It started innocently enough with an online sale. The kind of online sale that let’s you meet likeminded parents: cloth diapers, children’s bikes. This one was for a ring sling. While teaching the buyer to use my ring sling, we had stricken a conversation about twins. This young mama had 6 month-old twins, her first children. I looked at her with the confidence of the mother who has it all figured out and said: “I know how tough it is right now but don’t worry: they’ll sleep someday, it gets better.” She said: “Oh sleep is no problem! Since they were born we made sure to have a really consistent bedtime routine and when we tuck them in their beds they know it’s sleep time and they just go to sleep!”
Well, I try hard not to swear but F-my-luck. I haven’t slept a good night since 2009 and having twins nearly killed me. From the day they were born until Lucas was 16 months I did not sleep longer than 45 minutes in a row. When he was 10 months-old I realized that I had seen every single hour on my alarm clock, every single night, for the last 10 months so I got rid of the alarm clock. It was easier than getting rid of the baby. That young mom’s innocent comment made me feel like maybe I had missed something. Maybe I could have been sleeping all this time and my restless nights were due to a lack of skills or determination. And those negative feelings reopened a door I had long thought closed: the door of envy.
St. Thomas Aquinas defined envy as sorrow at the good fortune of others. Its flip side is rejoicing at the downfall of others. Envy is that silent “YES!!” moment when we learn of the downfall of someone we had been envying. As if something in us died when our neighbor succeeded.
I struggled for many years with envy after my older children were born. I was convinced that my decision to put my career on hold while my children were young (ha! Famous last words as I still have young children almost 20 years later) was the right decision for our family. Yet, I looked with envy at the material things my friends who worked outside the home could afford. Vacations, cute clothes, and my holy grail, matching furniture. I mentally wished that their children would grow-up troubled as if I needed to see the proof that having a parent at home was better for children. As if nothing I was doing would have been worth it unless my children were happy and their children were screwed-up.
Now that I am a bit older and a bit wiser — and that I have a house full of matching IKEA furniture — envy doesn’t rear its ugly head the same way it did when I was younger. I no longer envy material things as much as accomplishments. I envy confidence, safety, and a sense of control. Which is ironic isn’t it, since I decided to have a large family? But this is how fear works in the darkest confines of our souls, keeping us from becoming a better, bigger, version of ourselves.
I caught myself wishing that this young mom’s twins would suddenly stop sleeping so well. To show her that she wasn’t really in control. I wished that she would discover that her parenting skills at imposing a bedtime routine that sent her kids straight into Morpheus’ arms had everything to do with her children’s natural disposition to sleep on cue. I assumed that they must have been bottle-fed in hospital and molded to an institutional schedule. What are we breastfeeding mothers to do when our healthy children protest our best attempts to conform them to our schedule? We are not going home at the end of our shift!
A few months later, I learned that a friend with children had sold her house and purchased a similar-sized house in a less desirable suburban neighbourhood. The difference in prices allowed her and her husband to pay-off their mortgage and live comfortably debt-free. I could just taste the freedom. Completely debt-free, home owning, new vehicle driving, holidaying, while in their prime earning years, with school-aged children…. Life: does it get better than that?
Well, of course the husband, you know…. And the wife well… That’s not mentioning the way their kids…. And the issues at school… Here comes envy again with its messy greasy hands leaving fingerprints all over my best wishes. Envy is the opposite of rose-coloured glasses. It stains what should be beautiful and inspiring and filters it through a dirty lens. Turned on itself, it makes us look like a diminished version of ourselves. Envy is self-limitation. It’s locking ourselves in a cage, with the key, wishing every one would join us in when we could simply fly away.
I realized that my envy was not only holding me down, it was preventing me from growing from my experiences and choices, whether good or bad. It also made small-fry of the fruits of those experiences and forks in the road. My life as a mother of 9 is fodder for this blog and countless helpful interventions with friends and strangers alike. I made poor financial and academic decisions that set me back in my career ambitions and my financial independence but these decisions have lead me down a path where I met dear friends, learned valuable lessons and grew more than I ever did playing it safe. Envy renders us myopic, deliberately blurring out distance and perspective, only allowing us to see what is directly in front of us.
How many “mommy wars” and “mama drama” are rooted in envy? How many poor choices are motivated by envy? How farther along would we be if we simply chose to learn from those who have done things better, or even just differently, than we have?
C.S. Lewis described hell as a door locked on the inside. When we let envy pollute our relationships with others, we are not only locking ourselves in but expecting everyone to join us.