Life in the Suburbs: Same As It Ever Was?

"Once in a Lifetime," Talking Heads

I grew up in a bedroom community in suburban Detroit. It was filled with blue-collar families, modest ranch homes, pristine yards and, my younger self assumed, a lot of broken dreams.

As a 20-something whose dreams were firmly intact, I couldn’t wait to get out of there and see the world. My plan was to go to Chicago, work for the Tribune (this almost happened) and somehow wind up a music columnist for Rolling Stone (I have a subscription; does that count?). And no matter where my dreams took me, it would never, ever be back to the suburbs.

As a musical side note, I thought the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime” was about someone waking up in the suburbs one day and wondering how he ended up there and if any of it really mattered. (For those unfamiliar, watch the video here.)

A few lines into the song, a bow-tied and bespectacled David Byrne asks, “Well, how did I get here?”

Well, Mr. Byrne, here I sit, pushing 45 and about to celebrate my 10th anniversary of suburban life, and sometimes I wonder the same thing.

Although I never did end up working for the Tribune (I was on a waitlist for an internship and got tired of waiting), I did find my way to Chicago. That’s where I met my husband — we’ll call him “the rock star” (he really is in a band, although you most likely have never heard of it). The rock star and I lived in apartments in Lincoln Park and then Bucktown in the early years of our relationship. We were married for about two years before thoughts of having children entered our heads, and life in the city suited us just fine.

When I got pregnant with our son — about five minutes after we decided to start trying and, yes, I realize how lucky we were — we decided to look for a house in the city. I was adamant about avoiding the suburbs and really wanted to give life in the city with kids a go.

Our shoestring budget led us to a bungalow in the far northwest neighborhood of Portage Park. We took the terrifying first car ride home from the hospital after our son was born to that house. (The ride home with our newborn daughter 22 months later was far less stressful since we were, of course, seasoned veterans by then.) It was our first home, and in many ways it is where my heart will always be.

Excuse me if I am having another Talking Heads moment here, but have you ever had a dream where you’re at home, but you’re actually in a place you’ve previously lived? Well, I always dreamed of being at home in the house where I grew up — my aunt and uncle’s house in Southfield, Michigan — until I moved to the Portage Park house. It’s where my life with my own little family began.

At some point, my stubborn refusal to “go suburban,” to be a “708-er,” gave way to wanting the best for our children. Both the rock star and I went to public schools, and we wanted the same experience for our kids. That couldn’t happen in the city neighborhood where we lived. We felt safe and loved our neighbors, but the public schools there were downright awful.

So we up and moved to the South Suburbs — away from everything I knew. Although the only place I had lived in Illinois was Chicago, the suburbs are the suburbs. It was strange yet familiar. And once I adjusted to people making eye contact at the grocery store and even smiling or saying hello (no, they were not going to try to mug me), it wasn’t so bad. It was slightly easier for the rock star. He grew up out here and knew the scene…at least better than I did.

Ten years later, we have a solid circle of friends and we are firmly rooted in our community. Our dreams aren’t broken, they’ve just been sidetracked a bit, and we’ve added new ones to the mix. I never knew I wanted to be a mother, and yet I wouldn’t change it for anything — not even that job at Rolling Stone magazine. And I’m guessing the rock star is pretty happy that the band he started with a few other suburban dads now gets regular gigs in Chicago. I know I am.

Despite having achieved a relative comfort level here in the ’burbs, we have every intention of moving back to the city once the kids go to college. Chicago, New York, San Francisco — we haven’t decided yet. But I’m pretty sure the kids we’ve dragged all over the country (and soon to Italy), won’t mind visiting us there. And we won’t mind visiting them wherever their dreams do or don’t take them.

And so, my fellow suburbanites and you city dwellers, what made you decide on the place where you live? Did you opt for the suburbs or were you able to make city living work for your family? I’d love to hear your story.

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29 thoughts on “Life in the Suburbs: Same As It Ever Was?

  1. Oh. My. God. Your post could not have come at a bettet time. I was literally just telling my 4.5 month old daughter that no matter where she wants to settle down when she’s older, just make sure she lives near those she trusts to help her should she choose to have a family, or have the means to hire a nanny. (Not to raise her kids, but to regularly lend a hand). I should probably mention that the motivation of this ‘discussion’ with my infant daughter was a harrowing day spent at home, alone, with a newly 2-yr old and the aforementioned 4.5 mo old. Whew. Let me just say, it was a bad day at the office.

