I suppose it has something to do with the fact that I work for an organization that focuses on responding to hunger. Almost every day, I look for ways of creatively communicating hunger-related issues in ways that will resonate with Canadians and convince them that they should care about the 800 million people going to bed hungry every day.
Whatever the case, these days I find myself more and more concerned with finding a better balance in my life – between the things I want and need, and between the things that really matter in life and the clutter that gets in the way. In the last few months, there have been a few reminders why this is important. My trip to Africa was a big one – it’s hard not to notice the huge difference between the way they live and the way I do. Only an un-caring person would walk away from that and not take some personal responsibility for their suffering.
But it really started long before I went to Africa and long before I got this job. A few years ago, Marcel and I took a step back, re-evaluated what was important in our lives, and decided to make some changes.
In a culture where great importance is placed on acquiring more things, we found ourselves getting caught on the same hamster wheel as everyone else. “Make more money to buy more things” the ads scream at you. Buy more things and then you need more money to maintain that lifestyle. Make even MORE money and start letting your things control your lifestyle. Get a bigger house, send the kids off to daycare, buy a bigger van to pull the boat and the camper you just bought, get a better job, work more overtime, spend less time with the kids… you get the picture.
At some point in the vicious cycle on that hamster wheel, you either decide to commit yourself entirely to its endless motion, or you get off. A lot of people decide to keep spinning. We decided to get off.
The first thing to go was Marcel’s job. He’d been miserable for quite awhile and found he had no desire to stay in the transportation industry, even if it meant more promotions and more money. He longed for the education he’d never gotten. We weren’t sure we could survive on one income and somehow be able to afford his tuition, but we decided to take a risk. If he arranged his classes around the kids’ schedules, we wouldn’t need a babysitter very often and our daycare bills would go down. The added bonus would be that our kids could spend a large majority of their time with their parents.
It wasn’t easy at first. We had to give up some of the luxuries of our lifestyle – less meals at restaurants, get rid of the cell phone, more second-hand clothes, less vacations, no more cable TV. But before long, we recognized the benefits were outweighing the costs. The kids were happier when they got to come home from school instead of going to daycare. We were spending more quality time as a family because we weren’t rushing around as much. We ate more wholesome food because we had more time to prepare meals rather than grabbing something quick after a long day at work.
The next step was my job. That was another big decision. I was offered a dream job at a non-profit organization, but we just weren’t sure I could take the pay cut it required, plus lose all the benefits of a fairly long career in the government. Once again, though, we decided the risk was worth the pain. We found more things to cut, and I took the leap. Again, the benefits far outweighed the costs. I was much happier, felt fulfilled in my new job, got great opportunities, and my whole family benefited when I came home at the end of the day with less stress and no “on-call” cell phone attached to my hip like an albatross.
These days, we’re facing more steps in our downsizing process. With the current cost of gas, and the consciousness that we are not doing the environment any favours by driving a big vehicle, we’ve decided to sell the van. We’re shopping for a car. Again, there will be costs. We’ll have less space to haul around our stuff, the kids will probably fight more because they’ll be stuck sitting next to each other in the back seat. And along with the van, we’ll also have to get rid of the “toys” we pull behind it. The big camper will give way to a small pop-up camper or tent. The boat will go.
Some people look at us funny these days. Alot of people, along the way, have told us we’re nuts. “You’re going back to school? But you’re almost FORTY!” “You’re quitting a good government job? Are you CRAZY?” “How in the world do you plan to live on only one income?” The kids have felt the pinch, too. Their friends get to have more cool toys, go on more exotic trips, live in bigger houses, have new clothes instead of hand-me-downs, get involved in more activities – it’s not easy to sit back and watch other people have all the fun, especially when you’re a kid.
Despite all of that, I don’t regret any of our decisions. In fact, now that we’ve taken a few major steps along the way, and I’ve seen the rewards, I actually look FORWARD to getting rid of the van, the camper, and the boat. I feel lighter already – like I’ve just thrust off a layer of winter clothes and can dance barefoot in the grass again.
There’s no way to define the value of all the things we’ve gained. I didn’t realize the stress of our old lifestyle until it was gone. Now, when I watch parents dropping off their kids at daycare, I feel a weight on my shoulders when I remember how much that used to hurt.
I notice it most when I come home from work. I come home happy because the stress of my old job is gone. Marcel is happy because he LOVES school and feels fulfilled like he never has before. The kids are happy because they’ve been home with their dad and haven’t spent the last few hours at daycare. Supper’s usually cooked because Marcel likes cooking and has more time for it now. It’s all good.
No, we can’t go to Australia for our vacation this year, like some of our daughters’ friends have. And no, we won’t be buying a bigger house, even though our little kitchen drives us all crazy. And no, we won’t be able to go out for supper this week, because it’s not in the budget. On top of that, there are many, many times when we're not sure we can stretch the dollar to the end of the pay period.
I have to tell you, though, life is good.