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a conventional life

by Meagan Francis on September 8, 2009

I was 20 and poor when my first son was born. All my friends at the time were poor; either college students or other young parents trying to make ends meet. We ranked one another’s relative wealth by the size of a CD collection or the lack of rust on the beater car’s muffler. I remember once a neighbor knocked on my door, asking to borrow $10 so she could buy her baby some diapers. I felt rich because I had it to spare.

In those days there was no pressure to keep up appearances. My friends who were not yet parents had no idea if I was doing a good job or not. And as for my friends who were parents, well, as long as I could  afford to feed and clothe my kids, they thought I was doing pretty well. Our little family was healthy and good-humored. We had not yet been loaded down with life’s many little crises.

So it was easy to imagine unlimited possibilities for our life: we’d be bohemian homeschoolers, perhaps living in a bus or RV and traveling the country. Or maybe we’d have a traveling band (never mind that neither my husband nor I could actually play an instrument very well). Or we’d live in a yurt. Or in another country. We’d move off the grid, raising goats and chickens on our own organic farm. We’d strike it rich, or be happy starving artists…or artist types, at least. In my fantasies there were no children in need of expensive dental care. In my fantasies, I’d blow off the disapproval of in-laws over my educational choices and wouldn’t care at all what anyone thought of us living in a yurt. In my fantasies, I wouldn’t mind at all having to get up at 5 AM to milk the goats.

Fast-forward a little over a decade, and I am amazed sometimes at what actually happened: we live pretty conventional lives. We worry about school quality, we shop at Target, we pay the bills, we drive the kids to their various practices. We make dinner, make the bed, make ends meet. I fret when I look in the mirror and see lines around my eyes. I fret about how we’ll pay for retirement. I have become the 30-something parent I never thought I’d be. And as it turns out, I’m pretty content with the life we lead. Sometimes that worries me: how could I have so thoroughly bought into a system I once wanted nothing to do with? And sometimes I laugh at my 20-year-old self: how could I have ever thought that wanting a car that you can’t hear coming from two miles away was frivolous and materialistic?

A few weeks ago, I saw the movie Revolutionary Road. I’m a sucker for housewife vintage fashion, I love Kate Winslet (Leo’s not too shabby himself) and my sister had been raving about the book for weeks.

It was a good flick, in the way well-acted, yet dark and depressing films can be. But while watching the movie, I found myself feeling irritated toward the people in it.

“Of course you’re just like everyone else, what did you expect!” I found myself inwardly shouting at Kate Winslet’s character. “And hey, just what’s wrong with everyone else, anyway?”

I think I was angry with her partly because her dismayed confession: “We’re just like everybody else!” set off a glimmer of recognition in some small, mostly unexplored part of my soul. The desire to be one of a kind, to have a life that’s bigger or somehow more than the norm, the wish to be different and unusual and unconventional…even as I recognize the futility of that desire, it still flickers there like a timid flame. I got annoyed with Winslet’s character because she reminded me of that small part of myself that isn’t happy just being me and living my life.

While I’ve loved being a mom and even think there are a lot of benefits to doing it young, of course it was hard at times to be in such a different place from most of my friends. There they were, at 21 or 23 or 25 with so much possibility before them, so many different roads they could choose to go down. Whereas I’d pretty well locked myself into a certain kind of life before I even had a chance to think about it.

The funny thing is, twelve years later most of my friends and I are in about the same places. I have more kids than they do, but we all have similar incomes, live in similar homes, drive similarly walking-the-line-between-gently-used-and-beat-up cars. We do similar things for fun.

And I have friends who are ten or more years older than me, whose kids are the age of my older boys. They tend to live in bigger homes, drive nicer cars, eat better meals when they go out, and go out more often.

Then there are my friends, old and new, who have chosen or fallen into less conventional lives. They make their living as artists or musicians or actors. They live in city lofts or yurts or sod houses off the grid. Or they live at the opposite end of the spectrum, in relative luxury. Their kids go to interesting-sounding schools or no school at all. Or they have no kids. They travel the world. With lives that interesting, certainly they don’t have the same minutiae to worry about that the rest of us do, right?

But that’s just a trick our minds play on us.

People, as a rule (because there are always exceptions, aren’t there?) have lives that are a blend of the fascinating and the boring as hell.  Sometimes we get caught up in the minutiae until it’s all we have. But even people whose lives seem fascinating have to worry about the boring stuff.

And when it comes right down to it, we all live a variation of the same basic life.

We eat and we sleep, we go places and come back home. We entertain ourselves and look to others to entertain us. We laugh and we cry, we love and hope to be loved back.

Some of us do it in more or less lavish surroundings, or with different creatures around us; in different climates and with different politics…but the basics of human life are pretty much the same.

My life has its boring moments, yes, but so does the life of pretty much everyone I know. That doesn’t mean I am. It’s my job to live the richest, fullest, most interesting version of this conventional little life of mine. And I can do it right here, right now.

Even if I never, ever live in a yurt.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Jane September 8, 2009 at 8:23 pm

This is why I’ve always loved the movie Groundhog Day, because most of us have lives just like that, only we don’t realize.

I’m also incredibly fascinated by people who, while basically average, have an extreme-type project, like training for a marathon, or the Julie/Julia project or people who fast & pray until they get an answer from God. That level of commitment is really inspiring.

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Amber September 8, 2009 at 8:58 pm

I have never been that upset at the prospect of living a conventional life. I’ve always aspired to the conventional, probably precisely because my parents didn’t. They were hippies, my dad was a self-taught goldsmith, we had wood heat and I went to Waldorf school when I was young. I just wanted desperately to blend in, being as plain vanilla as possible was my form of rebellion.

