasons you listed above but similar to what both you and Jenni said above there are some changes I am not willing to make to get whatever it is I don’t have. If I am willing to make the change, I know it is worth working towards!

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oilandgarlic May 25, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Great post and thanks for doing a follow-up to the Joneses post. I guess I tend to feel more jealous than envy! Right now, I am jealous of SAHmoms with free time.

My kids are not at the stage where I can compare activities but I think that when they get there, I have to focus on the fact that my siblings and I did not participate in tons of activities (no money) but all turned out fine and went to good colleges. I know there will be family pressure in some ways becaus they want grandkids to be exposed to the “best” and have the best, but I know many people who had those advantages and are less accomplished.

I don’t have a solution but I tend to get less jealous the more I know a person and see beyond the surface.

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Wendy Mihm May 25, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Great post! Fortunately I haven’t had to deal with envy per-se. What I’ve had more of is more like questioning why certain people are successful when they don’t appear to offer all that much that is unique or fantastic. Don’t get me wrong — about 95% of the time when I see someone out there who is an accomplished writer or blogger, I immediately ‘get’ why they have achieved their level of success. But that other 5% of the time I just go “Huh?” And then I doubt myself and my chances…

Thanks for a great read.

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Meagan Francis May 26, 2011 at 7:39 am

Wendy, that’s so true, and in so many different areas of life. Like you go to a restaurant that’s been around forever, it’s always packed, so you expect great things. Turns out the food’s overpriced and not that great and the service stinks, and you’re left scratching your head. But sometimes people get successful through good luck or chance or smart marketing or sheer persistence. I can’t let it get to me, because then I’d never be able to get any of my own stuff done, you know?

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erin from swonderland May 25, 2011 at 7:35 pm

you always hit the nail on the head! i have words to say about the jealousy/envy thing but they involve people i cannot discuss on the internet. i hear what wendy is saying, too. some of it is luck, i think, and having a self-promoting personality.

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Karina May 25, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Thanks for posting such interesting thoughts which lead to great self-reflection. I’m a 32 y/o first time mom and to the ladies who mention having had kids younger, I have to say I feel their pain in a different way. Traditionally hispanic women have their children before turning 30 or are finished by 30 and here I am… I know that measuring myself to such norm is not healthy but having grown up in the mainstream culture, I thought that having accomplished my degrees, exercised my profession and saved money would be enough. It really is because I feel established and that provides a certain sense of security (for me), except when it comes to the ‘age thing’… I feel as if I’m at a disadvantage. I’m fortunate that my friends with children are around my age or older because if I had younger moms around I’d envy their youth and energy level (I’m sorry). However, with envy I happen to be at the receiving end – with friends my same age or older who are single and want children. So as you can see it is not always about money, bigger homes or nice cars.

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Ana May 26, 2011 at 11:07 am

Karina, I’m with you (and I think we may be in the minority here?) as an older mom who sometimes feels envious of younger mothers. Not just the youth & energy, but also the prospect of more life ahead of them once the kids are grown (whereas I’ll be at retirement age!) & more time & energy to enjoy any future grandchildren.
Of course this isn’t something I can go back in time & change, so the envy/jealousy is completely unproductive, and takes away from the fact that I really truly am happy & blessed, and everything I wanted has come into my life (though it took its own sweet time!!!)

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Ricky May 26, 2011 at 4:31 am

Jealousy is a very strange thing. I am most certainly not a jealous person at all in fact I am extremely relaxed and un-jealous, but it is weird how jealous feelings can come around over the smallest and petty things. You raised some very interesting points.

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Alison Alfredson May 26, 2011 at 4:32 am

Hi Megan,
I think it was spot on how to describe envy vs. jealousy. It is so nice to know seeing my neighbor’s beautiful lawn and wishing I could have it is just envy. I’m not jealous of them thank God. It is such a negative emotion. I haven’t felt real jealousy in a long time. But envious…more than I’d like to admit.

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Nicoleandmaggie May 26, 2011 at 5:18 am

I think I go through all of those from time to time. Like yesterday!

And sometimes, the jealousy/envy is valid. For example, in my field, tall good looking white guys have it much easier than anybody else. Even if they are lazier and their papers are not as good and their cvs are not as dense, they get advantages and opportunities that the rest of us have to work much harder to get. And then they don’t take full advantage of those opportunities when they get them. (Not saying all attractive tall white guys in my field are lazy– they’re not, there’s just a subset who are.) The rest of us have to work harder, have longer cvs, better cited papers, more networking, etc. to get the same opportunities. I don’t think there’s anything to be done about it as a short faceless female cog, other than working harder, but it is annoying.

