Over the last couple of generations, Americans have been taught to expect the best for themselves, thanks to several movements centered around self-care and self-confidence. The result is that more people leave college with fast-track expectations than there are lanes to accommodate the speed. My generation of workers managed to adjust their expectations, realizing there isn’t an easy route, but remained hungry for the success we thought would come more easily. When I look around at my friends and family who are in their late 30s and early 40s, I see many who get a thrill from their work—even finding it a respite, at times, from some of the more grueling phases of parenthood. A lot of us are also realizing early midlife crises as we close in upon the vaguely outlined brass rings of success we’ve been working toward. My husband and I recently became aware of something like that, leading us to make a drastic move.
We live a good life. I’m aware of this, so I don’t like to complain. When I do, my inner critic’s eyes practically roll right out of her head. Aaron and I have spent 14 years building a full, fun and productive life. We’ve been raising our two sons in a lovely “in-town” house that has the kind of magic that draws people in for dinner and won’t let them leave until they’ve had one or two late-night cups of coffee on the porch or by the fire. Most of my 8-year-old son’s playmates are the children of people we’ve known since we were children. We work in professional fields we care about and are attached to the people and issues that come along with today’s professional immersion. We became adults in a place where the low cost of living allows us to travel easily for work and play. The setup we’ve worked to earn has been pretty ideal. Until it wasn’t…
We started to become inexplicably agitated and restless about a year ago, when the minutiae of our daily workings started to cloud our sunny vision. I struggled with knowing what steps were needed to keep up the momentum in my writing career while Aaron had hit a steady stride in his job. We were both battle-weary after rolling off nonprofit boards amid uncomfortable fireworks involving strong personalities. The kids—ages 4 and 8—were going through various and spirited little boy phases that could change from adorable to harrowing and back again in a five-minute spread. Within a year we’d gone from living the lives we’d hoped for when leaving college to wanting to shut out some of the fullness that came along with them. We were burned out, but didn’t feel we’d done enough to warrant it.
One night, at the height of summer, we were found ourselves speculating over our unease as we cleaned up the kitchen after dinner. We knew something needed to change, and suddenly had an epiphany: What if we moved to Charleston?
We weren’t running in a rat race, but our cruising speed also meant we weren’t hungry for an overarching goal or prize. We haven’t reached our pinnacles of work and experience, but we were climbing more of a mossy slope than a craggy mountain to get there. Doing so may have made everything seem easier, but how could we teach the kids about the feeling of fulfillment that comes with the surprise of one’s resilience if we weren’t modeling the idea? We didn’t fully recognize the extent to which we’d gone off track until we were talking with our real estate agent about the kind of situation we wanted for our move to Charleston.
“I want to give the boys an experience that will help them adapt to different types of living situations when they go out into the world one day. I want it to be natural for them to move through a metropolitan area or a tiny village,” I’d said while simultaneously dumbfounded at hearing my own words.
A week later the tragic massacre occurred at Emanuel AME Church. I was supposed to have driven down the next day for a third round of house hunting. Aaron was at a conference in London, and when I called to tell him he’d just heard about it on BBC Radio.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It’s weird, but I feel like I should go.”
“I feel like you should be down there, too. Go. It’s going to be fine, and this is going to be our home. You should go.”
Dylann Roof hadn’t been caught, but I made arrangements to meet two friends at the impromptu memorial service that was being planned at another AME church nearby.
A week and a half later we found our house. Our real estate agent dragged us into it after we’d seen it online and decided to pass. Once she convinced us to go in, we loved it. And it’s within a block of Mother Emanuel—a fact that would deter many, but for us it felt like a sign that we were finally going to expose our kids to a life that derives beauty from complexity. A life where there’s always reason to seek questions and answers.
Charleston is only a two-hour drive from our original home, and it’s not going to resolve our family challenges. We’ve visited a million times for recreation, but now it’s new and unfamiliar. We’ve given up having a backyard and neighbors we’ve known so long that they instinctively know when to show up unannounced. We’ll be walking the kids to school instead of gearing ourselves up for a carpool line. The dog is going to have to learn that we can’t just open the back door for him to relieve himself. We can no longer keep everything we’ve ever used for work or school because efficiency is de rigueur in tightly packed, downtown neighborhoods. Our neighbors vary from old Southern names working for a different kind of legacy, to college students, to homeless veterans who linger around Marion Square park. Every day our boys will, on some level, experience diversity in its true form, as it relates to race, class and outlook. This is what Aaron and I wanted for our future when we married in 2001. An early comfort led us to abandon our path. It’s been too long since we’ve felt a little discomfort. Discomfort is what pushes humans to realize what they’re capable of, and we almost forgot to present that essential lesson to our boys.
I wouldn’t suggest uprooting the entire family to many who’ve strayed from the experiential path of creating an enriching family life, but I certainly encourage discomfort—or at least some sense of the unknown. In 2015 there are unknowns within our own households that can be explored by taking actions such as banning television after 5 p.m., sitting down for dinner as a family at a fully dressed table at least once a week, or taking food to the homeless before opening a single present on Christmas morning. Our generation of parents has had their eyes superglued to the prize for so long that we’ve forgotten why we even want it. It’s not the prize we want, but the experience of becoming whole people as we reach for it, and showing our kids a picture of wholeness as they learn from what they see of us.