I was a Chicagoan by choice. I came here for journalism school and stayed for the job. I loved strolling among the skyscrapers knowing I belonged here. I loved visiting my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and telling people I worked for a daily newspaper in Chicago. When Ohio’s governor failed to report some golf outings, I laughed, regaling friends with tales of elected officials so much more corrupt that such a "scandal" would never make the front page in my town. In winter, I looked at the snow-covered Columbus streets and clucked, "Not in Chicago. This would have been plowed to the side in three hours flat."
And yet I am writing now from Columbus. It has a metropolitan area of 1.5 million people, a redeveloping downtown and a cosmopolitan university campus. But it’s still hanging on to its oversize pick-up trucks and, in certain neighborhoods, poor grammar and rural drawl.
So why am I here?
Finally on my own
As a child, I always wanted to do things myself. I remember cashing in my 50-cent-piece collection to develop a roll of film. It was no surprise I moved out of state for college. More than anything, I wanted to live on my own.
I took pride in paying (and borrowing) my way through Northwestern University while my roommates waited for checks from home. My first car was financed by my parents, but I made the payments and paid the insurance. By the time I owned it outright, my husband and I had bought our own home. With no co-signer.
I imagined raising my children in the Chicago area, being elected to the local school board. The greatest indignity I could imagine was not being able to do something myself. But things change.
When I became pregnant, life was suddenly not about me anymore. Risk-taking behavior (motorcycle riding, "Chicago" driving, cycling alone from Oak Park to Wheaton) was something I could justify for myself, but not for a child.
After Nora was born and I was home with a baby who couldn’t explain why she was crying, the usefulness of grandparents quickly became apparent. One day I fell sick and my husband, a police officer, was on a call and couldn’t come home. I felt totally helpless.
Still, I was stubborn. I could do it myself.
But in those first hazy weeks, it wasn’t about myself. It was about the subversion of self, really. Every decision was about this tiny, warm, non-communicative person. Was it selfish to want to live by ourselves and advance our careers?
My husband and I discussed extended family as an important part of a child’s upbringing. Once I quit my job to stay home, my career didn’t really factor into it anymore, anyway. My husband, also a Columbus native, had been wanting to move back home for years. I could feel myself relenting.
And there was the isolation. I couldn’t take care of the baby without a break. Where was that village to raise my child? Not here.
Here there were only well-meaning friends who would offer to babysit and then forget to support my newborn’s head the first time I handed her over. And the teenage girls who had lots of experience, but who forgot to strap Nora into her infant swing.
I realized proving my competence was less important than providing my daughter the best life possible. Up went the "for sale" sign.
So here I am in Columbus again. It certainly has its down sides. I never told my parents about my job interviews in Chicago until they were in the bag. In Ohio, I told everyone I was looking for a new job because I needed a good network. Soon enough, every distant cousin would ask how the job search was going. On the days it wasn’t going well, this constant surveillance was unnerving. Now that I have a good job, as associate editor of a monthly magazine, those feelings have subsided.
Still, I miss the anonymity of the big city. I miss getting to choose what I tell my family and when I tell them. I miss the feeling of being totally on our own. I miss the prestige of Chicago. I worry about running into some jerk from high school and feeling like I haven’t done much with my life.
But my professional life is rewarding and my home life is great, too. I can ride my bicycle to work. If I want to hang out with my sister, I go to her house. If we want to see a movie, we drop off our little girl with his parents or mine.
Culture here is surprisingly accessible—I bought tickets to six symphony shows for $100. I’ve already taken my daughter to one of the best zoos in the country, and I didn’t have to pay through the nose for parking.
It’s not the right choice for everyone. But I think I’m doing the right thing for my family. Even if I’m not doing it all by myself.
Alice Hohl, a former Chicago-area mom, lives in Ohio with her husband and 15-month-old daughter.
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