a conventional life

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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