April 3, 2017

At the intersection of money, happiness, and fulfillment

Happiness, joy, and fulfillment(With thanks to Ms. Steward for putting into words the title of this post I’ve been ruminating on.)

We’ve been talking about happiness a lot in this area of the interwebs.

Recently, Mrs. BITA discussed happiness portfolios which I LOVE.  I assiduously tend mine, nurturing the connections to my loved ones every bit as much as I do our investment portfolio.

Much as I desperately want to, I can’t control everything, or pretend that happiness is an easily attained Zen state.

I can’t wish away pain, I can’t just decide not to be first trimester pregnancy-level tired.

I can choose other things, though. I can choose to support friends and chosen family during tough times, to celebrate with them during good times. Life can be a collection of these shared moments.

Then, Ms. Steward talked about the connection we make between our income and our self worth.

For me, coming from survival economics, it’s been a journey from needing money above all else, to knowing that it plays a critical role in our lives, but money is only one of many components of comfort and happiness. It’s natural that my self worth is linked to my income and net worth. There aren’t many tangible ways to measure success and money is one of them, naturally, because that’s usually how you see it celebrated when you achieve successes at work. If you do really well for yourself, typically, you can make a case for yourself to earn more money, because you’re worth more. That was the cornerstone on which I built my career. The mentality fed my fire to over-achieve, to build success on success.

That has evolved, though. Two Christmases ago, I reflected on our contentment. It was almost puzzling to realize that I truly was content. It didn’t seem possible, but here we are, two years later and I still am content.

Obviously that doesn’t mean life is perfect. It gets bumpy when you negotiate conflicting, deeply-ingrained beliefs, it stays bumpy when I still have tension over what my next career steps will be.

Thankfully, we learned the art of compromise and that gives us the flexibility to let go of a stressor, step back, and reassess, or to know that our partner will help us if we need a hand. That’s not something we could buy. It was a knowledge earned after putting in the hours into our relationship, developing trust in the scorched earth of my heart, by showing up, repeatedly, reliably, over and over, day after day. I could have bought a whole lot of therapy, I could have made PiC try to buy his way in, but we took the harder, more austere route – the one without easy credit card swipes, but much more meaning.

Don’t get me wrong, a surprise flower and donut will always put a smile on my face. The gift of actual gifts is not to be scorned! Hanging from a hook on the necklace holder he picked and put up for me is a deeply cherished sterling silver necklace from an early anniversary. They both mean a lot to me.

But as Maggie discussed, I don’t look outside myself for validation, to form the basis for my joy. Not anymore. My acts of service are rooted in what I expect of myself, though they be for others. My sense of achievement draws from my professional and personal accomplishments, but it’s no longer rooted in the salary I draw.

Penny touched on how difficult it is to move away from that mentality, and I won’t lie – it was the work of many years, and years of solid earning – to make it.

Sometimes it puts me in a hard place. If I can only feel fulfillment, that savory-sweet new fulfillment, when I do something that I consider worthwhile, it can be a long dry spell between flashes. External fulfillment is a much quicker fix. Swiping my card for a beautiful sweater on sale gives me something tangible to hold and enjoy. It ticks the same pleasure center in my brain that achieving a desired goal does. It shouldn’t, but it does, and I know it does. So once in a while, once in a long while, I take that shortcut.

I save rigorously so that I can afford it but that’s a zero-sum game and I know that fact even better. Spending isn’t the answer. It can be once in a while, and it’s no sin, but it’s a cheap mini Snickers compared to the decadent luxurious chocolate mousse of closing a long project successfully. No sweater will beat that sense of satisfaction of saving thousands by refinancing. It’ll tide me over but it doesn’t fill my well.

Right now, in general big picture terms, life is pretty good. Zoom in a little closer and there are a lot of empty spaces to be filled in, question marks to be replaced with answers, and it’s incredibly uncomfortable when everything is in flux, but they’re not in a dire state.

My life pie chart is best when balanced between my family, working productively, and nurturing friendships.

I draw joy, grow happiness, and achieve fulfillment by working to earn money, enjoying my family, nurturing friendships that I’ve built over the past two decades. I deepen the strength of our family and our relationships and that pays back dividends in love and support.

And here’s the other side of my happiness truth: happiness isn’t solely a personal choice.

