A life of conformity
Somewhere back in the early 80’s during ‘The Thatcher Years’ I bought the lie.
The lie that success was measured by my education, my work, job title, salary, car, possessions and my home.
I devoured Good Housekeeping in the late 70’s when I was a poor student. I dreamt of having a home with beautiful soft furnishings and an Aga in the kitchen.
Neither husband or children were in that dream because, post equal pay act I was independent, I had a degree and I was going to be that suited and booted ‘successful career woman’. With an Aga and soft furnishings.
Then the dream of the fairly tale wedding was sold to us – Princess Diana had found her Prince. And I found mine, meeting him on my birthday, after he had lost a £5 note. Indeed it was the old school friend I was with at the time who asked me to see if he was available and perhaps set her up with him that prompted me to get to know him better. We dated. Perhaps I could really ‘have it all’?
Reader I married him
We (the DH and I) were both in work but not earning a great deal and so we rented a cottage attached to a faux manor house in Warlingham. It was lovely with its walled garden with rambling roses and my herb patch. Within a year I was expecting our first child. I was 25 years old.
The landlady turned out to be a malicious old bat and we left, with nowhere to live. Technically homeless. We moved in with the brother in law and brought our daughter home to a tiny room in a small flat.
In less than two years from the day we met, we had a maisonette, a baby and a mortgage that was costing us nearly all one salary. I had to find work as we needed the money.
After being a retail manager and customer services assistant in a major department store the only job I could find I was doing the accounts in a scruffy bathroom shop with a filthy toilet. I left after a week and got a job in an estate agents. That lasted a few months.
I fell on my feet and got a job in customer service at Croydon Cable, one of the first cable tv providers in the UK. I loved that job and the people I worked with. My daughter was finally at a wonderful nursery instead of a ok babyminder not so good childminder and it all seemed as though this would be it for a few years.
Settled and contented
We moved to a two up two down terraced house, got a bigger mortgage, because by then we had two well paid jobs we both loved and could not see that changing. We lived the Thatcher dream. Get a better job, get more debt. We had dinner parties on Saturday night, watched thirtysomething on week nights and Hope was my role model.
Hope and Michael played out lives parallel to ours in many ways. We had friends like Melissa and Gary. Didn’t want to be Nancy. Life and relationships changed in a difficult time politically in the US. In the UK things were also changing and the bubble was about to burst.
Chasing the money
My husband had left the job he loved at Allders, because we needed more money. You can see where this is going. Now he was responsible for all the displays in Radio Rentals showrooms in North London. He had a company car, a lot of autonomy, was out and about and loved the work.
He was doing the job he originally wanted when all those years ago he went to Allders asking for a job in window display. Instead he was taken on in the ticket office, got training to be a printer and then got his best friends from school jobs there too. And they were all very happy in their work and remain friends to this day.
But the days of TV rental were numbered. Things were changing. At one point he was being relocated to Newcastle, which we were happy about. We would move, houses were cheaper, there was nothing to tie us to Surrey. It didn’t happen. The cunning plan of the bag men was of course to hope he would resign and they wouldn’t have to fork out redundancy pay. We could see that and stuck it out and he got redundancy.
He merchandised Mars Bars, I got a job in The City (leaving a job and people I liked at Croydon Cable) because – yup you see the pattern emerging here? We needed more money.
Nothing changes without change
We discussed selling the house and going travelling with a toddler. We didn’t. Who knows what all of our lives would look like now if we had? Instead the DH was offered job in the West Midlands with Do It All as a Point of Sale Manager. Good salary, company car, lots of travel. And so another pattern emerges.
I was offered a job in Birmingham. This is how the interview went. I met my old boss on Green Park Station and when he found out I was relocating, he offered me a job as his PA.
The plan was to sell in Surrey, buy two houses in Birmingham, one cash, one on a mortgage. I still wanted to go travelling, the DH had the sensible head aka this is what you do, work, buy house, have kids, retire… and this was going to be the compromise. Eventually be mortgage free and travel.
But then, Henny Penny, the sky fell in. House prices spiralled, sealed bids were invited on in demand houses and it didn’t happen. We sat it out, bought a rambling three storey house at the cheaper end of the town and spent 10 years refurbishing it. Moved because we had neighbours from hell, to another more sprawling house in need of major work and lived on the top floor while it was gutted. The bath was in the tiny top floor kitchen, the gas had been condemned and we had no floor in the kitchen on the ground floor.
