Burning Down the House

In her efforts to create the perfect home, the writer set her marriage and her finances on fire. How a child of divorce finally healed old wounds

by Susan Gregory Thomas
Photograph: Dan Saelinger

Grasping their little hands, I led my daughters, then four and six, through their new house, excitedly pointing out the open-plan kitchen and living room and, upstairs, their bedrooms and specially designated art room, where they could get as messy as they pleased while working on their projects. They couldn’t see any of it, or at least not what I was seeing. Of course not: The house was a construction site, a three-floor disaster littered with steel I-beams, clots of broken plaster and piles of particleboard flooring. But what I saw was the place where my daughters would grow up, where they’d have their own private sleeping spaces, where we’d dine together as a family. Home.

That was the summer of 2007, and this was the second place in two years that my husband and I were renovating. We weren’t fancy people—definitely not rich (I was a freelance writer, he an independent consultant) but financially fine. We desperately wanted a beautiful, comfortable, happy home for our children and were willing to break the bank to do it.

My generation—the one known as X, born roughly from 1965 to 1980—grew up at the junction of the women’s movement and the epidemic divorces of the 1980s. For my family, as for many members of Generation X, home was a moving target. By the time I was 11, we had uprooted from San Francisco to Manhattan to Berkeley to Palo Alto, before landing in Villanova, Pennsylvania, in 1979. That house was a monster: 12 bedrooms, three floors and two furnaces to heat it all. My dad was almost never home—traveling for work, he said, but mostly, it turned out, having an affair with his assistant. My mom, depressed, often didn’t get out of bed. When they were together, they fought. Terrifyingly. After their divorce, in 1983, my father decamped to a city five states away, and the moves resumed for my mom, younger brother and me: from the Villanova leviathan to a rented cottage in the country to a shabby apartment on the wrong side of the tracks in Bryn Mawr. That three-bedroom purgatory was empty when my brother and I got home from school; our mom was, necessarily, working. When I graduated from college, I maintained the migratory patterns of my childhood, moving at least six times in three years. Home was a cheap place for me to pass out after working 12-hour days as a reporter. I wasn’t bothered by my lack of roots. To me, quite literally, there was no place like home.

Once I got married, I started to settle down. For eight years, my husband and I lived in an 800-square-foot rental apartment in Brooklyn; it was the first time I’d ever stayed put for so long. Cramped as it was, the space still seemed far grander than any of our friends’ walk-ups in Manhattan; plus, we were great roommates. So what if we didn’t have the crazy, soul-locking passion of other couples? We knew how to live well together. Over time, we dotingly outfitted our place with a higgledy-piggledy collection of paintings inherited from my family, a flea market dining set that we’d stained what we imagined was Martha Stewart green, a Married to the Mob–style overstuffed black leather sofa that was outlandishly comfortable, if enormously ugly. We both worked hellish hours, and we went out a lot at night, but coming back to our apartment was like crossing the threshold of a sanctum sanctorum. We were safe here.

After I got pregnant in 2001, at 31, I had what I think of as a white-light experience. My miraculous little bunny rabbit! She was never going to live in the psycho-spiritual SRO of my childhood. Suddenly I wanted to set up house—not just a nice, practical spot but the coziest possible dwelling in a ridiculously family-friendly neighborhood. I wanted a place where my daughter could feel safe, comfy, understood: a real home. So we painted every room in our apartment a different shade of happy yellow and improvised a lovely nest for our newcomer in the anteroom off the master bedroom, tacking handmade quilts to the walls, hunting down a secondhand cradle and adorning shelves with framed family photos. After she was born, time was sweet, and one day dovetailed into the next. We’d haul out our laptops and work in bed when our daughter was sleeping; we played with her in bed; we all slept together.

Then, after about three months, I started doing the rounds of mommy groups and made a terrible discovery: The other families all owned their homes. Theirs weren’t functional, above-the-corner-market apartments like ours but niceplaces that had been renovated with inviting, giant (read: expensive) kitchens, where the whole gang fixed meals together. I was astonished; so was my husband. Why hadn’t wethought of buying a place? What was wrong with us? We must be stuck in some kind of lame adultescence to think we could raise our daughter in a noisy, junky rental, where she would have to sleep in the dining room, where we couldn’t even control our own heat! We needed to invest in something stable and permanent.

And we proceeded to do so, but not in a way that was prudent or diligent. We were driven to find the perfect home, and perfection seemed to require, in HGTV parlance, a lot of “must-haves.” Though it would have best suited our budget, we didn’t want a newly constructed condo. To us, those places felt like antiseptic hospital wards. No, we wanted a homey home, with antique moldings and period light fixtures. So, blind to financial foolhardiness, we borrowed money from both sets of parents, emptied our 401(k)s and mutual funds and in 2002 put down 20 percent to buy a $550,000 prewar, three-bedroom apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with an adjustable rate mortgage. A year later, our second daughter was born, and that made our nesting instincts even stronger. Suddenly the nice space itself wasn’t enough: We wanted nice stuffto put in it. Soon we were renovating.

It was easy in precrash 2005 to take out a home equity line of credit, so we did. Everyone in our yuppie neighborhood was doing it, as was much of the rest of the country. Home prices were doubling, and a designer kitchen was the key to increasing property value. In the early to mid-2000s, virtually every playdate seemed to revolve around parental discussions of whether a Miele dishwasher was worth the cost (“So expensive but so quiet!”) and the relative merits of various countertop surfaces (“I’m thinking poured concrete is ‘it’ now”). And to my husband and me, a kitchen was more than an ultimate resale payday. Raised on TV dinners and takeout, we saw our new kitchen not only as the place where we’d lovingly concoct meals for the kids but also as the heart of our family’s home.

