Jeff and I are pretty smart. We have graduate degrees, a good work ethic, and a reasonable degree of savvy about how the world works.
So it’s not that we’re too stupid or too lazy to be “successful”. I needed to say that aloud to myself today, and am still working it over in my head.
We made choices. (Not counting ignoring my dad’s advice to marry a doctor or lawyer, lol.) When babies arrived, I had a good university job and Jeff was on the brink of one, but we opted against day care and chose to be a one-income family so I could stay home, breastfeed, and be with the little ones. The plan was that when baby (then two, then three — more choices) got on the big yellow bus, I would go back to the English department and we’d be a two income family again. Somewhere in there was the assumption that we’d eventually move out of our newlywed starter home, to a place where each kid would have a bedroom, and we’d settle into more of the luxuries of life.
Only the bus never came. Hands-on, 24/7 “attachment parenting” of little ones led me to books about homeschooling, unschooling, and other modes of do-it-yourselfing. We decided to homeschool my eldest just for kindergarten, but it opened a door to so much wonder and enjoyment, learning and laughter for all of us that we never looked back. Jeff worked hours that kept him in his children’s lives, and I canned peaches and tomatoes, made pots, and hung cloth diapers on the line.
We built a few additions on our smallish house to make room for family: a den full of books, and later a second bedroom for Jeff and I. We forgave our crooked drywall seams because it was the best we could do, and involved the kids in everything from learning to lay foundation block (library book) to using putty to disguise our many carpentry mistakes. We made our littlest one a bedroom out of a former closet, and my teen boys still share a bedroom.
The yard is long and skinny, the way neighborhoods were plotted in the 20s when houses were expensive and land was cheap. It was wonderland enough for our toddlers and little kids: pet rabbits, chickens, swingset, climbing tree, trampoline, wading pool, cherry and plum trees, raspberries and mulberries, gooseberries and a veggie garden.
They got bigger and rode their bikes on neighborhood sidewalks, hunted crawdads and frogs at a drainage ditch “creek”, and their world was just big enough. They had a clay studio at their command, a workshop, and art supplies. They painted big rolls of paper, and their bodies, and each other with poster paint, peered at the moon through a telescope, and rain barrel scum with a microscope.
Even for big kids it’s a decent place, for a long skinny strip of suburban yard: the front yard is often littered with bikes and scooters of neighbor kids, and Connor’s white pigeons circle the dovecote he built on the play yard platform. They can ride bikes to Walmart, or to get haircuts, or visit the glass blowers at the botanical garden. We bake pizza in a wood fired oven built form scrap clay. Friends who sleep over tent camp in the back yard. Scout troops come to my studio to do pottery and peer at my beehives. We shake mulberries off the trees to make pie, eat dinner on the deck under a big maple, read in the hammock. I love my house, I do.
We’re not wealthy, in fact we’re now struggling a bit, but we wouldn’t change the choices we made. Even now, with job loss, we’ve got frugal living down to a science, and the homeschool experiment seems to have been a success.
So why am I chanting this aloud to myself, writing it out like a mantra?
Well, Connor is going to school for the first time. It’s a private school, and it’s just for 8th grade as there is no Montessori high school. A combination of luck, financial aid and a little grandparent generosity have allowed this to happen, and he’s happy as a clam. School starts next week.
Last night, he was invited by one of the three boys in his grade to come over and swim. He came home wide eyed over the big house, swimming pool, cool toys.
Tonight we took him to a party at a truly palatial estate, the kind that looks as if it should have its own fiefdom.
And I sat in the car thinking, wow. We’re now those kids from the other side of the tracks.
Yeah, I know that we have chosen voluntary simplicity, a less materialistic set of goals, and family over career, for a variety of fine political and philosophical reasons.
It never occurred to me until recently that all of those fine notions might not translate to my kid and his peers.
Maybe he’ll still be proud of his funky little home, invite friends over, show off his pigeons, his hilarious dad and his weird arty mom. Maybe he won’t mind when friends have red convertibles and state of the art electronics, swimming pools and vacations abroad. He’ll appreciate the value of fishing at the lake, the eco-friendliness of second hand possessions, and the choices we made to be home with them instead of accumulating a fat nest egg or moving to a finer neighborhood.