It can be an attitude but unlike some, I have not yet reached the state of nirvana. My happiness can be impacted by the actions of others that increase or decrease demands on me. With chronic pain dogging me, it’s impacted by how my pain fluctuates, daily, hourly. It’s impacted by whether my contributions to the pie are matched by those I engage with or if it’s just all me doing the heavy lifting for a while.

It’s important to recognize that in this, just like most things in life, we only have so much control over. Without that acceptance, or acknowledgement of what can unbalance our happiness, how can we hope to rebalance it?

:: How do you seek long term happiness? What brings a smile to your face on a gloomy day?

*Part of Financially Savvy Saturdays on brokeGIRLrich.*

March 27, 2017

On failure, academics, and real life

It's best to learn how to fail, and get up, early on in life I was an Honors and AP student in high school. I passed enough AP credits to skip half my freshman year of college, at $75 a pop, and it might have been more except my college only took several credits. On the old style SATs, I scored something like 1450. 1540? 1450? I can’t remember now but back then, academics were kind of Important.

My great shame that I’d hidden forevermore, until today, was that I failed at something. It wasn’t just a little thing, like a midterm or a final, either. Though in retrospect, calling a midterm or final something little says quite a lot about how far I’ve come since those testing days.

I did so poorly in my Honors math class sophomore year, failing week after week to grasp the materials at the pace that others were absorbing it, that I dropped out of the Honors track for math. Correction: I was dropped. That wasn’t my choice, though it would have been the wisest thing I did had I made the choice.

Miraculously, the world never stopped turning. This was in part because I hid it from my parents. This is the biggest secret I’d kept from them up until after college when I hid the extent of my illness from them – I hid my report cards and let them think that everything was fine at school. This worked because they trusted me, my sibling was a far greater worry to them so they assumed they could continue to trust me, and I didn’t flip out and overcompensate.

I failed. That royally sucked. It was humiliating to slink back into a lower track math class. And if you believe all the teen-pop movies, that’s the worst thing in the world. It felt like it, anyway.

Then I remembered that I had friends in those classes too and no one thought less of them. Absolutely no one cared if I wasn’t competing with them for the number one slot at the top of our graduating class.

This is where lack of constant parental pressure was key – I don’t know how I’d have reacted if my parents were pressuring me and judging me for not excelling. There have been times when I wished that they had, but by and large I’m almost certain that the fact they didn’t only helped me grow my own intrinsic motivation.

The lesson I took away at first was that there was safety in mediocrity. And that wasn’t completely wrong. But the important lessons were: there are always people smarter than you, working harder isn’t always the answer, and most failure won’t kill you unless you let it.

I could have started drinking and doing drugs to mask the pain. Apparently the latter was readily available at our school though I learned much too late for it to do any good! Some overachievers of my acquaintance took failure that badly, flunking out and quitting college entirely because they had no idea how to deal with failure. Instead, I dusted myself off and got back to work. I didn’t have to mask the pain, I could let go of it.

No one said a thing. It probably helped that they all knew I’d make mincemeat of them if they mocked me but I’m sure it had a lot more to do with people being people: people pay far less attention to you than you think they do. I didn’t lose any friends over this stumble. My friends were academically gifted, naturally smart, and just not that shallow.

Looking back, now, I’m grateful that I failed in exactly that way.

I made mistakes that couldn’t be denied, suffered consequences, accepted the consequences, and worked my way to graduation without further mishap. That my parents didn’t get involved was likely a good thing, their reaction wasn’t predictable since my failure would have been considered a betrayal of their trust on so many levels. But their lack of involvement helped me learn how to navigate a failure long before it did true harm. I didn’t have Ivy League aspirations or it would have much more devastating, but since a state school of one kind or another was what we could afford, the blow was a glancing one at best.

In real life, this ability to recognize and rectify failure, and to work hard even if I didn’t have the raw or native talent, served me incredibly well. I might have done well at a tougher college, but I doubt it. At a certain point, my academic smarts plateaued and my life smarts improved exponentially. There’s still a step or three between me and that CEO title, but I’m not just dreaming airy castles in the sky when I consider the possibility of starting my own business.

:: What have you learned from flaming out? What’s your most memorable failure? 

March 22, 2017

Life plus baby: what’s changed?