That lofty, almost spiritualgoal somehow drove our connection as a couple into decidedly materialistic territory. Once, we’d loved talking to each other about ideas, music, religion, books, the girls, reflecting on life at large. Now we talked only about our house and the things it needed. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night, struck that we were losing each other, that the essential glue that had kept us together was growing brittle with yuppie insatiability and envy. But I didn’t dwell on it. Around the country, the housing market was going insane, and so did we.

We bought a $6,000 Wolf range, at least a grand’s worth of glowy red Italian glass tiles for the backsplash and a $3,000 refrigerator (a compromise—the one we really wanted cost more than $5,000); we spent about $2,000 for old-fashioned-looking faucets and a farm sink, and God knows how much for marble countertops and wide-planked, hand-stained wood flooring. And so on, for a total of about $100,000. The children, of course, could not have cared less. As long as they had enough space to run around and some cast-off scarves and heels for dress-up, they were happy. But it’s as though we somehow felt that the quality of such domestic aesthetics would translate into profound stability for them.

It turns out that many in our age group were thinking the same thing—that “home,” laden as it was with the emotionalbaggage of our generation, was worth any amount of investment. By the early 2000s, a raft of studies had reported that Generation Xers were arguably the most attentive, involved parents on record, the result—according to a 2004 report—of having gone through their “all-important, formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history.” According to a study from Harvard, Generation X spent more money on home remodeling than the previous generation at the same age. Psychologically, it was a perfect fit: We weren’t investing in glass tile from Italy; we were investing in our families.

Of course, now I know that a top-of-the-line stove doesn’t engender stability. But back then I still needed to suffer a lot more in order to learn my lesson. So when, after little more than a year, my husband and I were fighting all the time, we decided the apartment we had just renovated was too small. The problem, we agreed, wasn’t our relationship. No, we needed a houseto make a home. In 2006, with the help of a jumbo mortgage and another home equity line of credit, we bought a beat-up Brooklyn town house with gorgeous bones and began a gut renovation. Selling our apartment for almost twice what we’d paid for it, we poured all our gains into the new rehab, and this time we did it right. We bought all the same expensive kitchen appliances, updated the bathrooms (three), busted down walls. This was the house our kids would grow up in!

The rehab went on for months. And months. Such projects always take at least three times as long as expected and cost twice as much as estimated, and we got more and more broke. In the meantime, we lived with my husband’s parents. First, we argued quietly, then loudly. We stopped sleeping in the same room. By the time the house was ready, we were deep in debt and barely speaking. Then, over a rare dinner out, my husband told me that he was miserable, had been for years, and that he was “done.” I was, too. Our marriage was gutted. We separated before we’d even moved into that homiest of homes, which we sold six months later, at a small profit.

To the extent that people can have an amicable divorce, we did. But my vision of home died a hard death. I had been thinking of what we spent on our house as play money, outside the normal rules of finance since it was for something important, but now even I couldn’t uphold that fiction. In 2008 the economy collapsed. Work dried up. No longer remotely able to afford our fairy tale neighborhood, I put a down payment—everything I’d made from the sale of our town house—on a tiny house with a hefty mortgage in a part of Brooklyn where teenage gangs swarmed at night on spray-painting raids. I put bars on the windows, kept a baseball bat by the bed and slept next to the phone, ready to dial 911. It was a horror.

The kids and I spent almost five years in that neighborhood, barely scraping by. In lieu of child support, my former husband paid to keep our children in the private school they loved. Thank God for that, because money was so tight that sometimes the lights at home were turned off when I couldn’t pay the bill. Every month, thanks to my outsize mortgage, I lived in fear of foreclosure. I developed stress-related illnesses that hospitalized me three times. I couldn’t pay the medical bills. The perfect home? All I could offer my children was unequivocal love.

But in the end, they still needed—we all needed—a real home, a safe home, one I could afford. And that meant moving again, this time to a less expensive city. I bought the cheapest house that met my requirements (a room for each child, a backyard, a working kitchen), paid off a chunk of debt with some of the money I made from selling the bad-neighborhood house (even a crummy house in Brooklyn is worth more than a nice place in lots of other cities) and used the rest to create the beginnings of a nest egg. I didn’t buy a single new appliance; I didn’t even repaint.

My children love having their own rooms, love that our suburban-feeling city neighborhood is so safe and full of families that they can walk around the block on their own (though I spy on them anyway). The transition to a new city was traumatic, but we are now doing fine. Looking back, I know I’m the mom version of Oedipus: I committed every atrocity I’d spent my life trying to avoid. In my own misguided way, I tried to create the most secure of homes—and ended up with a shattered marriage and wrecked finances. Money does not heal old wounds or prevent new ones. Even so, the experience gifted me with a truer vision of what home actually means. I don’t need an open-plan kitchen; I just need to be solvent—for my family’ssense of safety, stability and comfort, which is to say, our happiness. We have everything we need. Everything that has to work does: heating, stove, fridge. More important, our house is cozy, warm, full of family photos and children’s artwork—it’s ours; we’re not its. Finally, between their dad’s house and mine, our children have all the home they need.

Susan Gregory Thomas is the author of In Spite of Everything: A Memoir.


Related: Marriage and Finance: The Naked Truth

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First Published Wed, 2012-09-26 14:46

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