We’re a clingy couple with no kids—so why does moving to a smaller, cheaper house feel like a step back?
It’s easy to say, we’re trying to get back to a simpler way of life. We need a fresh start. We don’t need all this space. And all of those things are true.
It’s a lot harder to resist all the value judgments we—especially we Americans—attach to the idea of downsizing, even if we’re doing it to ourselves.
There are three main reasons we decided to move:
1. For the living situation we have now, we’re overpaying. We really like our landlord, who lives in the back house on this same property. In the almost three years since we moved in, she’s met a serious boyfriend, gotten engaged, he moved in, they got married. We like him too. But now it’s much more like living in a duplex than it is a house with a very quiet and seldom seen young landlord, and if that had been the situation coming in, we might not have been willing to pay so much for the house. We weren’t digging ourselves into a money pit with this place, but we definitely weren’t able to get ourselves into a better financial situation. In order to pay down our debt, our biggest fixed expense needed to come down as much as possible.
2. We have more space than we actually need. When we moved out of our last house, we’d been married for almost a year, together for more than two, and we were ready to live as a married couple without roommates, no matter how much we loved them. The longer it took to make that transition, the more I think we began to crave space. Lots and lots of space.
So we ended up in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house. We have a guest room that occasionally hosts our out-of-town (or in-town but inebriated) friends. It has a huge desk I once loved so much I loaned it out rather than get rid of it in a too-small apartment but now never use. It has a full-sized treadmill my wife does use regularly. There are not one but two half-empty closets, one in the guest room and one holding coats we never wear because, oh right, we live in Los Angeles. Having a second bathroom is a nice luxury but far from necessary. We have cabinets in our huge kitchen and in the laundry nook that been gathering dust since we moved in. We have two dining room tables (one serving as a game table in the back of our enormous living room which I now occasionally use as a desk). We have a bar with three drawers filled with junk and two cabinets of liquor we barely touch any more. (There are not one but two kitchen drawers filled with junk, which somehow offends me so much more than having just one.) And because of #1, we have a backyard patio with a barbecue that we almost never use any more, even though we used to all the time.
Also of note here: we are not that couple who likes to be in different rooms doing our own thing. We are that couple who gets confused if we are out of eyesight of each other. We are those people who don’t want a king-sized bed because then we don’t touch during the night. We’re awful and you hate us already but basically we’re clingy as fuck and feel better when we’re nearby.
3. Living in the house where your dog died just plain fucking sucks. There’s all the usual ghost-like haunting memories on top of the creepy trauma. In the month since he died, this has begun to suck only marginally less (like maybe 10 percent, like I can walk in the door sometimes without bursting into tears) than it did that first week. So while maybe after a year of feeling terrible about it (which sounds terrible) it would have gotten better on its own, given #1 and #2, we actually started looking in a more timely fashion instead of just whining about possible change.
But now that we’ve found a place—a smaller, cheaper, cozier place—it’s really, really hard not to feel like we’ve failed. In finding this place, we actually overachieved at our stated goals. It was our first true day of open-house hunting, eliminating weeks of hauling our asses around town, getting overwhelmed and stressed out and dispirited. The landlord is a mensch who told us stories of fighting housing discrimination in the 1960s and then gave us a really good deal. (I call it the sorry the world isn’t as excited as they should be that you’re gay discount. We’ll take it.)
And, well, the place is small. It’s by far the cleanest, most well-done renovation we’ve seen in any apartment over many years of looking at places here in LA. There is a large outdoor rock garden that I’m already really inspired by. But it’s not by any stretch of my overactive imagination big.
And why should it be? We’re a clingy couple with no kids who are trying for really the first time ever to be super-responsible financially and make decisions based on more than just creature comfort.
This is what my mom, and also the Lorax, calls a problem of biggering. In that hippie-kid Dr. Seuss book (a beloved in our home), the Lorax battles an industrialist named the Once-ler, who wants to use the forest’s beautiful truffula trees to make ever-more garments whether anyone needs them or not. As the Once-ler says (in the 1972 animated TV special):
Ha! You speak for the trees? Well I speak for men, and human opportunities! For your information, you Lorax, I’m figuring on biggering and biggering, and biggering, and BIGGERING, turning MORE truffula trees into thneeds! Which everyone, everyone, EVERYONE NEEDS!
Calling us out for biggering was my mom’s way of ending whatever lose-lose arms race my brother and I had gotten ourselves into. And though I believe this was truly a philosophical and moral lesson, it was also a practical one: we were pretty poor. I spent a good deal of my childhood living in a trailer, or a euphemistically named mobile home. We couldn’t afford to keep on biggering.
This was a lot easier to remember when I was a kid, no matter how jealous or intimidated I was of my classmates’ wealth, either relative or true.
Now I’m all grown-up and it’s hard not to give into the easy American equation that bigger is better. Bigger house. Bigger lawn. Extra bedrooms. Extra bathrooms. This is what we fought for! A grand foyer is what everyone, everyone, everyone needs!
Instead we are obsessively inventorying every item we own. We have to get rid of stuff. Stuff we probably don’t need, but some stuff that we might want or wish we could keep even if it mostly sits untouched and unread and unused in another room. We are struggling, even on paper, to fit some antique furniture my wife got from her family into this new living/dining room.
We are struggling, mostly, to shed the idea that this downsizing, this un-biggering, means that we have somehow failed. Even though it’s been a fucking awful year full of dead friends and animals and big changes and anxiety, and even though we somehow made it this far, it’s tempting to see this next move as a step back. A regression.
Dr. Seuss’ Oh The Places You’ll Go is a popular gift for graduating college students, full of wonder and optimism for every special snowflake. But maybe once we’ve gone those places, what we really need is to get back to The Lorax.