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 However, the skills he learned in his field are now outdated, and he would have to return to school to catch up with his peers.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.