Surely I’m not the only one. Surely you’ve felt it too? The weight of another life? A path not chosen?
When I was in 7th or 8th grade I read a memoir of a girl who grew up outside of New York City, always looking in on the bustling streets and bright lights. This girl grew up to be an editor at a publishing house, and the book followed her years in the city, commuting home, life as she made her way up the corporate publishing ladder.
This book wasn’t particularly glamorous in its portrayal of either the city or the publishing industry. Still, from the time I closed the paperback cover, my eyes lingering over The End for a breathless moment, I knew. I had never been to New York before, and I didn’t really have a clue as to the job specifications of an editor or agent or any other position in publishing for that matter, but I wanted that city, that job. This desire, this image, never left me. It shaped the path on which I tried to steer my life.
One year after Zach and I were married (four years after a summer internship in New York), I surprised him.
Guess what? I asked.
He was probably marinating chicken breasts or plucking parsley from our balcony garden, or sharpening his paring knife, or doing whatever it is cooks do.
I got a job. In New York. We have to be there in two weeks.
That last part of my sentence trailed off as I probably ducked behind the counter to avoid a slip of the paring knife. This wasn’t exactly a thoughtful surprise to spring on him, being that he already had a job. In Indiana. Where we lived.
He said Okay. He went on basting the chicken, stirring the spaghetti sauce. He never questioned it, not once.
And he never questioned me when I was pregnant with Mia and confessed that I wanted to move back to Indiana to be near our families as we started our own family.
When I told my boss at the time, a fellow Midwesterner, she said, “I feel like if I moved back I would know exactly what my life would be like, and I think I’d rather not know, you know?”
I did, and I didn’t. To me, embarking on this new journey of motherhood was an adventure. I had no idea what I was getting into and yet I already viscerally felt the tug-and-pull of this new role in both its urgency and tediousness. The task of securing a new apartment (our 450 square-foot one bedroom wouldn’t cut it) and navigating the childcare system in the city, I had decided, was just too much to conquer.
I remember the exact moment I made this decision. I was at my doctor’s office in a building off Central Park West, standing at the front desk to schedule my next appointment, when a cockroach ran across the receptionist’s calendar. I must have squealed because she looked up from her phone call and when I gestured to the cockroach that scurried into a dark corner of the desk, she just rolled her eyes and went back to her conversation. That, combined with the numerous mothers I saw laboriously struggling to schlep a stroller, diaper bag, and baby up the subway steps while grasping fiercely to the hand of a toddler, was enough to scare me away from raising a family in the city. I had been removed from the suburbs long enough to covet backyards, room to breathe, and wide open spaces to roam.
The thing is, my boss’s words haunt me sometimes as I drive familiar streets, pointing out my high school to Mia, the house where we lived until I was in fifth grade, and I swallow the acid taste of a memory that’s always, always just under the surface. If one thought shaped my middle school and high school years it was this: I’m going to get out of this landlocked, cornfield hell someday. (So very teen angst of me, yes?) I can still access that teenager who so badly wanted another world to call her own. I still feel her below my skin. Some days she floats so close to the surface that our fibers and marrows fuse, and I can no longer tell the difference.
I should tell you that this isn’t just about place. It isn’t just that I chose to leave a city I love to make my home in a city I spent a good part of my life wanting to leave. That job that I accepted when we moved to New York? I loved that job. I have a passion for the industry and I had the privilege of calling one of the best in the business my mentor. I would have been a damn good literary agent.
Shortly after Mia was born, I swaddled her in blankets and we set off for a walk around our new neighborhood, the slight chill of early spring at my back. The neighborhood we now lived in was built for families with a pool, tennis courts, a day care, a running path, and soccer fields, yet we were alone on our walk. Not one person crossed our path. Maybe it was postpartum hormones but it all seemed so desolate and sad, and my body, my everything, ached for the dash and dance of the city I abandoned, for the work I loved, for the person I was only a short time ago.
Mia was fast asleep when we returned home. I sat on our big front porch in the silence of midmorning suburbia and wondered, What had I done? Why did I think that to mother my child I had to surrender all the other parts of me? Mia awoke with the bleating, angry cry of a newborn just as tears slipped down my cheeks. Suddenly, I wasn’t at all sure that could do this, and there we sat, both of us new and nothing right.
When I think back to my first few months as a new mother, aside from the moment my daughter was born, this is the memory that takes center stage. It is still so palpable that I can go back to that place without effort. In a wink, I am on that porch again, questioning everything.
“I would know exactly what my life would be like, and I think I’d rather not know…”
A couple of weeks ago, I told Zach that I felt the pressing of this path not chosen. I felt stifled by it. Do you think we could do it again? Move back to New York? He entertained my idea, as he always does, and his willingness to play along set my mind in overdrive and suddenly I was planning out the logistics of such a move.
Zach has a saying about our relationship: I keep his head in the clouds and he keeps my feet on the ground.
So here I am, feet planted in the place I call home now. I know deep down that uprooting our family isn’t in everyone’s best interest, that it would be a purely selfish move, but I also know that something’s shifting. The teenage version of myself who set a plan in motion and the new wife who didn’t hesitate when that plan materialized are still part of me. I still believe in growth and movement, in stretching and exploring, in stepping out of the comfort zone every now and then to feel the dash and dance of the thing that quickens your pulse.