Ironically, now that I’m 33 and I have 2 kids and live in the suburbs I’m kind of tiring of it. Instead of chafing against convention in my youth and coming to embrace it later in life, I’m doing the opposite. I’ll have to see where it leads me, and if I actually manage to shrug off the extremely conformist life I lead.

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Tiffany September 9, 2009 at 9:56 am

God, can I relate. I recently wrote a few posts about this subject and faced some harsh criticism. I guess some people think it’s wrong to look back, to wonder where you went, to not be 100% content with the Vanilla Mommy life. I’m trying to find ways to get back in touch with the girl I used to be….but it’s hard!! The “normal” life takes up so much time!! :)

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Emily Geizer September 9, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Wow! I could have written this same post (including watching Revolutionary Road 2 weeks ago!). . . except my writing is no where near as entertaining. Thanks! You made me smile and feel warm and fuzzy on the inside.

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pickel September 9, 2009 at 7:00 pm

Life is never what we expect it will be but it is what we make it. I love the movie Revolutionary Road because it brings to the surface the truths we all struggle to face; we are all, deep within, struggling with normalcy. I also love that she is, IMO, BiPolar.

I wish I had your talent for one day. I would write until my fingers bled.

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Kristin T. (@kt_writes) September 14, 2009 at 10:57 am

I can completely relate to this post, plus it’s SO well written. Your conclusion is dead-on accurate.

I had to laugh, though, when I saw your tweet about “conventional lives” right after my tweet about having five people in my little family and three different last names. I might be a middle class mom raising kids in the Midwest and shopping at Target, but in many other ways my life is far from conventional. I guess the reality is there’s no such thing as “normal” anymore (and I’m thankful for that).

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Tracy September 14, 2009 at 11:04 am

Hi! I found you through Kristen’s tweet and I can totally relate, too. I haven’t seen Revolutionary Road yet, but the internal struggle you describe is one I’ve gone through and I see others going through as well.

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Julia at Midwest Moms September 14, 2009 at 11:09 am

Thanks for this, Meagan. There are times I look at our predictable, safe haven of a life — the place my husband and I have so lovingly and meticulously carved out as the ‘space’ to grow our children — and I wonder about the would haves and the should haves, as if life could have a few mulligan do-overs. But it doesn’t. Then the reasons we’ve made the choices we have come flooding back. We created this type of life purposefully, as our children’s best nesting ground. And all we can do now is hope that our choices have made and will continue to make a difference.

– Julia at Midwest Moms

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laurachris2 September 14, 2009 at 5:58 pm

I have the Revolutionary Road DVD sitting on the TV stand waiting to be seen.

I’m almost 52, and have realized that no matter what I achieve or have achieved, the dishes will always need to be washed, the floor mopped, and the coffee brewed. I was feeling a bit down about my life a few years ago then I read Anne Tyler’s “Back When We Were Grown Ups” which has one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve ever read. Basically, Tyler says that you make the best of the life you’ve been given. What you do to make it the best that is key. I’m trying to share that with my just turned 30 year old son, who has started asking the existential questions.

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amanda September 16, 2009 at 6:42 am

Whenever I find myself resenting the ordinary, I am reminded of the alternatives, which are often much less than they seem.

I’ll take my sticky surfaces and Target splurges if it means a tangle of five bodies in a queen size bed as day breaks.

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Jen September 16, 2009 at 8:59 am

Meagan, This is one of the best posts about modern-day mothering that I’ve read in a long time. I came to motherhood about 10 years later than you did, but I can identify with so much of what you’ve written here. And, as far as Revolutionary Road goes, YES. I agree with your take on Kate’s character. I read and loved the book. Loved it. But I loved it for the amazing writing and the flawless storytelling and the characterization of such brilliantly flawed characters. Haven’t yet seen the movie …

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angie October 19, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Great article, Meagan! It’s always something to take assessment of your life after a decade or so to see how it matched expectations. I’m glad you’re happy with the course your life took. It looks like a good path to me!

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Delmer Mccutchen December 24, 2009 at 3:27 am

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Alison Alfredson February 26, 2011 at 5:51 am

My situation is both unique and plain. My husband is a touring musician and flies all over the world, meeting cool people, and fulfilling his dream. I on the other hand am home everyday with the 3 kids alone for weeks on end, paying bills, doing yard work, getting the oil changed…you know the drill. We don’t make a lot of money. Not in the least. So our struggles are just as hard as the other ordinary families out there. Our biggest issue is that the scales are tipped. He’s having a blast and I am trying my best to keep my head above water. But it will all be worth it one day. Maybe I can see some of the world with him when the kids are older. That is the ultimate goal…and maybe afford a cleaning lady! : )

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Tracy Peterson April 5, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Thank you for this story. It really makes me feel better about my decisions I have made recently.

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Carrie October 16, 2011 at 1:32 pm

I felt the same when I saw Revolutionary Road. I kept wondering WHY she couldn’t go to Paris and write… even with her kids? I have a hard time with women who resent their own children. I know it’s wrong of me to judge, because apparently a lot of women felt the way her character did in the 50’s… but still. One can create their own kind of unconventional without causing others such pain. :(

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Katie Wayland March 27, 2012 at 6:06 pm

Next time you are anywhere with other adults, whether it be church, the park, a PTA meeting, take a good look around….inside every one of us is an artist, an astronaut, a rock star, or something that is really who we are. Humans are beautiful, and our homes and families are what we make them, no matter what kind of jobs we have to do to, or choices we have to make in order to take care of them.

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