Each new school year brings with it a desire to set a new course, to orient our family and our kids on the right path. Nowadays, we’re beyond choosing the right markers and school box. But the urge to guide persists.
With a newlywed daughter who graduated in 2013 and a son in the middle of earning his degree, I find myself thinking about bigger things than the right binder to finally keep them organized. That battle has been fought and lost. Still, a mom’s got to do what a mom’s got to do.
I wanted to write this as an open letter to my kids but I no longer hold the power to make them read my ramblings. So I offer up the following thoughts to the universe: my kids, your kids, and even adults contemplating new beginnings.
While taking a walk through the neighborhood the other night, we ran into some parents we knew from our kids’ high school. We shared the normal updates on how the “kids” were doing in college, their chosen majors and eventually, the exorbitant costs and declining value of a bachelor’s degree.
Then the dad surprised us by saying he was disappointed his son wanted to change majors from accounting to something much less lucrative. The father’s reasoning? His son had already decided on the model of car and the size house he wanted, and he wasn’t going to get there with this new major.
We walked away and I felt a little sad and vaguely guilty. Why? Because I fear that during leaner years, in an effort to hang on to our comfortable surroundings in a highly desired school district, we may have given our kids the impression that a nice car and house were the desired outcome of a worthwhile life.
I’m haunted by the idea that we would instruct our kids to spend four of the most formative and exploratory years of their lives studying for a job they might hate based simply on the type of car they would drive and the square footage of their first house.
“We may have given our kids the impression that a nice car and house were the desired outcome of a worthwhile life.”
After 49 years on this swirling blue marble, I’ve spent many joyous moments traveling ‘round it. I’ve experienced thrills, excitement, rapture, passion, kindness and many other positive things. Not once during joyful times did I ever think to myself “This would never have been possible without that BMW or McMansion.”
I’ve broken down on the highway during a Chicago Winter because of a crappy car (1977 Green Mustang II – not one of the cool ones). I’ve also been the proud owner of a brand new car (once) and now drive what most would consider a nice SUV—bought used, without a lot of bells and whistles.
We live in a modest, older ranch home that we’ve spent our free time and money working to improve. I’ve often complained about the outdated kitchen (somehow lost that renovation battle to the garage). I’ve also been proud to help install our own wood floors and design a custom vanity with soapstone countertops.
These “things” have made us more comfortable and made our surroundings more aesthetically pleasing. Yes, they would have happened faster had we deeper financial resources. To paraphrase some wise folks “money can’t make you happy but the lack of it can make you miserable if you let it.”
So why this particular nag, this particular school year? Because my used car and still unfinished home are worth every second I got to spend with them after school, making lunches on days off, picking dandelions at the bus stop, and thousands upon thousands of other moments we’ve shared.
Making the decision to give up one income so our kids wouldn’t have to go to daycare for 10 or 12 hours a day has cost us financially. There were some pretty lean years, and retirement is a distant dream at this point. A financially secure future is a worthwhile goal, but should it be the sole purpose in choosing what we study or do for our life’s work?
I sure hope not. Security can be a prison. Some parents spend more time commuting than they spend with their families each week. Trying to keep up with the Jones’s rarely brings true happiness. I am not naïve enough to suggest that having enough money to live comfortably is a bad thing. It is my assertion that a picture of the vehicle you use to run errands is a sad goal if it’s the only goal.
Why become an accountant/dentist/engineer/teacher/belly dancer? It should be because we love numbers/teeth/equations/children/bare midriffs; not because we want the super X version of the latest model car. Unless your passion is cars, that just seems sad.
Go, be free. Make mistakes, change your course of study. Take a year off. Write bad poetry and sing off-key around a campfire. Grow your hair too long and take a smelly backpack somewhere off the beaten path where I will worry about your safety. You will get a little hungry, you will waste a year of earning power and lose compound interest. You will meet fascinating undesirables.
Please come back (don’t miss Christmas!) and finish college. Not because I think your degree in contemporary art history will get you that car or house. Finish so you learn to complete things. For those recently graduated: go, be free; make mistakes, take more courses if desired; take a year off; write bad poetry and sing off-key around a campfire.
One strange wild ride on the blue marble – that’s what we get. Make sure to grab for something that matters. A nice car and a nice house for those without may mean all the difference in the world. For most of us, they shouldn’t be the only stuff dreams are made of.
When you graduate and go to work, if you have a 401k, please promise to contribute the maximum. But in the meantime, reach for a bigger goal. Explore a more profound dream. Do scary things.