I remember the moment distinctly. My three-year-old son was on my husband’s shoulders watching a man swallow a flame.
It was his birthday, and this was BuskerFest in Toronto, which took place annually in the neighbourhood of our condo, so it was all in the realm of normal. BuskerFest always fell around his birthday at the end of August, and we would take credit for the festivities, dancers, musicians, jugglers, acrobats and endless vendors of delights, telling him we’d arranged it all for his birthday.
It was the kind of lie that young parents enjoy—a flight of imagination versus a decent into deception. That moment though, watching him taking that in, I questioned the baseline we were setting for his expectations of life. He was already being shaped by that market of five million people and he was still liquid. We could pour him into anything, and as long as we were together, he was happy.
My own childhood couldn’t have been more different. My isolated small mountain town had around five thousand people. My carnivals were populated by ants I would find by overturning rocks. No less festive, I turned the ants into acrobats and directed them to walk tightropes made of blades of grass strung on, for height of ant sophistication, my dad’s toothpicks. I was mostly alone, but the anchor of my mother at the kitchen window was steady.
When I was liquid, that yard was my childhood container—one that I outgrew and left behind for university. Back then though, I was the creator of a universe and here I was watching my son become a consumer of a universe. He was not uncomfortable. It was me, feeling increasingly certain that I did not want to be further formed and hardened by city life. I wanted my son to know the gifts of solitude, emptiness and his own company. I wanted that back for myself, too. We all needed a baseline for joy that was lower than swallowing fire.
More than a third of Canadian households move within a five year window and the direction of migration is vastly more rural to urban. Our move in the other direction finally happened when my son was almost five and was joined by a baby sister. We could no longer make things work in our downtown condo; the whole area had turned into a crane-filled construction zone. Meantime, my father had passed away and my mother was considering selling our small-town family home of nearly fifty years and would need some help. All her kids had moved away.
In high school, I’d literally made a 1,000-day countdown calendar that I posted in my locker for three years titled “Time Left in Hell.” Now though, new-baby oxytocin clouded my judgement with optimism and nostalgia. I decided I wanted four seasons in my childhood home before that was no longer an option. We rented out our condo and planned to be away for one year, justified by the new baby. My husband was totally on board—he wasn’t keen to go back to his job after his paternity leave anyway. He flat-out didn’t like the culture and environment of Toronto. The pollution of concrete dust being breathed in by his kids and the density was enough to cause fits of male hysteria. Toxic work culture did the rest of the job and put him in the hospital with an esophageal spasm that we thought was a heart attack.
I, however, loved Toronto. I loved the sense of belonging I felt, my huge social network and the opportunities to rub shoulders with Canada’s power brokers—all remarkably accessible to a middle class girl from the sticks with some drive and some charm. After kids though, I was happy to put that aside for some green space. A year will be good, I thought.
The first year back in our remote rural town was idyllic. We stayed with my mom in my childhood home, which was largely the same as when I had left it twenty years ago. It’s not our style to say we needed each other, but as a new mother and a new widow, we did. Close to half a million Canadian households moved to be closer to family in the last five years, and the typical American lives 18 miles from their mother. I had seen a good chunk of the world by now and knew how rare and special this time and place was. I wrote letters and shared pics with my city friends of quaint and quirky charms, telling them I was having a Walden-esque experience.
My children suddenly had fresh air, big spaces to play and were being nourished by their grandmother’s garden-grown vegetables and love. Days that used to go by in a blink felt three times longer without the drain of commuting. We even moved my husband’s mother to our small community as she was losing the ability to live on her own due to advancing dementia. She needed help now, and we could actually set that up for her more easily in our smaller centre. We were able to serve our elders in a way that would have killed us in the city. This abundance of time, space and connection with family felt like true wealth. I buy into the research that our brains are hardwired for living at a slower pace and lower density, and that mental health is negatively affected. Mood and anxiety disorders are more prevalent, and the incidence of schizophrenia is strongly increased in people born and raised in cities.
My daughter, who has lived her first five years in rural conditions, cannot stop creating. (She recently asked me to please take screen time away because it was a distraction from her creation time.) She is incessantly making her world from the sticks, stones and flower petals around her. My son, who lived his first five years on the seventeenth floor of a condo, prefers gaming, an understandable substitute for his early highs at BuskerFest. Interestingly, he doesn’t care for time alone and is happiest when surrounded by people or flying down a ski hill. We were also able to buy a house and land at a fraction of what it would have been in Toronto. My husband found excellent remote work and now his commute is from the house to the garage. The grandmas, the kids and the husband are winning.
It’s more complicated for me.
Despite the simplicity of time, the abundance of space, and the ability to focus on family, I learned the real power behind “location, location, location” when it comes to choosing a place to live. Despite the internet making remote work possible in more ways, there is a fraction of the career and income opportunities available in a larger centre, especially for women. So many basics are infinitely more difficult. Specialized healthcare. Higher education. Transportation. When Greyhound Canada shut down Western operations in 2018, a lifeline was gone, trapping those already at a disadvantage even further. Even the idea of being safer in a small town is relative. You may experience lower stress and crime, but on average, you will live two years less because of the challenge of accessing many types of health care.
While my husband can make an income in a small town because of remote work, it has been far more difficult for me to work from here. I don’t find remote work fulfilling—the absence of collegial interaction feels like scurvy to me. Employers and educators who make remote work more sustainable and rewarding will win the future. Right now though, travelling to the city is brutal during avalanche and forest-fire seasons and requires me to replace myself at home. Not many jobs mitigate the cost and stress of work travel for a mother. Midlife is hard enough already between kids, income generation, elder care, hormones and the inevitable reckoning about calling that comes at this stage—the unravelling, as Brené Brown would say. It is bittersweet to go through midlife in the same location where you first seeded your dreams of life. Some dreams have come true. The ones that haven’t, though, seem to carry a greater pressure. It’s too early to give up on some, and too late for a few. After my one planned year of being away turned into six, and after thinking I would become a firm advocate for fleeing the city, I wonder. Did I lose my own way walking to these woods on the path of family?
To be clear, I don’t regret the middle years I am spending here—most of the time—and I suspect I might view it as a stroke of alternating fortune some time in the future in the way of the Chinese proverb about Sai Weng, the farmer who lost his horse. Going home and going small when elders are old and children are small is a valid choice, but stagnating through the entirety of midlife would lead to an elderhood of despair, according to Erik Erickson. I can feel the truth of that and see it echoed by Carl Jung: “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”
I’ve come to have a new view on the old adage: wherever you go, there you are. I think for me it’s wherever you go, there you become. In this season of life, one that I can sense is ending, I chose to be far from the crowd, choosing to cocoon versus expose en route to transformation.
Time will tell what emerges from that choice.
This article was originally published online in February 2020.
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