We watched the movie “Revolutionary Road” last night. There was a memorable line where the Weavers (the main couple played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) describe their painful discontentment with their lives as the “hopeless emptiness of the suburbs.” They’d bought into the storyline that successful and happy families own a home in the burbs even if the breadwinner works in the city and must commute long distances. They conformed to the expectations of the culture, living a cookie-cutter lie that wasn’t true to their core desires and personality. The Weavers have no close friends. They connect with one couple next door, but they don’t relate. Their real estate lady continually pops in on them, but they have no sense of community. No sense of belonging.
Television marketed the “ideal” 1950’s happy suburbia scene (Leave it to Beaver, My Three Sons). More modern shows (Friends, Seinfeld, Sex in the City) market a different lifestyle—city life with close friends and a sense of community. But these shows were about the young, single and free stage of life, not raising a family.
Of the ten places we’ve lived in our 25 years of marriage, we’ve never lived in a large city or a cookie-cutter suburb. Instead, we resided in primarily working class neighborhoods. Our neighbors’ work ranged from a hair stylist to daycare providers, secretaries, construction workers, nurses, accountants, an electric company lineman, a factory worker and firefighter. Most were hardworking, friendly people. Our neighbors who had children were either single parents or two-income families. Working multiple part-time jobs or frequent overtime as a rule to make ends meet. In most of our neighborhoods people shared the struggle to keep up with life. Keep up with the bills, keep our lawns mowed, our gutters clean, our leaves raked. There wasn’t really a competition to have the most beautiful lawn because we were too busy keeping up with the kids’ sports schedules, school events, jobs, holiday expectations, and general life.
Part of me can relate to the Weavers’ weakness to conform to expectations. My husband and I took a three-week trip out west shortly after we were married. We’d never seen the canyons and desert before. The beauty of the landscape was stunning. We became excited about changing course—moving out west for a while since we weren’t tied down. Returning from the trip I took a pregnancy test and everything changed. We were young and, like Frank Weaver, a little afraid of stepping into the black hole of the unknown while being newly responsible for a family. So we stayed in our hometown, and then moved multiple times but never too far. And except for twice, we always bought a house. Everyone “supported” that decision as smart investing.
Apparently, one of the benefits of age and experience is the courage to buck the system. We love our children and have good friends from previous stages of life. Yet we had reached a point of feeling like we were simply doing life. There was too much predictability and no sense of adventure. Pushing against the grain of tradition and safe choices, my husband quit his construction business and enrolled in art school. Upon his graduation, we moved 800 miles away. Moving to the south was a figurative line in the sand, a separation from our old patterns. We sold our house, even knowing we would take a loss. Like the Weavers’ dream to leave suburbia, we left the safe and expected choices and are trying something new. It’s not as exotic as Paris (like their dream) yet it’s an opportunity to start fresh and rethink our choices.
Conformity it’s not. Still, even though I realize that most don’t take on college debt for themselves in addition to their kids during midlife, move across country and start over, we have been surprised by the reactions of some. One friend even called us brave. Really? Brave? It was a big commitment and a bit stressful at times, but I think it wasn’t bravery as much as fear. As we reached 40 it was simply too apparent that life is short and the routine of our ordinary existence had dulled us. If we didn’t make a change soon, I was afraid the person I was, he was, and the couple we were and hoped to be would die. Like the struggle played out on the big screen in Revolutionary Road, our high energy, passion for life would slowly wither out and we’d never realize the life and marriage we could have. We often think we should have been bolder and braver when we were younger and moved even though I was pregnant. I can’t change that. But now we can make changes and break the mold for better or worse. And the first part of that is not rushing back into homeownership. But that’s another blog.