It's a Sunday night in Washington a fewmonths after my youngest son, Paulo has been born. We've been in DC long enough to establish a nice routine, but between housework and a new baby and a new job, the routine is pretty exhausting. You're never done with the work; no, it's more like constant triage, where you take care of the most urgent things, while everything else continues to pile up.
And yet I'm happy. The routine itself is joyous and satisfying as we build a new life in a new place, and we have enough departures from the routine that it never gets boring. Tonight we all went out for ice cream, but now I'm rushing to take care of more mundane needs. I'm cooking, Caro is breastfeeding Paulo while Sam sings “Twinkle Twinkle” to him. I know I'll be up late that night, because I've still got half an hour until the laundry is done in our building's basement, after which I will have to lug it up the stairs and hang it to dry in our apartment. So it will be a long night followed by an early morning, but I'm happy. I feel exhilarated, like in my college days when I'd do a 2am run to the grocery store just because I could, or my single nights in Spain when I would stay up late getting to know a special woman. On those occasions I knew I'd be tired the next day, but I was living in the moment, thrilling in its specialness. I think many people forego that sense of exhilaration once they settle down and start a family, relegating the feelings of spontaneous fun and the freedom of life to an unattached past in their 20s.
Even in my 30s, rushing to do poopy baby laundry before a long day at work, I'm still thrilling at being alive, staying up late with a special woman and two special guys that I'm just getting to know. In this case the treat of being with my family, being with the people I'd most strongly prefer to pass my time with, is not just a one-off special occasion, a fleeting or doomed night of romance never to be repeated. It's something I get to do and will get to do every night for a long time, God willing.
At the same time, I can't take it for granted, since it won't last forever. It's very possible Paulo will be our last baby, which means that from now on, as we enter new phases and experience new things with the kids, we'll also be leaving each milestone behind, saying goodbye to each prior moment. I guess that's how life is in general, but it's clearer for me right now, as I cherish this special time.
For the first time a long time, I'm not frustrated, or tense, or angry. Of course I feel these things too at times, but it's not like at certain moments in Colombia, when I was just generally frustrated--at a lack of control, at my allergies, at being broke, at being away from the family (we lived about three hours apart because my wife's work was in Bogota). Since I got a steady job, I've been sublimely happy in a way that I hadn't been for a long while. I think it's due to two big factors--economic security, and a greater dedication to parenting.
As for economic security, I've noticed that you just feel sunnier when you don't have so many grinding debts to pay, when you have enough money to spend on an occasional luxury. Granted, living in Washington is expensive, and we're still accumulating some debts. But something about having a steady, decent-paying job makes you worry less about them, convinced that sooner or later you can pay them off. Much of the time we lived in Colombia I was either unemployed or precariously employed, and saw no light at the end of the tunnel as debts and obligations accumulated. When I look at photos of that time now, I remember the many happy moments we shared together as a family. But always being broke and seeing no economic future for yourself takes its toll in the form of a slow-grinding, ever-present bad attitude that keeps you from enjoying some of those beautiful moments that life gives you every day.
Beyond the externally-determined factor of whether or not I have a stable job, I think part of my enjoyment of my family right now stems from a personal assumption of greater responsibility in raising my kids. For a long time I guess I was too caught up in my own projects, or too harried with economic worry, to think of myself as an equal partner in childrearing. In Colombia I didn't live with my son, so even though I might be the full-time parent on weekends when I would visit my wife and kids, I didn't know how to balance both kids and work on a day-to-day basis. When we got to DC, I was now the main breadwinner, and trying to adjust to a whole new work environment, so I guess I still didn't internalize my 50% role in raising the boys. Once Paulo was born and I had to take on more of my fair share of being a parent, it was difficult as I initially tried to do everything I used to do, plus take care of the boys. Eventually though I understood that my main job is to be a dad, and so some of my old projects and pursuits just had to take a back seat. Once I accepted this and lost myself in my parenting and my family, I was much happier in general. Being a dad wasn't taking me away from important things; these things that in the end weren't so important had been keeping me from being a dad. Some of my personal projects will just have to go on hold. I hope not forever, but at least for now. That still leaves me with a lot of projects. Writing, farming, learning, teaching, studying new degrees. But I'll just have to stretch out my timeframe for getting them done.
So it seems my happiness is due both to having a good job and to accepting the primacy of my job as a father. There have been times that I've mused on the irony of this. Sometimes I'm so into my family that I'm not too motivated at work; I'll be bored during much of the day, but these are moments when I'm generally very happy in life. In such moments I am less happy at work precisely because I am eager to get back home and be with my family. But at the same time, I recognize that it's only thanks to the professional validation and economic security provided by my work that I can fully enjoy my family, instead of being frustrated and bitter all the time because I don't have a good job or enough money.
After years of a hectic, transient life, we're all enjoying the novelty of a routine, of Dad dressing in a suit and going to an office. But we don't let ourselves get stifled by the routine, either. Often I get to work late, but I don't mind, since I've had so much fun that morning making and eating breakfast with Caro and the kids. Some mornings I feel like making pancakes or milkshakes or cookies for us, and I go ahead adn do them. There's a routine, but we can also enjoy each day as a special day.
Sometimes I spend my entire bike ride to work in a sort of reverie about this current phase of my adulthood. It is supposed to be, and in most ways is, the prime of my life. Not in terms of being on my own and free and pursuing various random things like I did in my 20s, but rather in terms of having every day filled with care for others and passion about work and the all-encompassing love that infuses our household. One morning I specifically thought that part of this prime of life is precisely not having free time to read and entertain oneself and do sightseeing and learning. Far from the typical conception of the prime of life as a time for self-centered discovery, where you're exploring the world, the great thinkers and ideas, and your own psyche, I've found that the most intense self-discovery is when I'm taking care of my wife and children.
