Downwardly Mobile

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Not exactly where I thought I’d be….

Last month, Erick and I celebrated our 11-year anniversary. That’s the Steel Anniversary, if you’re the type who follows these things. I’m not, but Erick is; last year, he went to a great deal of trouble to track down aluminum jewelry as a gift for our 10th (Aluminum) anniversary. Yes, it turns out, there is such a thing as aluminum jewelry. The bracelet and earrings that Erick gave me are beautiful, and just about as durable as you’d expect (think aluminum foil….).

I much prefer the symbolism of steel over aluminum when it comes to marriage. Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon (and other elements), and it’s made by blasting iron with extreme heat so that its impurities burn off and carbon is distributed evenly. The result is greatly improved strength. Sounds a lot like marriage to me.

Anyway, Erick and I didn’t exchange steel gifts for our 11th anniversary, because we weren’t actually together on our anniversary: Erick was thousands of miles away in Kenya, setting up a research project. Since I was celebrating my marriage at a distance from my husband, I spent some time reflecting. I thought back to where we were in July 2002, in contrast with where we are now. And I realized that, if our marriage has a unifying theme, it’s that we’ve spent these past 11 years being downwardly mobile: scaling back our lifestyle and ambitions in a way that might look crazy to an outside observer.

Actually, it looks crazy to us, too. We didn’t plan any of this. So little of where you end up in life is intentional.

Here are the specifics:

When we first met, Erick and I held degrees from prestigious, private (expensive) Williams College, and prestigious, public (less expensive) UC Berkeley. I also had a Master’s Degree in education, and was living in Manhattan and teaching at the prestigious, private (VERY expensive) Nightingale-Bamford School. Erick was living in the upscale, exclusive suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut, where he worked at a hedge fund making more money for the already-super-rich.

Dating a hedge fund manager brings certain perks. For the two years leading up to our marriage, Erick and I led a pretty fancy life: we went to fancy parties with fancy people, ate in fancy restaurants, and got free tickets to concerts and sporting events. Our wedding was pretty fancy, too: in a church right on Park Avenue, with a reception just up the block at the Colony Club. After honeymooning in Bora Bora (yes, really), we moved into the apartment we’d bought on the Upper East Side. It was on the 28th floor, with views of the East River. Our first major purchase, after the apartment, was a king-sized four-poster bed.

Things started going downhill almost immediately. Just before our wedding, Erick’s boss decided to get out while he was ahead and close down the hedge fund. Erick stayed on for a couple of years to manage the shut-down, which gave him enough time to return to school for a Master’s Degree in economics. Inspired by a trip we took to Africa, he chose to focus on development economics — NOT the money-making kind of economics.  At the same time, I quit my teaching job and went back to school to study photography — definitely NOT a money-making move.

When Erick’s job at the hedge fund finally ended for good and he received his M.A., he decided to keep going for a PhD. in economics. Thus began his five years as a professional student. We moved to Berkeley, California. We rented a tiny, dark apartment that I always thought of as our “Hobbit hole.”. The king-sized four-poster bed was the first thing to go: it wouldn’t have fit in any of the three places we rented in Berkeley. Inspired by that same trip to Africa, I worked for two nonprofit organizations that offered minimal pay and no benefits.

Then, we started having children.

That history might come as a surprise to people who know us now. NOW we live off of a single assistant professor’s salary. I stay at home with our four daughters because a) I’d have to love any job I took, since all of my income would go towards childcare at this point, and b) there aren’t many jobs I’d love available in Middlebury, Vermont. Our house is the largest we’ve ever inhabited, but that’s due to a combination of our family’s size and the low cost of  Vermont real estate. We sleep in a full-sized bed with a dust ruffle that’s ripped from our daughters climbing up to snuggle. And just the other day, Erick and I had a budgeting discussion in which we concluded that it’s neither affordable nor logical just now for us to buy a slipcover for the armchair with stuffing-spilling holes in both arms.

I’m not making a value judgement on our life then or our life now; I’m just stating facts. But this trajectory that our lives have taken isn’t what you’d have predicted if you’d met us 11 years ago. What should have happened is this: Erick should’ve continued to work in investment banking, making ridiculous amounts of money. I should’ve continued to teach at fancy prep schools, or maybe gone into administration. We should’ve moved to a fancy New York suburb (with that king-sized four-poster bed) and had two children. We should’ve continued to go to Broadway shows and sit courtside at Knicks games and take exotic vacations.

I can’t take pride in being a pioneer who went against the tide, because it turns out that the downwardly mobile course my life has taken is something of a trend. There’s even a book about it: Homeward Bound by Emily Matcher which, according to a blurb in The New Yorker, “follows college-educated, middle-class American women who have rejected cities, consumerism, and corporate culture in favor of very old-fashioned house- and family-keeping.”

Actually, I can’t even claim to be one of Emily Matcher’s women, either, because the blurb goes on to say, “They grow their own vegetables, knit their own clothes, and homeschool their children. Some run their own farms.” Good Lord, I do none of those things.

Which leaves me stuck in downwardly mobile limbo. I’m sitting here with the phantom of my earlier promise hanging over my head (high school valedictorian, $100,000 liberal arts education, two graduate degrees), and I’m not even canning my own beets or doing flashcards with my kids. I bailed on the workplace in favor of home, but am I failing on the home front, as well?

Sometimes I feel guilty about these things, about my place in society’s big picture. But mostly I’m just grateful for my life right now, and happy. I think that’s the story of our marriage, and of this blog, too: There’s a sort of sweet bafflement about where life has taken us. Never did I expect to be a stay-at-home mother of four in small-town Vermont. But never did I expect that downward mobility would bring so much joy upward.

3 responses »

  1. so your married years have burned off alot of the excess, leaving what qualities that are steel-like behind? mostly the upward joy? or more? how has strength been improved?

    • Wow, Zoe, the hard questions today: first confronting me about beets, and now THIS! So, actually, the steel riff was just a lead-in; the things that cause our marriage to become more steel-like are mostly things that I wouldn’t write about on this blog — too private. This post was meant as a reflection on how our marriage has taken a completely different path than anybody would’ve predicted at the start, but how that’s also led to more joy than I would’ve predicted. I wouldn’t even say it has to do with “burning off excess,” because we’ve certainly added a lot of excess people and toys and books and little girl clothes! Perhaps the best way to put it is that we’ve thrown off a lot of what looks like outward success — money and possessions and fancy experiences — but added a lot of love, and that’s what’s caused the joy.

      • now building up love sounds a lot like forging greater strength to me, so maybe your lead in was more related than you planned. i see lots of good strong steel-y-ness in you two 😉

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