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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