We moved about a year ago for my husband’s job and a promotion, and now that things are going really well for him, his trips come more and more frequently.
I am excited for him. We are young, not yet 40, so when should he move up and ahead in his career, if not now? He loves his job and wants to feel like what he does matters in the world. But lately I’ve been feeling uneasy about his days on the road. What is the purpose of all this? What are we sacrificing as a family?
It doesn’t seem like my husband misses out on anything special when he is on the road. To me, the days seem like the same old, same old routine. Get up, eat breakfast, take my son to preschool, get home, unload the dishwasher, sit down to work until it’s time to pick him up. Dinner. Bed.
But I know that our son’s childhood is made up of these not-so-special, common days. I know my husband misses his warm, sleepy body in the morning, his sticky hands after breakfast, his stories from school, his fresh, soft hair after a bath. When he is gone, I know I am not as good a parent as when he is at home. I am usually in survival mode, just trying to get through the days in a haze of work and cooking and laundry and playtime. I barely have time or energy to notice his sweet smell or his soft skin.
I realize that even pondering this is a luxury. My husband has a good job and a good salary and his hard work affords us a comfortable life. That is more than we could ever ask for. We both work because we like our jobs and because we want to give our son all of the opportunities that we didn’t have growing up. We want to be able to pay for his swim classes and tae kwon do, and take him on trips around the world and buy him books and toys. What parent doesn’t want these things?
We do not lead frivolous or luxurious lives: We rent an apartment. We have two used cars. We cook our meals at home. We’ve both been financially independent from our parents since graduating from college, and we know we can’t count on any financial help from them. If anything, we plan on having to take care of our parents as they grow old. We know that we are lucky to have a life that is, in a way, much more comfortable financially than our parents’ lives were.
But I sometimes think about what life would be like if my husband’s job didn’t pay as much, but kept him closer to home. We are not unhappy now, but would we be happier? Would we find more meaning in life if we had less? Would our relationship feel smoother, closer if we had to stick to a strict budget? I’d like to think that we’d make it through anything, relying on our experience as newlyweds with part-time, low-paying jobs more than a decade ago. But would we choose to live that way again so that we could spend more time together? I am not sure.
Our parents struggled to provide for us—but they managed somehow. They were not road warriors like my husband; they were home every night for dinner. We didn’t always get what we wanted, or own the latest fashions or gadgets—and here we are, doing just fine. We know that material things by themselves don’t add value to our lives.
Some things in our parents’ lives were by choice, but others were defined by their upbringing, their education, their own parents, the places and times they inhabited. It may be a weak excuse for not wanting to give up a cushy job, but it’s true: life was different for our parents 30 years ago. Preschool didn’t cost $1,200 a month. A simple ear infection with two visits to a doctor and a prescription didn’t run over $150. My parents lived rent-free in my grandparents’ apartment.
I was born in late ’70s Hungary. There were no fancy toys or huge TVs for anyone. Everyone went to the local public school. Healthcare was free. Most people stayed in their jobs until they retired and their retirement was paid by the state. My husband grew up in a poor, rural Pennsylvania town where everyone struggled. He still talks about having to drink powdered milk as a child. Sure, he laughs about it now, but he wants to do better. Our parents instilled in us the idea that family comes first and we want to honor that while the world is rushing past us. We want to keep up and move ahead too, so we find ourselves navigating unchartered territory, pondering choices that maybe our parents did not have to grapple with: job or family, time together or time apart, taking the promotion or staying close.
I know that the equation is not as simple as having less equals more happiness, or having more leads to unhappiness. Everything has a price in life. The trick is to figure out how much we are willing to pay for each privilege. How many weeks apart are we willing to endure for this vacation to Europe? And these theater tickets? And that guitar lesson? And for not having to look at prices at the grocery store? How many missed bath times or soccer games or school plays for money in our retirement account? Or in our son’s college fund?
I am not sure of the answers. The traveling days come and go; we get through them. I know that I will only have clarity on the wisdom of it all once I can look back on our life, on our son’s childhood, and see what turned out to be valuable and what was just a façade. For now, the price of our life seems right.
When the balance will tip, we don’t know.