    My hubs and I always find ourselves coming back to the same old discussion – we love where we live in Chicago – Lincoln Square. There are so many families with young children around here – keyword ‘young’ – as we presume the majority of folks high tail it to suburbia when their children are nearing school age. But do we have $20,000+ per year, per child, for private school tuition? Hell no. Do we want our kids to be pressured into scoring high enough (and having a bit of luck even then) to place in the highly competitive magnet city schools? Meh.. Do i want my kids playing outside in the city streets?? It honestly keeps me up at night. And reading your post truly has made me feel so NOT alone in the decisions and discussions we have that always seem to circle back to our inevitable 708-er fate. Especially if people like you are in said suburbs… Even better!

    Thanks for sharing 🙂


    • Oh, honey, I remember those bad days at the office well. So sorry to hear you had an especially rough one.

      Echoing what you told your 4.5 month old, another reason we moved to the ‘burbs was to be closer to the rock star’s family. His parents used to babysit for us regularly, and I’m sure that without their help I would have been a raving lunatic. A year ago, they up and moved to Vegas, which has different benefits, of course. 🙂

      As I’ve told you before, it’s a major culture shock when you take the initial suburban plunge. But there are really cool and wonderful people anywhere you go. You just have to work a little harder to find them sometimes in suburbia.

      I wish I lived closer so I could rock that sweet baby of yours or take A to the park. Or take you out for a beer. Hang in there, girl!

  2. You know, I never did have the desire to live in the city. Once a ‘burb girl always a ‘burb girl…except now my ‘burb has acres of property instead of feet. I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

    • Hi, Kristie. You know, one of my closest friends here in the suburbs says the same thing. The city is a nice place to visit, but she wouldn’t want to live there. Too loud, too crowded, etc.

      I hear you about the space issue, too. We have a 3/4-acre lot now and it’s heavily wooded. Sitting on our deck, which is surrounded by a forest, is like a mini vacation. 🙂 It sure beats the heck out of the postage stamp-size yard we had at our city house.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Great blog post, as always. I think we’re on the same track. Get involved and enjoy raising our kids in the suburbs, and then sell the house, and move our “empty nest” to the big city!

    • Thanks so much, Heather!

      Since we’ll be a few years ahead of you on the empty nest track, we can keep an eye out for a cool place for you guys, right?

  4. I wish I could share your adventurous spirit and wish to live in a big city. However, the way I see it, the city is a nice place to visit, I just don’t think I would be happy living there. Born and raised in suburbia, I continue to live there with my family, a mere 6 miles from where I grew up. Guess I’m just a homebody at heart. It does have advantages however. I know a babysitter is usually available on the spur of the moment, as my parents still live in the house I grew up in!

    • Believe me, I get that. I miss having my in-laws close by and I know our kids do too. Sadly, they have no grandparents left on my side of the family. It’s so special to grow up with that extra generation of love and support. You are doing a wonderful thing for your children by staying close and maintaining that bond.

      Thanks for your comment, Shelly!

  5. I am very happy to be so close to such a great city that I enjoy visiting, often. Everytime we spend time in the city we vow to do it more often. However, I find it blissful to retreat to my quiet neighborhhod full of wonderful neighbors and the sounds of birds chirping not to mention the neighborhhod peacock :). Having such a tight support group has gotten me through some of the harder times in my life. I love me the suburbs but will always be a huge fan of viviting the city.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Make sure your city place has a spare bedroom with my name on the door.

  6. I grew up in the suburbs, went to college in the city, and now live with my husband and kids on a large, wooded lot in the suburbs. If I wasn’t thinking about the kids, I would have chosen to live out in the country instead.

    • Hi, Patricia. We live on a large, wooded lot as well. I love the privacy and being surrounded by nature, so maybe a house in the country would be nice. Or, even better, a condo in the city AND a house in the country? 🙂

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

  7. Just swinging through from the challenge grid!

    “Our dreams aren’t broken, they’ve just been sidetracked a bit, and we’ve added new ones to the mix.” really hit home for me. That’s exactly how I feel about my life after kids.
    Although we still live in a major city (Edmonton, Alberta), our neighborhood and schools are perfect for us. But if they weren’t? We would move in a heartbeat, because kids have a funny way of changing your priorities. 😉
    Great post!

