by Claire Zulkey
I had a great childhood. But like most kids, I didn’t know it at the time. I knew, of course, that I had it better than the proverbial starving children in China, than the kids in war or natural-disaster-torn places I saw on the 10 o’clock news. But it wasn’t until I became an adult, and then a parent, that I understood the actual cost—money, time, planning, emotion—as well as the extraordinary good luck that goes into making a happy childhood.
Until I reached the stage of understanding and gratitude that marked the end of my adolescence, I took a flippant, even resentful, attitude toward the place where I grew up. And toward the parents who gave me everything I needed and held back just enough to teach me how to work for the rest. When I graduated high school and moved away to college, I thought bitterly, I’m blowing this pop stand. The pop stand in question is Evanston, Illinois.
I conflated the drama and angst of being a teenager with my hometown—blaming my location, not my age, with the growing pains that accompany a growing frontal lobe. I was ready to move on and start a new, exciting adult chapter in my life. I would forge a new identity outside the walls of my dumb high school, where I felt wronged for not receiving the awards (literal and otherwise) I secretly craved. I proudly wore a Georgetown t-shirt under my graduation gown to advertise the fact that I was noisily leaving (nobody noticed because it was under my gown.)
It took only a few weeks to realize that maybe Evanston wasn’t so bad. Georgetown has very nice qualities, but it wasn’t until I went there that I met true snobbery. I grew up in a place that’s home to thousands of privileged children, but it was not cool to brag about it, even if you lived in a legitimate mansion. But at Georgetown I met young adults who carried Louis Vuitton bags and laughed about crashing their parents’ luxury cars. Also at Georgetown, the black students and the white students didn’t mix very much, whereas Evanston has “Portlandia” levels of self-congratulations, deserved or not, about its own diversity.
After graduation, I moved back home because I received precisely one job offer, one that didn’t pay very much. I butted heads with my parents and squabbled with my high school best friend because while living back home felt familiar, it wasn’t the same. It was like trying to suck your thumb again after quitting.
I eventually escaped a few miles south to Chicago. I allowed myself to come home to Evanston to do my laundry at my folks’ place and to get my hair cut, but that was it. I was a city girl.
But gradually, I became a city woman and then a city mom. Over a span of 13 years and three Chicago addresses, I acquired a husband, two cats, a mortgage, a dog, a baby, and then the due date for a second one. I wanted a back yard. I wanted schools that would be good, yet not tremendously challenging to get into. I wanted the lake. I wanted to be close to my parents. I wanted diversity and community.
I wanted to go home.
For a lot of people, moving back home is something you do with your tail between your legs, or with a hands-thrown-up, minivan commercial embarrassed grin—what are ya gonna do? But the fact was, I suspected I’d move back home pretty much since we had our first child. My husband and I went through the motions of discussing raising a city family, but it was fated—in part because of the schools, since Evanston’s system is drama-free compared to Chicago’s, and because of all my former classmates whom I saw living back home and loving it. They made no apologies. They didn’t seem like they had given in. If I could sacrifice nothing and make life easier by moving to a place where I could enjoy an active suburban life—with the built-in knowledge of where to go for beach tokens, pancakes or Fourth of July fireworks—and still stay adjacent to the city, why wouldn’t I?
And now here we are, and I love it. The city teems with well-organized events and opportunities for community-building. There are beautiful houses and the lake and a lake path featuring conveniently-placed recycling bins. It feels like a community, which is a funny thing to care about all of a sudden.
Even though 25-year-old-me would never give a crap about this, I appreciate knowing my neighbors and that there are free events at the nearby park on the Fourth of July. The 25-year-old-me still is alive inside, just a little bit. Sometimes I read the community newspaper or peruse the catalogue of senior computer classes and think OK, we get it, you're a suburb.
What’s strange is coming home and reliving the childhood I originally wanted to escape. I take my son to swimming classes at the same Y where I learned to swim. There I see women who I once attended preschool with; now they’re with children. Newly postpartum, I saw them at the very same beach where I so self-consciously used to try to suck in my belly. When we put our dog down, I cried on the breast of a high school friend who now works at the vet’s office. I still feel 18 sometimes, and yet I relish the fact that I am not.
I graduated college in 2001. My friends and I were the cool older sisters and brothers of millennials. We invented moving home after school. Then, we moved away. And now a lot of us are coming back. We’re putting our children through the very same pipeline we went through, and we feel good about it, too.
The key will be trying not to feel hurt when they turn 18 and get the hell out of here.
Claire Zulkey is a writer from Evanston, IL.