finding contentment in the home you have

our kitchen and dining room - currently under construction

During the first few years of our marriage and parenting life, my husband and I lived in a series of small, inexpensive apartments. All had bland white walls. All had boring, beige-y carpet. Most had small, dated bathrooms and kitchens.

But the whole “Keeping up with the Joneses” thing never really spoke to me back then. As 20-year-old parents, we didn’t even know where the Joneses lived. Certainly they weren’t hanging out with us at the apartment-complex playground. Most of the other moms I saw while out and about seemed positively geriatric (in reality, they were probably about as old as I am now) and rich, what with their newer-model vehicles and salon manicures. It never even occurred to me to want what they had, though – what would be the point? It was as though we were living on different planets.

But as the years went by, the age gap between myself and other moms started to close – or at least, it seemed to close – and slowly, as Jon and I transitioned out of college-kid food-service type jobs into careers, the income gap narrowed, too. Strangely, that’s when I got my first taste of what it really means to feel discontented with what you have. It’s one thing to tour a mansion when you’re living on minimum wage – it’s such worlds apart from your reality, that you can just enjoy it for what it is without wondering why it’s not yours. It’s another thing entirely to visit with friends who have things that are nice, but not so much nicer than yours. It’s a lot easier to imagine yourself in their shoes…and in their big homes and remodeled kitchens and tastefully-decorated living rooms. And you can spend an awful lot of time and energy worrying about the fact that you don’t have what they do.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting nice things or trying to improve your surroundings…in fact, it’s a lot of fun, and I get a mental boost from living in a tidy, attractive house. But it’s easy for “wanting nice things” to turn into “wanting nicer things and feeling bad, resentful, or embarrassed because I don’t have them.” How do you keep from crossing that line and falling down the rabbit hole of jealousy and discontent?

I’ve been trying to be a lot more conscious of what we do have rather than what we don’t over the last few years, but it’s not always easy. I’ve shared here that we live in a 100+ year old home that had been stripped of most of its original charm – save some crumbling plaster – and how we were convinced we’d be able to turn it into a showplace relatively easily and inexpensively. Thousands of dollars spent on unsexy things like garage doors and retaining walls later, I realized that there’s a lot more to updating an older home than might meet the eye. Now we’re getting ready to renovate our kitchen. The remodel our budget will allow is, admittedly, not quite up to my initial fantasies. But for the very first time we are actually going to make a major change to our very own home. That’s something I couldn’t even imagine in our first little apartment, 14 years ago.

Yes, sometimes I’m frustrated because we don’t have glossy hardwood throughout or because the tub surround is peeling away from the wall. But then I think about what we do have: a solid foundation, plenty of space to work with and lots of time (if not money) to make our home feel more homey by the year, and I realize that it’s counterproductive – and frankly, pretty spoiled – of me to allow that moment of discontent to take root and grow. Since we all need to remind ourselves sometimes to seek satisfaction, here are some tricks I’ve learned along the way that help me take the focus off what I don’t have and cultivate contentment for what I do:

  • Make the most of what you’re stuck with. Our house has a 10X10 galley kitchen with all kinds of awkward things going on, and of course when we moved in I had grand ideas about what we could eventually do with it. But like I said, I’ve learned a lot in the last year and a half. As knocking down walls or adding on is not an option with our budget – and that isn’t likely to change for a decade or two – we’re pretty much stuck with the current footprint. Once I finally accepted that the kitchen in this house will probably always be on the small side, I suddenly was able to see the benefits to a smaller kitchen and am finding that there are things I actually prefer about it. Satisfaction is a lot easier to find when you put some effort into looking for it.
  • Change what you can. For the first year we lived in our house, I cringed every time I looked at our cheap, ragged living-room carpet. I knew that “one day” I wanted hardwood floors in that room, and because I was so focused on that goal, I couldn’t bring myself to improve upon the room as it was. Finally I broke down and bought an inexpensive area rug that covers much of the center of the room. The improvement was so huge that I immediately felt better about living with those carpets for a while. I bet it would look even better if I’d bother to shampoo them every once in a while!
  • Be realistic about what “other people” really have. It’s so easy to fall into the “everyone else has…” trap, but when I take an honest look at my peers – the people about my same age, from similar backgrounds, who have children – it’s easy to see we are all in very similar boats: we’re living in modest homes that we’re slowly working on as we go and scouring Craigslist and IKEA for deals.  The vast majority of folks I know who have a lot nicer homes than we do at least ten years older or came from much wealthier families to begin with. And those homes in magazine spreads? First of all, they’re professionally staged, lighted, and photographed. Second, you know they only look that tidy for at most five minutes after the shoot!

When I was newly married, I remember my mom telling me about the home she and my dad had moved into when they were first married. “I hated it and couldn’t wait to move because it was so small and outdated,” she said. “But looking back, I wish I had seen its potential. It could have been such a cute little house if I’d just tried harder to make it a home.”

My mom’s words have stuck with me all these years. The truth is that no matter how much time or money I pour into my house, it’ll never be as grand or designer-perfect as some other people’s. But that’s OK. What matters is that it’s my home, the place where my family retreats, plays, relaxes, works, and lives. And whether it’s a ten-bedroom mansion or a small apartment with dingy carpet, home is something to celebrate and make the most of.

Like this post? You might also like these: silencing the green-eyed monster, 3 ways to forget about the Joneses, and moms, money and envy.

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