House as Metaphor for Self

I never saw myself as a suburban mom on a cul-de-sac. Never, not in a million years.

But it happened.

I’ve always had a vision for myself: of how I wanted my life to be and what I wanted it to look like. Most of it centered around career. Being a writer. And where I lived had a huge role in that.

I thought I’d live in New York in a loft and work someplace important. I tried that for a while, but it didn’t work out. I moved to Richmond and went to graduate school. I had a cute apartment in the Fan and could walk the cobblestone streets to school, to the shop, to the corner bar with its tin ceiling. I thought it was beautiful and exactly how I thought life would be. But then I met Francis and started imagining a life together.

We bought our first house in the city in Church Hill and I was amazed by that. That I could buy a house on a writer’s salary. I thought Church Hill was like Brooklyn before everybody discovered it. I loved walking to the park and the restaurants and all the playgrounds that were deserted. I felt like it was ours. But the house was small, impractical and the costs of maintaining a 150 year old house were crushing.

When our first son was born, we moved to a cul-de-sac in the suburbs.

I knew it wasn’t what I wanted, immediately. But it all comes down to money, or lack thereof.

I thought, Here is a house we could afford. Here is a house that’s safe. Here is a house that comes with great schools. Who cares if I hate it? I’m a mother now and that’s what you do: you put your kids first.

So I did that and I will tell you: it was awful.

Everything felt wrong. I felt caged and uncomfortable, all the time. The cul-de-sac felt like a suburban prison, you could walk the loop but it didn’t take you anywhere, you didn’t go anywhere. There was nothing to look at but your neighbors. Every time I opened my front door or the back door, there was somebody in my face. My neighbors were the nicest people in the world, but I’m terrible at small talk, it gives me waves of anxiety, and it was constant.

I just wanted a small square of privacy. Something for myself.

It took me so long to realize that. That’s part of what I loved about living in a city, the anonymity that comes with it. And that’s what attracted me to Warsaw for so long: the privacy. The house set back from the road. The hundred acres on every side. The long walk to the pond. All that space that is yours and where you can be alone.

I wanted that, so badly. But it wasn’t meant to be.

So we found this place. A few acres, just a little slice of land, carved into the hill above a lake, but it is ours. And it is private.

You can see the world but it can’t see you.

Which is how I love to be, as a writer. I want to see, but not be seen.

The house is glass, but we are hidden, turned toward the water and surrounded by trees.

The house is a symbol, for me. When we lived on the cul-de-sac, I felt like I had been swallowed by motherhood whole. You try not to lose yourself to motherhood, but it’s bound to happen, sooner or later.

But I’ve also learned that I have to find some room for myself too.

I knew I wasn’t happy where I was, so I had to change that. I kept waiting for my husband to fix my house problems with Warsaw. But he couldn’t. So I fixed it for myself. And that’s empowering.

It took every cent I ever earned and Francis’ too, but we fixed it together. It took a huge weight off of our marriage. And it made me feel like a powerful feminist again, able to fix my own problems, without being dependent on my husband for money or housing.

Now we watch for the heron, which comes swooping down over the lake with his giant wings. He looks like a creature from another world, with his impossible long neck and skinny legs. There is only one heron and thirtysome geese. So he stands out: beautiful and strange.

Just like the life I always wanted.

  1. Colleen — I’m late to reading this post — but I love it! And wanted to tell you. So much of it resonates with me,too — the way I think of myself, the way I think of my various houses and places I’ve lived.


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