By then we had two children, had survived five redundancies, a lot of debt and contemplated living and sleeping in the lounge room to keep warm in winter. What happened was we got lodgers. Students at first, then overseas students learning English as a foreign language and then professionals as we upgraded the house. And most of the time it worked out well. The DH and I have remained in touch with many of our lodgers. Some are good friends.
Fast forward 3o years or so
I am so over Good Housekeeping. Look at this list of ‘chores‘ that apparently we need to do to keep our beautiful home spotless. By we I mean the woman of the house. Willow Towers was in need of more work, the DH and I were no longer happy to share our house. We had just got back from housesitting in Melbourne where there had just been the two of us and we liked it that way. We looked around the house and thought
‘this is not the life we want’.
In September 2015 we decided to sell and gave the lodgers notice. In October it sold and in November we downsized, moving to a two up two down and became mortgage and debt free.
We moved to a low maintenance, lock up and go house. No carpets to clean because you know, life is too short. Plan A is to live there a year or so, then rent it out. Plan B to sell it and buy a two bed apartment with no stairs, in the city, Plan C to live in a camper van. Or Plan D. Whatever that may be.
I look back now and realise that on balance we both have had jobs we have loved, working with people we liked. We still have friends from work.
Yes we have done some pretty shitty jobs too – post redundancy and in fear of losing the house. I have worked in call centres and the DH has door knocked to sell cable TV.
He now works part time driving a mobile library, a job he loves and a job other people think is awesome. I am supposed to be project managing the renovations. Instead I am dog walking in Wales and grappling with WordPress. We volunteer for the food bank I used to work for and like Mary Poppins, wait for the wind to change.
Who knows? Suddenly I realise I am in my late 50’s and the DH in his early 60’s. That has been weighing on my mind a lot recently. It is young and it is not. I know 70 year olds with more energy than I. And younger people with less. At my age my nan had false teeth, permed grey curls and wore crimplene dresses. So I am doing fine but not as fine as I would like to be. I have been ill for three months. My back aches. I need sun.
Both our children have left home. They did ok considering the parents they have. They are smart, funny and they are kind. Out of all the things I have done in my life, having these two wonderful people has given me the most joy. They continue to surprise and delight me.
It wasn’t always easy
My parenting role model wasn’t what you call average. Hey, Dad left us hooray, he use to beat his kids. Mom took multiple jobs to afford to pay for me to go on school trips. Nan made me banana and custard for tea. Mom got a teaching job and I had to learn to cook because she couldn’t. I thought Super Nanny had it sussed. I was wrong. Kids, I am sorry. I did my best. It wasn’t good enough. But you did good. I am proud of you.
The days are long when you don’t work
I am not a hobby kind of person. My mom, in her ‘retirement’ took up knitting, golfing, ebaying, photography, painting, and bought all she needed for these hobbies. Each lasted a couple of years.
She hoarded her life in shoe boxes and took solace in buying clothes. I tried to knit a ‘pussy hat’. It is still in the bag, stitches cast on and abandoned. I have a colouring book. I read. I declutter a lot as the hoarding gene was inherited.
At the end, she regretted not going to India. Travel was when she was happiest, yet she was always reaching out for more. Instead of living her last years on a sunny terrace in Greece she was bedridden and relied on oxygen.
My grandad dreamt of a cottage by the sea. He ended his years on a sofa in the front room, reliant on oxygen. My aunt, ended her years on a hospital bed in her kitchen. She was surrounded by years of newspapers piled up everywhere, which we were not allowed to move, not even to sit on a chair. There was a portapotty by her side and she too was reliant on oxygen. Her regret? Spending time looking after everyone else and not seeing more of the world.
So what is the plan?
My fitness is of a concern. These past few weeks I have been dog walking and my Fitbit tells me I am averaging 8000 steps. Spring is here so the excuses not to go swimming (cold, cold, cold) are wearing thin. I need to eat better food and this week I have been hovering between 5 and 10 veg or fruit a day. My hula hooping pal wants me to join her class. Yoga perhaps?
House Sitting has removed me from the small house that has quite frankly been getting me down. By now I had hoped that the impossible kitchen would have been replaced but all I am doing is waiting on other people. It is out of my control which is difficult.
An all inclusive sun holiday is booked for June. Post building work I hope.
Still more house clearing in Winchester.
I think I need a plan. With a date on it.