I Want to Want Again

My brain has forgotten how to want. It only knows a hierarchy of needs.

Photo credit: Daniel Oines, CC BY 2.0.

I turned 37 this past winter and, even though I am far too old for such things, my mom called me and asked, “What do you want for your birthday?” It was not a surprising question. She’s asked it every year, followed only a few weeks later by “What do you want for Christmas?” But it’s been years since I’ve had a quick or easy answer. “Let me think about it,” I told her.

For the last several years I’ve asked for practical things: a coat (twice), shoes, cash. Because, when it comes down to it, I don’t want anything. There’s just the endless list of things I need but haven’t worked into my budget yet.

I am a single parent, and even back when I was married we were living on a shoestring. It has been a long time since I was free of debts, children, and other obligations. The vast majority of the time I live paycheck to paycheck, hoping that the little money I make on the side here and there will be enough to cover a growth spurt or an ER visit. I have perfected our routines and shopping habits to just get us by. For me, it is mostly about discipline, repetition, and a handful of small indulgences—and fighting off the horrible crush of anxiety that comes when I’m not sure how bills get paid in a particular month.

When my mom asks me what I want, I legitimately do not know. My brain has forgotten how to want. It only knows a hierarchy of needs. It knows how much we can catch up on if there’s a little extra. It knows what we can skip for a month if there’s a little less. It prioritizes and decides and keeps the lights on.

Last year I had some extra money come in and I was actually excited to spend it. I paid extra on some bills and debts. I caught up on clothes for myself and the kids. And then, with money left over, I didn’t know what to do. I ended up making a spreadsheet of all the things I wanted. My brain being my brain, I had to rank every item on the list by several factors: level of want, level of need, cost, and frequency. Yes, even when trying to figure out what I wanted, want itself only made up 25 percent of the decision. (The winner of that spreadsheet algorithm? New bras. The loser? Coloring my hair.)

After a busy year that included a relocation and a promotion, it looks like I will finally have some room to breathe. That means a little bit of Want Money each month and a brain that still doesn’t know what to do with it. I am trying to slowly teach my brain how to want again. I can now donate a little money when I see a cause I care about. I went to the movies twice in one week. I even went on a vacation. But this wanting stuff is still new and strange and not quite the kind of life I’m comfortable living yet.

To be honest, I’m not sure I want to be the person who jokes about not being able to get out of Target without spending $80. I don’t want to spend casually and get used to getting all the things that I want just because I want them. I like how I’m able to live on very little and find things to do with my kids that don’t have an entry fee. I don’t know that I want to live a life built around wants; I just want to find a way to want just enough. I want my indulgences to feel indulgent. I want my splurges to feel earned. I don’t want to forget all the years that I couldn’t want at all.

Jessica Woodbury is a writer, reader, and single parent. She lives in North Carolina. She blogs at Don’t Mind the Mess and is a contributor at Book Riot.

This story is part of The Billfold’s I Want It Now series.

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