I knew when I came out to my ex-husband as gay that doing so would mean a “downgrade” in lifestyle for me. Getting divorced would mean a shift from a two-income household to a single-income household — I would have to cut spending on everything from the size of my house to how frequently I could get my hair professionally colored (i.e., instead of going to the salon twice per year, I would go zero times per year). It would mean shopping not just the sale racks, but at thrift shops.
I was fine with that. What scared me when I used to think about moving into my own significantly smaller, older home was that maybe my kids wouldn’t want to hang out at my house. What if they would rather hang out at the huge, shiny new abode with the pool and the surround sound theater system? What could I give them besides warmth and cleanliness? Maybe my kids would prefer staying at their dad’s, where they were surrounded by nice things. I mean, who wouldn’t choose a DoubleTree over a Motel 6?
When I expressed these fears to my therapist, she shook her head at me. “That’s not how that works,” she said. “Your kids will want to be with you because they love you and you’re their mom. The location won’t matter.” My mom and sister told me the same thing. The few friends who I confided in said the same thing. Everyone told me the house wouldn’t matter.
But the fear stuck. Everything in my head at that time was all fear. I wanted to believe what my therapist and loved ones told me, but for so long I had adhered to the notion that leveling up your circumstances was the main point in life. When you’re trying to convince yourself you can live life as a straight person even though you’re gay, you seek out other ways to prove to yourself that you’re happy. For me, comfort and a beautiful home in a beautiful neighborhood was one of the ways I did that. Look at this beautiful life, I would tell myself. How in the world could anyone living this life not be happy?
The irony that I was in fact incredibly unhappy in that beautiful house, in that picture-perfect, enviable life, completely slipped by me when it came to fearing what my kids would think when they saw their new comparably shabby home. If material circumstances couldn’t make me happy, why on earth did I think it would matter to my kids?
Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake that fear. I still remember how hard my heart pounded the first time I drove my kids to our new house. The neighborhood is obviously not as upscale as what they were used to, and all of the supposed inferiority seemed to jump out at me as I steered the car down the narrow streets. No gate, no sidewalks, mismatched fences, and the utility lines are strung between poles rather than running tidily underground. I worried they’d think, Oh no, this is it?
But they didn’t. Right away they found pretty things to point out in my neighborhood. The towering old oak trees. One home with a lush, unruly garden out front. A house that looked “like a cute fairytale cottage.” The adorable elderly couple walking together, one with a walker, who waved at us as we drove by. A group of kids shooting hoops at the edge of the street. I don’t know if my kids could feel my anxiety or not, but they had absolutely nothing negative to say.
It was the same when it came to my actual house. There is nothing exciting, nothing shiny and new or elegant in my house, though it is actually a beautiful home, nicer even than the house I grew up in. But it’s still very obviously not as nice as the home I’d shared with my ex. The main thing it has going for it is that it’s cozy — and the kids picked up on that right away. They ran through the house excitedly, pointing out the features they liked. The thick carpet, which I had assumed I’d rip up and replace with tile or wood laminate once my finances settled. They made me promise to keep it because it was “so soft.” The ancient appliances because they’re “retro.” The backyard, which was treeless, but large and green. For my kids, it was a place to run and play with the dog. They each made plans for how they would place the furniture in their new rooms and what colors they’d paint their walls.
They loved the house. That still isn’t the point though, because as sweet as my kids were about finding all the good in their new little house, it still isn’t the house that makes them want to stay here with me. My therapist was right. My mom, sister, and friends were right. It’s me. I could have moved into a tiny apartment and they still would have found things to love about it.
My kids love being here because they love me and because they know that here, they are loved. I do try to make things special for them while they’re here — we take a lot of walks and play a lot of music and watch a lot of movies. But it’s wanting to be with their mom that is the main draw.
I didn’t understand when I was still so terrified of coming out, when I was still trying so hard to be this perfect suburban straight woman, that it’s not the house that is their home. It never was. I am their home. We are each other’s home. I finally get that now.