Nowadays, when we're in a museum I can't stop and read everything like I used to, and frankly I'm not inclined to. I'm just so amused and overjoyed at my family, that some intellectual pursuits don't hold my interest as firmly anymore. Luckily, my wife has taken up the slack. Museums had never held her attention as firmly as they held mine, but now with our kids, Caro is in fact more motivated to read the explanations and share discoveries with the boys. This helps me to regain my own enthusiasm for museum learning, both for myself and the little guys.
I'm still interested in the things I've always liked, and want my kids to learn about them too. We've finished reading Homer, are reading some Grimm tales in German, and have now started on Liberation Theology by Gustavo Gutierrez. I'm drilling Sam on the local trees in our area. Sometimes we'll have spells with the boys where we realize we haven't been exposing them to much art, so we'll concentrate on that for a while. Then we see that in our exploration of art, we've neglected history and mythology, so we'll run with that next. In all our focus on the humanities we haven't done hard sciences, so we pay a visit to their pilot godfather who tells them all about airplanes. Every step is more of a learning experience for us the parents than for the kids themselves, and the most important lesson is that we needn't fret too much about one weak spot or another; everything will balance out in the fullness of time, if you just keep your eyes open to the world about you.
As I said above, it seems that some of my personal projects will have to go on hold. There are certain dreams I've long had that I'm now seeing are not logistically feasible. There are other careers and pursuits that could have also been fascinating, but that you can't easily start from zero when you're 30 or 40. And there are certain areas of learning and intellectual endeavor that I'm ignorant of, and probably won't ever learn, at least not in the near future. I'm turning into my father, with mountains of unread magazines, purchased and borrowed books for a someday that never comes. Like him, I need to accept that some things will have to go unread, but at the same time I should never stop trying to learn and teach as much as I can about this world, in whatever snatches of free time I can find. I guess part of growing up is this paring down, this pruning of pursuits and interests to fit your finite time budget, both the time in each day and your overall time on Earth.
One personal pursuit I'm careful not to neglect is writing in my diary. I feel good to give myself fully to my family, but I get tense when I can't write in my diary for too long of a stretch. Of course the irony is that you always have more time to write when there's not much to write about. If I had ample time to be writing, it would be because I was single, without the family that inspires me, and I probably wouldn't have much to write about anyway, and certainly not the motivation to get up and write about whatever I was doing.
When I was in college I had two fairly divergent interests for possible future career paths: international agricultural development work on the on hand, and on the other working in the farm economy right in the Midwestern USA. I wanted to learn how to weld and get a commercial driver license and someday embark on the great annual wheat harvest with a customharvesting company. These are small family businesses that every year set out across the Great Plains with agricultural harvesting equipment, starting in Texas and often going all the way up to Canada,. Grain farmers (mainly wheat, but corn, soybean, and sunflower too) hire these companies to harvest all of their fields for them. Usually the custom harvesting companies consist in a core family, but then hire college-age kids from the US and abroad to drive the trucks and combines for them. I'd always dreamed of doing this for a summer, but never did, and now with a family and a stable job it's unlikely I'll find 6 free months to go on the road with such an outfit.
My current job in agricultural development consists of administering tangible work, not doing it myself. I'm not the ag extensionist; I'm the guy who designs an ag extension program and manages the money to fund it. I'm not sad about this--it's a new, fascinating field, and I enjoy learning and working within the parameters of a new system. But at the same time, I sometimes mourn the paths not taken in my career.
This was driven home for me in a very real way after a trip to Chicago and Wisconsin. Talking to my young cousin as he graduated high school and went on to college rekindled my old dreams of work in skilled trades and Midwestern agriculture. He had studied welding and blacksmithing in high school, and was going on to study metallurgy at college. I thought this was about the coolest plan ever, and admired that he had had the determination and courage to know what he wanted to do, and to take the necessary steps to pursue it.
I have another cousin who makes it a point when he travels to find a dive bar like the kind he frequents back home. He wants to get to know the common folk like him in other locales--he's not too interested in the fancy monuments or tourist sights. Visiting him I was reminded of the value that my entire family places on humility, working with your hands, and not ascending too scandalously high in the class structure. I think I've generally stayed true to these values in my life, but right now my surroundings are almost antithetical to such an attitude. In Washington, DC, people at their worst tend to be at once haughty and small-minded, thinking themselves sophisticated, when they are really parochial and not very cosmopolitan.
Anyway, my point isn't to rip on Washington. I really just want to say that recently I've felt torn between the many lives I've had and can still have--in Colombia a small businessperson or farmer, a roving community developer or agronomist, in the Midwestern US an urban entrepreneur or a rural homesteader. Not to mention my current job in an international development organization, or my dreams and feeble attempts at writing. I don't regret the paths I've chosen. I just wish choosing one didn't imply renouncing another. So many lives to live!
So that's my life right now. Overwhelmed and overjoyed, with less time for cold intellect, yet more for action and love.
As I near my 34th birthday, I am thrilled to finally feel in control of my life. That said, looking around me in the culture at large, it seems that too many spend their youth striving to achieve something, often just stability. Once they get older, whether or not they've achieved their initial goal, people lose that drive and just coast from then on. People my age often have kids, then stop dreaming for themselves. My wife summed it up well when she said that many people stop creating at some point. Though we've found a Zen-like repose in focusing on our family, my wife and I don't ever plan on ceasing to create. There's too much world, too much life out there to just let it pass by.