Just add baby: How our lives have changed since welcoming JuggerBaby homeParents typically gush that having babies is a life-changer. They’re not wrong, but it’s a toss-up whether they mean in a good way or a bad way. Might depend on the day(s) they’ve had. 

Two years on, I’m still happy that we made the choice to try for our kidlet and confirm that it’s transformed our lives in many unpredictable ways, and a few predictable ways though I wouldn’t have admitted it was possible years ago. 


I’ve frumped around, making do with my existing closet minus a few pieces of generously gifted maternity clothes, since getting pregnant in 2014.

This isn’t out of the norm for me. I tend to stick to the tried-and-true even when it stops working, sartorially, so it’s a self improvement project to do better at this. It doesn’t mean cycle through the latest trends with every season, nor become a wasteful consumer. Never that. Just making an effort to form a more classic and therefore all seasons wardrobe, as an adult might do. 

The past 6 months, I started adding some essentials: 2 pairs of flats, replacing 3 pairs that have worn out or hurt my feet, 2 tops, and PiC replaced a couple pairs of trousers that were too dreadful.

I’ve focused on removing things first. After that, I’ll hunt down some basics that will work for my combo career and mom roles.

I look for high quality, now. I can stand the thought of spending more knowing that it will truly last me years of good wear. Of course, the same can be said for that handful of shirts bought cheaply 15 years ago that just won’t die. I can’t just toss clothes that still have wear in them, but they’re so old and don’t quite fit right anymore!

Social life

Never a partier before, I’ve morphed into even more of a homebody since JuggerBaby. It’s a lot of energy conservation and a little bit of disinterest. I’d LIKE to go out for a show or a spontaneous overnight trip sometimes, but it’s never appealing enough to try and find a sitter, or prep another meal in advance. I’m too easily entertained at home, and much more easily tired out by week’s end.

Some of this shift had already started between aging and with dog ownership. With a senior dog, you can’t just take off spontaneously if you don’t have reliable friends or family you regularly trade favors with. Back in the SoCal days, I could. My family could feed and walk the dogs if I took off to NYC for a week, but here it’d be boarding Seamus for $400 plus prepping all his food and his medications. Life was simpler in my 20s, though certainly poorer.

We have become friends with the parents of JuggerBaby’s bestie, though, and that was a nice surprise. My parents were never friends with the parents of my friends, and we only spent time with family during holidays and weekends, so this is new to me but it’s a good way to build a new network of support when all our family lives hundreds of miles away.

When pregnant, I refused to make friends with other moms solely because we were gravid together on the grounds that I didn’t want to, but also because I wasn’t prepared to invest time and energy into caring for a relationship that didn’t have staying power. I need to observe a person around their family and friends, and see how they care for them, to see what kind of person they are.

Eating habits

We trend towards healthy eating but I continue to have my vices, in small doses. I demolished PiC’s bag of Micro Snickers today, and every couple of weeks we get a box of delicious buttered, sugared pastries that I have to force myself to share. Chocolate lasts much longer in our fridge than it used to, though. This is clear evidence that I’m simply nowhere near the stress levels I used to marinate in.

Time Management

This has to be the biggest change of all. Before JuggerBaby arrived, I was pretty convinced that we could stay homebodies and introverts, even with kids. WRONG.

Our weekends are now centered around keeping JuggerBaby busy, for survival. Ze has ten times our energy so we have to keep the kid running. We take zir grocery shopping, to the park, to the errands that ze can help us with. Adult-only things like medical appointments or work are done during the last remaining afternoon nap. PiC always feels awful about ditching me for the gym when ze is awake, even when I say it’s totally ok, so any work I have to do, and any working out he wants to do, has to happen during zir nap.

I do miss the two-nap schedule sometimes.

With the two-nap schedule, I could have a nap and get work done, one per nap.


Even with a toddler on the rampage trying to eat the dog’s treats, and a senior dog with periodic health surprises, my life is more pleasant and rage-free than twelve years ago. Surprise! I have found some Zen.

:: Did you grow up in a children- or family-centric community? Did your parents welcome the changes you wrought in their lives? 

March 1, 2017

A bit of self care (and community love)

When it's time to take a break, take a break! After this saddish but mostly bucking up post, I decided Mrs BITA was right.

