New York City, where I used to live, is a transient place. People ask where you’re from, because the assumption is “not here.”

I find this question asked less often, here in my new home outside Philadelphia. Indeed, I have had the experience now of meeting parents of kids at Jasper’s preschool who actually went to the preschool themselves 30 years ago. That would be parents, plural – it’s not one outlier. It’s a somewhat regular thing.

I find this worldview fascinating, because it’s certainly different from the one my husband and I grew up with. Both of our fathers were academics, which means that, first, you go to graduate school somewhere that has a great program. This is probably not the town you grew up in. Then, coming out of grad school, you go to the best university that offers you a job, which is seldom the same place you went to school. You may stay at that job a long time, but still, your kids don’t view it as the ancestral home. None of my husband’s siblings stayed in College Station, TX, and none of mine stayed in Raleigh, NC or South Bend, IN. My husband and I both moved to New York because we thought it would be a fun place to live, and we moved to PA because my husband is currently part of the Philadelphia office of his company. But he’s been in at least three other offices during his tenure. In my world, place is a variable.

But for other people, it isn’t. When all your extended family is in one place, you may simply assume that is where it is best to live. And perhaps it is. Having a tight social network is a strong predictor of human happiness. You look for careers you can do in the place you are, rather than follow work opportunities elsewhere. This is not necessarily good or bad, it’s optimizing different things. You may give up something in salary, but if you can, say, rely on family for a chunk of your childcare, you may not need to earn as much.

It will be interesting to see which mindset my children adopt. In choosing a community in which to live, it certainly never entered my mind that this would have any bearing on which community my children ultimately choose to live in. Will they, like us, view holidays as a time for flights and long car trips, or trips down the street? Will place be a variable, or a constant? What is it for you?


8 thoughts on “Roots

  1. I live in a town now, outside Boston, where many people have lived their whole lives. In fact, it’s pretty common for multiple generations to live in multiple-family houses together. But I hated where I grew up because it was so snobby and homogeneous, and my husband also couldn’t wait to get away from where he grew up. We feel settled where we are now. We’ve gotten involved in the community and we see this as our permanent home. But since we don’t have a lot of extended family here, I feel like there will be nothing tying our kids to the area. I wish we lived closer to our relatives, but for various reasons it just wouldn’t work for us to be closer to either set of grandparents.

  2. This is fascinating. In every state I’ve lived in (Oregon, Iowa, Michigan, Kentucky), the overwhelming majority of people were from “around here”, i.e. within 50 miles of where we worked. It is only the educated minority (top 10%?) that expects to move for a career. Your viewpoint doesn’t surprise me, based on your book. Most people in the top 10% don’t think much about how the other 90% live. I’ve never lived in an urban area where the top 10% go for jobs, though I did choose a job 3 miles from a good land grant state engineering school, largely for the community.

    Remember, too, that the “other 90% of the world” doesn’t have the high cost of living of LA, NY, DC, the Bay Area, Boston and (arguably) Seattle, the places where people go for particular jobs. Living on $70k in Wichita is different from living on $70k in Manhattan.

    Most people work to live. Only a few make choices about where to live based on where they work. My husband grew up near a national lab and the scientists who work in national labs have a viewpoint similar to your academic parents and in-laws. We might move back to a national lab area. One of the benefits is a low cost of living (generally) along with super public schools (because the local national lab is a major employer and the progeny of national lab scientists are bright). The downside is that jobs end with administration changes.

    1. I am an academic scientist (in the postdoctoral stage of my career), and I would have to say that I agree with your assessment. It has not been uncommon for other academic scientists to just assume that I will go wherever a faculty position lands me. The fact that I have a husband with his own career and a family often doesn’t even seem to occur to people. We currently live 6+ hours from both of our families and are homesick beyond belief. We didn’t move because of my postdoc position but rather because of my husband’s job, but we are both hoping that ultimately we do end up back “home”, where we know we would love to spend the rest of our lives, near our families.

  3. There are good and not-so-great folks everywhere. My next-door-neighbor is an angel, many of the women I meet on the playground are complete bitXhxs, the folks I admire in my career can be doing great work like mine but not in my area. You get different things from different people and from different areas. Where I grew up people don’t have a coronary changing lanes and men don’t shout profanities and tailgate you but then again they also aren’t as multicultural.

  4. My parents moved five times before I was six and always figured they would move again, but I ended up getting all of my schooling in one small town in Missouri. I thought that I would go farther away but ended up in a suburb of the nearest big city, married to a man who also grew up in a small town in Missouri. We briefly considered going west at one point, but didn’t. Later, aging parent issues made that an unlikely scenario so we bought a house we like and plan to stay in the same suburb we’ve been living in for over 20 years. If we ever move farther afield at this point it will be for nicer winters in the south.

  5. Staying where you grew up and moving as “optimizing different things” is an interesting take. I’ve heard criticism of the decision to move away from one’s hometown and be far from family, especially from those outside the U.S. Sure, there are drawbacks, but there are also advantages (such as getting to know people you wouldn’t have if you’d stayed put).

    For me, place is generally constant: 2.5 hours away from my parents. Holidays are another story. And the place (apartment) within my general place (city) changes every few years.

  6. My husband and I both live within 3 miles of where we grew up. Both of our moms are still here, as are our siblings. We attended local universities. I work at the elementary school I attended. This is truly our home.
    A recent reorganization in my husband’s company may have relocated us to the Phillie suburbs, but my husband got the position here. We were each happy and sad, as the prospect of living somewhere other than “here” was intriguing. I, too, wonder if our sons will have the same thoughts, or will they feel tied down to the area?
    The physical proximity often results in a a lack of time together, as you just figure the family will always be nearby. WIth the prospect of the move behind us, we made a promise with family members to actually spend more time together.

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