The Things We Leave Behind


I talked to a friend this weekend about a family member who is in the process of changing careers. He has realized that he should have pursued what he majored in in college instead of letting himself get sucked into corporate life. However, the skills he learned in his field are now outdated, and he would have to return to school to catch up with his peers. Now, because he has a child, a mortgage and a wife who works part-time, he has to choose between being happy and being financially responsible.

Maybe the choice isn’t completely black and white. He can find a second choice of vocation that will make him at least somewhat happy while still being financially responsible. His situation made me think, however, of the choices that we leave behind as we become older and as we blend our own lives with the lives of other people. For all of the beauty of community and connection that comes with both family and maturity, life inevitably forces us to deal with the painful loss of many of the things that we once wanted.

When we join with a partner and create a family, we have to think of the good of the family over the good of the individual. That ultimately means either delaying some of our dreams or laying them to rest so that other people can fulfill their own desires. I would move to Vermont tomorrow if I could, for instance, but my husband would have to find a job, we would have to sell our house and we would have to relocate our kids. Because money is one of life’s cruel realities, we are currently in stasis. I know that it’s frustrating for both of us, but I’m not sure of what the next step is. Which person gives up ground? Who has to wait on achieving something special while the other one moves ahead? Ultimately, everyone has to cede some territory, and the concessions may not be equal on all sides.

My husband just finished taking a trip to a private school in Massachusetts this weekend. He is interested in joining the faculty, but he would have to accept less than half of what he makes as a public school teacher. I’m trying to make my way in the writing profession, and while I enjoy what I do, it’s not the most lucrative pursuit. Right now, I’m in no position to support our family financially if he takes a substantial pay cut. Plus, we have a house that is worth far less in today’s market than what we owe on it. If we sold it, then we would have to short sell it and either pay off the balance for the next decade or take a nasty hit to our credit scores. Plus, we would be unable to afford preschool for our youngest son. So for now, he is saying, “no.”

Parsing out the territory in relationships isn’t as easy as carving up a roast into equal portions. The losers inevitably feel resentment, and the winners feel survivor’s guilt. Some sacrifices go unnoticed or unappreciated, particularly by children who have no idea what their parents set aside so that they can have the most idyllic lives possible. Supposedly, the love you receive from your children, and your pride in their achievements, will make up for the things you left behind for their sakes. For those of us in the thick of it, those days of recompense seem more like fantasy than like reality.

When we realize that we may have fewer days ahead than we have behind us, we have to start prioritizing our accomplishments. Oh, sure, I want to trek through Nepal and visit Europe with my husband. I also want my kids to go to college and to eventually get into decent housing. My husband wants a career evolution, but he also wants me to reach my goals. I’m selfish enough that I don’t want to give up what I’m accomplishing, but I feel guilty for wanting my needs to take priority.

In many ways, I’ve come to think that financial responsibility is overrated. Home ownership, that most American of dreams, is certainly not what I thought it would be. However, families ultimately need some money to get the things that they want. We could take a giant pay cut, but we would never be able to enjoy simple pleasures like eating out, going shopping or traveling. Of course, I’m also quite lucky to currently have the financial means to be having this values discussion with myself. Many other people are forced into living situations where they don’t have any options.

Marrying my husband and having my children has meant leaving many things behind. However, I am going through life with my favorite people by my side. Perhaps the ultimate good is to have companionship on the journey. Maybe the company means more than all of the stops along the way.

One thought on “The Things We Leave Behind

  1. Jackie this blog is very thought-provoking and really well written. This is an extremely timely subject. There was a time when we all had loads and loads of credit and we all made over-the-top decisions. We bought big houses and bought nice clothes and spent spent spent. Now that the future we all banked on has not exactly come to pass, we have more than just a lot less, we have in some cases nothing.

    The concessions that we make along the way are ones that we feel are the right thing to do. As part of a family unit those decisions are not always the ones we want to make. I myself for a long time had my own money and spent it as I saw fit. I liked it that way. Now I have my mother to think of and I have all of the decisions I’ve made along the way not all of which have yielded the fruit I had expected them to yield.

    But this article made me think about the idea of perspective which is something that a lot of other animals do not have. As humans we have experience and can integrated those experiences to give us a way to evaluate where we have been and where we are now.

    It’s a lot harder to have all that we want now. We’d become spoiled, lulled into this strange economic boom that shaped us into compacent, dull-witted people. *This* is what life is really about. Making hard decisions, living multi-faceted lives that challenge our adaptability and ultimately, this life is about what really matters: relationships.

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