Every so often someone you don’t know well decides to open up to you a bit. It can often even become a teachable moment.
That happened to me the other day. A casual acquaintance told me, smiling happily, that she and her husband, both around thirty, are expecting their first child. As a result they’ll be moving back up north to their hometown to start their family.
I like news like that. Having kids is, for many people, the best thing that will ever happen in their lives. It is not only as good as people tell you it is. It is usually even better than that. As Tony the Tiger used to say, “It’s not just good; it’s great.”
I admit I probably gushed a bit. Becoming a parent is worth an especially sincere “mazel tov”.
She told me that there are twins everywhere in her family, and her husband’s, so she was petrified she would be having twins. Now she’s had the first ultrasound, and knows it’s only one.
“But,” I said, “you’re going to have more kids?”
“Oh, yes,” she replied.
“Well,” I smiled, “you’ll still have another opportunity to have twins.”
She grimaced, but was not necessarily unhappy at the prospect. “Once I have some experience with the first one, maybe having twins won’t be so hard.”
Then she talked about searching for a house around Toronto, and the ridiculous prices they had seen. Even in Oshawa, or Bowmanville, or further east, and with years of savings, they would have a mortgage of $3000 or $4000 a month, plus the property taxes, all a crushing burden for a young family. Since they both came from a small town in northern Ontario, and their families are still there, they decided to move back home.
They would have lots of people around, as well as a much smaller financial load. And, her kids could eventually go back to the high school she and her husband attended.
She joked about how tall her kids are going to be. She is almost six feet, and her husband is six four. All four of their parents are also tall, and her siblings as well.
I said the local high school might become a basketball powerhouse. “Yes,” she said, “for the first time since we were there.” You could see in her eyes the vision of attending her kids’ games.
I inquired about work. Even if your debt load is low, you still have to have some money coming in. She is trained as a speech therapist, and perhaps there will be little work for her in a small town, but for the first few years she is thinking of staying home with her family.
Her husband? He works at Darlington Nuclear Station, in a specialized and essential tool in hand job. With the refurbishment, he is pretty well guaranteed high paying work for the next ten years at least, probably much longer.
She doesn’t know I’m an energy lawyer.
“Small world”, I said. “I’ve just spent the last few months literally consumed by the Ontario Energy Board case involving the Darlington Refurbishment Project.” But I did express surprise that they would live six to eight hours away from Darlington.
She explained that her husband’s shifts will mean four days on, four days off, and when he’s working its very long days anyway. For the four days he’s working, she’d rather have family around, and be in familiar surroundings, rather than be basically alone with her kids. And, for the four days he’s not working, they would both prefer to be back home, bringing up their family in the best possible environment. With the reasonable cost of living in a small town, and his solid, well-paying (if stressful) job, it would work out very well. She’ll go back to work eventually, but meanwhile they can live on his income.
We chit-chatted a little more, talking about small town Ontario, and about working hard to look after your family, and about her dreams for the future.
Yes, she was glowing.
To a person steeped in Toronto urban culture, it could all sound very traditional, almost fifties, like an episode of Father Knows Best (look it up). She has no desire to live in a condo in Liberty Village, or bring up children in the city. She and her husband don’t go to clubs. Their life is about having a family, or, more precisely, about expanding the families they both already came from. It seems a bit stereotypical and old school, but also idyllic.
Some excessively cool urbanites might even scoff.
Yet really, is this very different from what most people want out of life? Sure, we get jaded, and sometimes we feel like life is too complicated or difficult. Certainly we sometimes despair about whether we can ever have such a life. We think about it cynically, sometimes. We look at people who are divorced, or whose families have imploded from drugs and alcohol and other stresses. Maybe sometimes we even think this kind of happy life is just no longer available, to us or to anyone.
But a lot of people, in their heart of hearts, want exactly this. A simple life, where you work hard, you save, you make responsible, adult decisions, you love your kids, and you make every day a happy one by spending it with your family and friends.
Of course, it comes with risks – injury or illness, family dysfunction, economic setbacks, natural disasters. Her life is unlikely to be completely without challenges. No-one ever gets the perfect version of this paradigm. But the life she pictures in her mind, the dreams she has, they are largely achievable, and they can make her happy, day after day.
I’m one who likes to think about, and debate about, and write about, the problems of the world. In my own way, I try to be part of solving some of those problems. I can do charts and graphs and spreadsheets that illuminate the problems, and even show potential solutions.
Many people I know are like that as well. They aspire to “make a difference”. They see their jobs, or their other activities, as “important”, impactful. How they spend their lives matters to the rest of the world, they hope. That is their aim.
Someone once said to me, quite seriously, that he would consider his life a failure if his obituary didn’t read “The world is a better place because he was in it.”
There is nothing wrong with that, and I would never downplay the value of someone living their life to make a difference.
It is just as true, though, that people like this young woman and her husband make a difference, and their lives are just as important to the rest of us. They may never become famous. No buildings will be named after them. They will not discover the cure for a disease, or invent a new technology.
But the life in her dreams expresses the essence of the values we share as a society. Their commitment to family and community – to the people around them – has huge intrinsic value, not just to them, and not just to their families, but to all of us. Our society needs Little League coaches every bit as much as it needs venture capitalists, and politicians, and astronauts. It needs strong families just as much as it needs a cure for cancer.
I admit to being a little envious as I heard her talk. I am not likely to move to a small town, of course, whether now or thirty years ago. That’s not me. I don’t think I would ever really envy small town life as a lifestyle.
Yet when I look back on my life so far, the things that were and are really important, and the things that made me the happiest – my kids, my family, my friends – are all the things that she already knows are the most important to her. Her dreams – the things that are driving her life and her decisions – are focused on the parts of her life that will, in the end, matter the most.
Right now I’m working on a novel. If I work hard, and I’m lucky, and I persevere, maybe that novel will become an international hit, and I’ll jet from country to country, hobnobbing with J.K. Rowling and John Grisham. Professors will teach my work in CanLit classes. The Man Booker Prize will be within my grasp.
And even when that happens, there’s no doubt in my mind that it will be those other aspects of my life – kids, family, friends – that remain the most important to me. My value to the world, and the biggest, most enduring reason I was on this planet in the first place, will still be represented by those fundamentals. The Man Booker Prize will be merely a “nice to have”.
See what happens when a casual acquaintance opens up to you about her life?
– Jay Shepherd, March 25, 2017