Mindsets by Dweck is an awesome book for getting out of a fixed mindset.

That psychological phenomenon mentioned above is called the availability heuristic. (It has a related friend called the representativeness heuristic.)

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Karen L May 26, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Thanks for making these points, Nicoleandmaggie. I think it is important for us to recognise how our various privileges and oppressions operate. Yes, I may have worked hard and made good choices on the path to where I am but white, middle class, and able-bodied privilege have gone a long way for me, too.

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Olivia May 26, 2011 at 5:47 am

My jealousy usually stems from the skewed thoughts of what is normal. If my friend (or friend of a friend) can afford to go on awesome vacations and still live in a nice house, why can’t I? What am I doing wrong that I can’t make that happen?

To squelch those thoughts I remind myself that person X may have been at their job longer and thus makes more $ and has more leave time. I also wonder if they carry more debt or maybe they bought that BMW used and not new. It’s tough because as I said in an earlier money thread, travel is my biggest sticking point as far as keeping up with the joneses.

My husband and I have already agreed to live in a small house, drive our cars till the wheels fall off and send our kids to public school so we can save for travel. We just haven’t gotten there yet because he’s been in school, but that should be changing soon once he graduates and finds a job.

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FireMom May 26, 2011 at 6:26 am

I fall into this trap every now and then. I’m the “baby” of my friend group. Most of my friends are 5-10 years older than me and are thus 5-10 years ahead in their careers … and their homes. Most of them have moved onto their second house, which is usually a bigger home than that first home purchase. My husband and I are 5 years into our 8 year plan for our first home. It’s small. The neighborhood isn’t perfect. And every now and then, I get that twinge of, “Man, she has a really nice house.”

And then I kick myself in the butt.

We bought below what we could afford because we were being safe. We have everything we need and more. Someday, God willing, we’ll have a big more room. And even if we don’t? We’re blessed beyond our wildest dreams.

I’m able to keep that viewpoint 98% of the time.

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Jen in MN May 26, 2011 at 7:31 am

FireMom, I love your perspective on this. We too have a smaller (or rather, just old-fashioned cramped layout), older home in a just-OK neighborhood. We bought WISELY, safely, for our income level. I know it was the best possible way to go. And yet I find myself longing for a more-modern home layout in a newer area. All in good time!

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Camille May 26, 2011 at 7:28 am

Meagan, I love your take on different types of envy (and “I hate her stupid face” is hilarious). I think you’re right about jerks—being a jerk *is* its own punishment. Smart stuff!

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Emily May 26, 2011 at 8:07 am

The general brainwashing of modern-day society (I mean all the brainwashing done by marketing depts. of major corporations–you have to have this, and right now, or die) makes the “skewing what is normal” very easy to fall into.

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RAchel May 26, 2011 at 11:26 am

When I first heard about your blog and started reading, it seemed like a really great, positive mommy friend talking. Now, with the past two weeks, I am so touched by your honesty and ability to speak out the nuances of the primal feelings so many people/moms have. These are such important topics to be honest with ourselves about if we are to live a fulfilling life. I appreciate this more than you know and only with these conversations were in someone’s living room, in person with cups of tea and tears and smiles – building comraderie that we’re all in this together

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Adventures In Babywearing May 26, 2011 at 11:38 am

I think it’s all relative- and I try to remind myself of this OFTEN. Like most people, we make sacrifices to have the lifestyle we have (not to lead anyone on, we live quite modestly) but, like- we live in a very small house with a very low mortgage. We don’t do family vacations but have in the past had our families forgo spending money on more toys for the kids at holidays and instead do a weekend waterpark getaway together. I can imagine people wondering about the things we have or get to do but truthfully most of them are because they are perks of my husband’s job or mine. Outside of that, we’d never have or do those things. I also have seen other family members who are in the ministry be judged because of the cars they have or the things they get to do. Because I am “in the know” I know that most of their things were generously donated, etc by people that just want to give.

I try to remember this when it comes to ME feeling jealous of others or wondering how in the world they have what they have or do what they do- if that makes sense! Almost *every*one has a story…

Steph

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Jessica May 26, 2011 at 12:51 pm

mine is usually the missed opportunity and I feel bad about not working harder. maybe if i was easier on myself that would help?

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Austin Custom Home Builder  June 27, 2011 at 12:09 pm

This is very intresting. I have joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your great post.

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Ivy July 21, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Maman A Droit, I agree 23 is not so young to have your first. I too see the differences between the age groups. Reading that there are other who feel the same helps. But more that we are trying to overcome those emotions. How I am coping, I yhink we each made choices. Too have children early or to wait. And then I think ok I still would do it again and I feel at peace with my choice.

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