FINDING HAPPINESS ON MY DOORSTEP Writer Erin Kelly
It was only when writer Erin Kelly let go of her impossible midlife dream that she finally appreciated the here and now
According to a Facebook survey, I can expect to live until I’m in my late 80s (though it didn’t say how many of those years I would have spent on Facebook). I am just shy of the point where there will be more life behind me than stretching out in front. Middle age has been a series of micro shocks.
I started saying ‘oof’ when I sat down. The music charts were suddenly a mystery to me. My elbows started looking like little sad faces. Right on cue, last year, I had my midlife crisis.
On the outside, nothing happened. I didn’t buy leather leggings, get my septum pierced or have a boob job. I didn’t leave my husband for a tattooed 25-year-old barista. It was a quiet, internal collapse.
The trigger was a long-overdue house move. After nearly 10 years in a pretty but poky two-up two-down, my family was at breaking point. Two growing girls were crammed into a sloping box room, neither of them sleeping enough. My husband, Michael, and I bickered constantly. On Summer evenings, rather than stay in, I’d walk around the neighbourhood looking at grand houses out of my price range, and all but press my
grubby little nose against their windows, like a child in a Dickens novel.
We talked about ‘the next house’ as though it was Xanadu. In the next house we would never argue because we would have a dishwasher. In the next house I would be willowy and serene because I’d have the floor space for daily yoga. In the next house our children would have their own rooms and always play nicely. In the next house we would throw parties for our cool artistic neighbours. In the next house, in the next house… I took the Grand Designs dream and made it a metaphor for my whole life.
If I waited until this unspecified tomorrow, I would never have to deal with today’s problems, and there were plenty. Two friends my age died suddenly within a month of one another. My parents seemed to need the doctor with increasing frequency. My elder daughter was struggling at school. Michael and I were ships in the night. But in the next house, of course, all of this would magically disappear.
The next house of our fantasies was a double-fronted Edwardian villa on a leafy street. But the chasm between our income and house prices meant we ended up in
a between-the-wars semi. If I were 15 years older, I could have afforded the house of my dreams. Then again, if I were 15 years younger, I’d never own a house at all.
Pebbledash flakes off the exterior. Inside, there’s Artex, woodchip, a pebble-effect fireplace with blue flames. The night we got the keys, I dropped to my knees on the filthy carpet and howled. How could this compromise make anything better?
I couch-surfed with the kids for a couple of weeks before it was habitable. The day we moved in, my daughters, homesick and rootless, begged us never to move again. Amid their pleas, a thought hit me: I will probably have retired by the next time we move. And so I saw two futures: decades of bitterness versus acceptance. I chose then and there to stop investing so much emotional energy in where I live. My bricks and mortar define where I live, not who I am.
Letting go of an imaginary future forces you to live in the moment, and my life is happier because of it. Instead of waiting for it all to come good tomorrow, I am appreciating what I have today: a loving husband, healthy, imaginative children, parents who I feel privileged to know as an adult. I practise daily gratitude, if not daily yoga, though I now have the floor space. My imperfect life is the only one I have. Now I am determined to enjoy it to the full.
In the next house I’d be willowy and serene because I’d have the floor space for daily yoga