After a long day on little sleep, instead of forcing another two hours of work as usual, I traded them for an hour of house hunting on Zillow and an hour of The View from the Cheap Seats. It’s been a long while since my last reading of a new thing by Neil Gaiman and it felt almost like that was punishment for not being productive enough. That’s hardly fair, is it? Just because my to do list was digested and horked up by Tribbles, doomed to forever respawn as a zillion Tribbles, I’m hardly being irresponsible in just managing to stay abreast of the troubling Tribbles.

I’ve slipped on a ring gifted to me as part of my “inheritance” by a dear friend. She has family by adoption via mentorship, having chosen never to raise biological children, instead mentoring, supporting, and teaching scores of them. That’s after having two long and successful careers. I suspect -no, I know- her way has touched and positively influenced the lives of now countless people. The ring doesn’t quite fit me, but I love it anyway. It slips and slides, reminding me of a friendship, unlooked for and cherished all the more for the surprise, and reminding me to keep a finger on the pulse of all the people I care most about. By text, by email, by handwritten letter, it doesn’t matter how, so long as they know they’re in my heart and not just when I’m asked to remember them in a eulogy or obituary. Hm, that took a dark turn.

Still, we do all have an expiration date. It may sound morbid but it’s true. We know we don’t know what time we have left, or how good that time will be. Rather than leaning in, or out, or whichever way, I’m standing up straight and stretching, reaching as far as I can to make a difference in the small ways that are most important.

I haven’t dropped anything, just taking a little breather. My responsibilities are still all here, but I’m pacing myself with things that aren’t work.

The next two weeks will be focused on taking care of our health: a massage for my several-weeks-long backache, long overdue exams with my doctors to see if there’s anything we can do about this new rib and chest pain, a check up for Seamus, more gym time for PiC.

And completely out of the blue, I received the most unexpected email from our friends over at the Rockstar Community Fund. J. Money started off with “please say yes!”, sharing that some lovely bloggers nominated me for an RCF award, and worked hard at persuading me that I really needed to say yes. As I read his email, complete with an abandoned plot to sneak the money to me so I couldn’t turn it down, it was embarrassingly clear that my stubborn streak has preceded me.

This was not just a lesson in how amazing the people are in our community, though they are.

It’s also my reminder to accept the goodness of others with grace and openness. That’s tough to do when you’ve internalized a script of independence, where helping others is a worthy cause, but you’re on your own. But how can I be part of a community if I don’t allow it to be a two-way street? Are we part of the ecosystem when it’s ok to give, but not receive?

Less philosophically, ‘twould be churlish to refuse the help. And so I did, with a most grateful heart again for Internet-born friendships and friends out there who care.

:: How are you taking care of yourself this season?

February 22, 2017

Being realistic and knowing thyself

I tend to equate my value as a person to what I can do for others or what I’ve achieved. I’m frequently guilty of fighting against being overwhelmed by things that I cannot control by taking on the burdens of others to distract myself.

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
– T.S. Eliot.

Sitting with my own problems, not solving them because they’re complex and take time, is hard. Having chronic pain and fatigue is isolating. Losing connections with others, by way of service, is another level of isolating.

It’s no surprise that my worst days are those days when I feel like I’m not doing anything. Days when I can barely sit up in bed, days when I should be working during JuggerBaby’s naps but if I do, I pass clean out halfway through the afternoon. In those moments, I get a stab of insecurity, forgetting the lessons we learned in chronic pain classes: these are moments, and they pass.

I do an awful lot on a day to day basis even if I’m not launching a massive year-long, or month-long, challenge with a billion readers following along. It’s ok that I didn’t manage to start a business or 10x my salary this year. 


living in pain. Sometimes teeth-gritting, excruciating, hold your breath til it passes but grey out, pain.
writing for this blog three times a week.
working a traditional full time office job, at least 40 hours a week.
co-raising a rambunctious toddler and co-running a household.
nursing Seamus and managing his medications and special diet.
managing my own medications and diet.

I also struggle to remember, while I’m kicking myself for not being capable of cooking dinner every night as I do when my brain is functions and I have four halfway decent limbs, that PiC remembers I’m not superhuman. He easily stepped into my shoes to head up planning and preparing dinner without a word from me. He admits that he misses my cooking but that’s the extent of it. So I shouldn’t feel guilty.

It feels to me like I really need to be spending less time on things of pleasure or leisure (as I write this post at 12:30 am), and spend that time on income replacing activity instead. Maybe that’s where the guilt comes from.

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