    • Thanks so much, Dawn.

      I, too, love my little suburban existence. And even though it may not be exactly what we envisioned, we wouldn’t change a thing, right?

  8. I live so far out in the woods that we can’t get cable. The trees are so tall that we can barely get satellite either. I don’t qualify for either city or ‘burbs, I don’t guess. Loved reading your story!

    • Thank you so much, Jennifer. Sounds like you have something we all wish for, at least from time to time: total privacy, peace and quiet.

  9. We JUST moved back to North Carolina from Atlanta two weeks ago. I wanted to be close to my family again. Big cities are too big and busy for me, although I do like the idea of less eye contact. Hmmm.

    Once in a Lifetime is one of my favorite songs.

  10. Sort of stumbled upon you by accident and what a great blog. (Particularly love the name of it!)

    I’m from a suburb of Detroit too (Pleasant Ridge–right by Ferndale) and also had queasy feelings about ending up in suburbia even though I loved my own childhood and where I grew up. Currently we live in a residential area on the south side of MIlwaukee, and I like that we are close to downtown but near a park and have our own space.

    But the thing I remember about the Talking Heads that came up regularly in articles about them was how they were an example of how suburbia was not a creative wasteland. That band was a product of the suburbs and they were edgy and interesting. I try to take that thought to heart when I end up caving in to the practical, like getting a minivan.

    • Thanks so much for stumbling upon me, my kindred Michigan soul! 🙂 I love your take on the Talking Heads and life in suburbia. Hey, we’re from the ‘burbs and look at what cool chicks we turned out to be, right?

      P.S. I had friends who lived in Ferndale after college. Cool town. I was born in Detroit, grew up in Southfield and Livonia, and then lived in East Dearborn for a few years, after college and before moving to Chicago.

      • If only Ferndale had been cool when I went to high school there…. It’s all interesting restaurants and artists now, but when my best friend and I used to hang out on Nine Mile it was McDonald’s and The Gap.

  11. It sounds like you have made the burbs work for you! There are pros & cons to each scenario (city vs burbs), and it definitely depends on what stage of life you’re in! At this point, we are in a neighborhood that is “in the city” but not too close in that it’s rough. And not too far out that it feels like the burbs. We do private school. But there are many times I am tempted to move all the way out to the burbs for the good public schools & big huge house we could have 🙂

    • You are so right about the pros and cons. With or without kids, you never find the “perfect” house, neighborhood, etc., because it doesn’t exist. I try to focus on the positive and not sweat the stuff I don’t like. Oh, and I keep that condo in the city in the back of my mind to make it easier. 🙂

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  12. We live in a perfectly backward lil town but do it for the kids! It is safe, with good schools and an hour drive from the city! Parents make different decisions once the kids are born!

  13. i’m for the suburbs all the way though i’m not familiar with the southern ones. i’ve lived both in the city (yes, Chicago) and the burbs… lots of different burbs, most of which are way out northwest. the city is OK but i’m just too old and tired to deal with it all and i just don’t care where we live as long as we’re together. well, we are all together… in the city. i’ve grown more used to it now that we’ve moved closer to the burbs, but i’d still prefer the burbs- the ability to park more freely, the ability to get to the store without getting stuck in traffic, etc. fortunately for my husband, a city boy through and through, i love the apartment we’re in and our Lovie is only 2.5… but, yeah, if we stay where we’re at now, we’ll have to fork out the big $ for private school (which will actually be cheaper than daycare!).

  14. Hi, Christina. I love those benefits too (less traffic, better parking). The private school issue was what clinched it for us. Not the right fit for our family. Instead, we pay outrageously high property taxes to send our kids to outstanding public schools. There’s always a trade-off, no matter where you live.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  15. We live in Seattle and, now that our daughter is 4, we’re starting to talk about how the school system will play into our decision to stay or go. I like living in the city especially with a kid. Such a variety of places, people, and activities to experience. But the schools are not that bad, but not great except in neighborhoods where buying a home would be pretty expensive. It’s a tough call.

    • You’re right. It really is a tough call. The cultural diversity is one of the main things I miss about the city.

      Thanks for your comment.

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