My spouse, our kids, and I recently returned from a fantastic 3,000-mile road trip from New England to southern Florida and back up through the Appalachian Mountains. We spent an incredible four days in Asheville, North Carolina, which has been my spouse’s and my “happy place” since we first visited the city together for our honeymoon in 1999, although I’d been in love with the Blue Ridge Mountains for many years before that.
This was our first trip back in more than a decade, and I spent the entire visit either beaming incredulously at the thought that we were actually there or welling up at the knowledge that we would be leaving; sometimes I did both at the same time.
Since our departure from Asheville to return to New England, I’ve been plagued by the realization that, when I chose to forgo gainful employment and devote nearly 100% of my time to raising and homeschooling my children, I also seem to have forfeited much of my agency.
I am the queen of the small decisions—what to have for dinner, when to trade out the children’s fleece trousers for shorts, which kind of waterproof pillow covers to buy—but because only my spouse brings in the income that sustains our family financially, the larger choices are tied to his career and are by and large outside of my control.
It’s as though I’ve gone to buy a car and have no say over the make or model, but I get to choose the color.
This isn’t really what I thought I was signing on for when I picked this gig. There is this illusion of partnership behind which I couldn’t see while I was engaged in the all-consuming work of parenting tiny humans. My spouse asks for my input when deciding where to move next, but really, we just go where the first reasonable job offer takes us. It’s his career that drives us, not my opinions.
Now that the kids are becoming a little more independent and I can almost see the days of greater autonomy on the horizon before me, I’ve begun engaging in an exercise I call, “What do I want to be when my kids grow up?” I think about grad school and writing fellowships. I dust off the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and skills assessments from back in my pre-kids corporate days and try to get some idea of what might bring my skills and interests together. I try to imagine different careers and locations and ways of living.
But this nascent dreaming stops short when I realize that we’re always going to go with the sure thing. I will always, unless I want to have a long-distance marriage, have to do the thing that I can do wherever my spouse’s career is.
While this makes very good sense—as my spouse reminds me, the kids have to eat—these geographical and financial restrictions aren’t conducive to dreaming.
This all hit home when I was in Asheville thinking how well small-city living suited me and how strongly the Blue Ridge Mountains draw my heart, and thinking, “Why can’t we move to Asheville?”
There are plenty of reasons why Asheville might not be a good move, but those are all moot because the biggest reason of all—the money reason—halts all other speculation. The dream dies before it ever draws breath. And that’s remarkably discouraging.
I do wonder, though, what level of agency do I assume I should have? I think I should be able to decide for myself what my career will be and where I will live, but is that a realistic expectation? How many people in the world have that kind of freedom? Aren’t most people stuck with whatever they get because of location or history or discrimination or poverty or old-fashioned bad luck? And if so, then I’m just a whiney middle-class white woman with a home and a family and a spouse and a car whose biggest complaint on a daily basis is that flute lesson is a 45-minute drive away. If I have less freedom than I’d like, it’s because I chose this way of living.
I also have to wonder how real these obstacles really are. Am I just making them up or making them bigger than they need to be because I’m too afraid to take responsibility for a big change? I’ve not worked full-time since 2003, and I’ve not worked for pay since 2008. If I make a decision that causes my spouse to give up his career or to have a reduced income, do I really want the responsibility of making up the difference in order to support our family?
And what if I make a bold choice and then change my mind? I did that with being a yoga instructor and being a doula; where’s the guarantee I’d stick with whatever it is I come up with to do this time around? Or is a guarantee too much to ask for?
I guess the best I can do is sit with all of this and wait. For what? A sense of certainty? A sign from the heavens? A job opening for a PhD-level biologist in Asheville, North Carolina?
Or maybe it’s not waiting that’s required, but just sitting, just being here and feeling this fear and discouragement and letting it run its course while I try to make the most of right now.
It’s much easier to say it than to do it.