“I wish we’d never bought this old house,” said Colleen, 37, who lives near Philadelphia with John, her husband of 14 years, and their three children, 10, 9, and 6. “It met our requirements — a four-bedroom Colonial that was affordable and in a great neighborhood. But it needed extensive repairs and an upgraded kitchen, as well as an addition so we could create a family room and master bedroom.
“It was a huge amount of work, so I had misgivings, but John loved the house for its charm and potential. He promised to do the remodeling himself — everything from knocking down drywall and removing lead paint to refinishing the hardwood floors, installing recessed lighting, and retiling the bathrooms. He’d done a similar renovation on our previous house, so I knew he was capable.
“Well, in retrospect, it was a huge mistake. The renovation turned out to be far more time-consuming, expensive, and stressful than either of us had imagined, in part because John is a perfectionist and takes forever to finish things. He’s always been like this, but we didn’t have children when he renovated the first house so there were fewer time pressures and the mess didn’t interfere with our lives as much. With his job as a software developer and his family responsibilities, John no longer has time to swing hammers and pound nails.
“Here’s what I see when I walk in the door: a big white blob of plaster covering a hole on the foyer wall, a living room with furniture pushed into the center of the room and gaping holes where there used to be shelving, and a dining room with peeling wallpaper and stained carpeting. Then there’s the clutter of toys, books, and unpaid bills in the dining room because it’s the only place on the first floor where we can congregate as a family. The kitchen is too small for a dining table, let alone five people and their stuff. The other day, our 9-year-old, Amanda, said, ‘I’m embarrassed to have friends over.’ I know the feeling. I’d love to have a dinner party, but I won’t entertain here. John thinks I’m overreacting; the mess doesn’t bother him.
“For the past year, our family life has suffered because John is so anxious and preoccupied. If he attends a soccer game, he’ll focus for only so long and then fret about what he should be doing at home. On weekends he’s too busy working on the house to take the kids to the park, and he’ll snap at them if they interrupt. They ask me, ‘Why is Daddy so mean?’ It just breaks my heart. I so want Samantha, Amanda, and William to have the traditional family life that I never had, with two happy parents involved in their upbringing. My own dad walked out when I was 2, leaving Mom to raise my two brothers and me. She was a 27-year-old college student who had hoped to become a lawyer but switched to being a legal assistant because it was less demanding. When I was 7, Mom married a mechanical engineer; he was cold and controlling, so I was glad when they got divorced six years later. But two failed marriages made Mom bitter. She’s critical and self-righteous, the type of person who’s quick with negative comments and always has a better idea. She comes over a few times a year, but my children dread her visits because she’s so unpleasant. I don’t have a relationship with my dad, but he resurfaced just before Samantha was born and sends us Christmas presents every year.”