One of the perks of having children is being able to watch an alternate version of your life unfold before your very eyes. It’s like some Hollywood remake with different actors, contemporary references and better hair, but the story and themes are more or less the same. “I’ve seen this before,” you say. “I know how it turns out.”
Right now, our eldest daughter Emily is starring in the scene of her first grownup job. It’s not as though she’s been working a sidewalk lemonade stand all this time, but this is the first job where her university degree has come into play, where showing up for work with bicycle grease on her leggings might not be on, where tips aren’t involved. She’ll be working with lawyers, for God’s sake.
Em is excited about this new job – nine-to-five, weekends off, benefits! – but also mourning the death of her youth. She’s working with lawyers; I’d be more concerned about the death of her soul.
“I’m basically 40 now,” she says.
Well, no, not quite.
But when you take on that first meaningful job, the one that hints of “career,” it does mean the start – and end – of certain things.
I remember when Deb and I were planning our lives, before kids. She was working at a restaurant, I was punching a clock in production at The Suburban, a Montreal weekly. We were going to travel Canada, explore the backroads, live off our wits (which would have made for a short trip). We were in no rush to become certified adults. Why on earth would we want that?
Then Emily came along. So much for travel. Wait: there was still travel, but it involved a car seat and occasional projectile vomiting.
We became grownups pretty quickly. Ultimately, we skipped the transitional link to adulthood that Emily’s going through, so there’s not much advice we can give her about how long to stay in a job, what to do about her own dreams of travel, when it is and isn’t appropriate to make lawyer jokes.
We became grownups, sure, but it took a while to settle into our grownup jobs. Not long after Emily was born, I quit The Suburban so I could take a crack at freelance writing. That was back when you could still draw pogey after quitting, back when newspapers actually hired people. Deb, meanwhile, returned to working at a restaurant. Looking back on this period, our parents must have been losing their minds.
Just over a year after Emily was born, we moved to the Townships where I began working at The Stanstead Journal, a decidedly grownup job that nonetheless allowed me to maintain the immature lifestyle to which I’d become accustomed. This was followed by three more children, a house, insurance, retirement savings….
Deb and I have changed careers a couple of times since. But as they tentatively navigate their own futures, I’m sure our kids must look in dismay at the way we came here and just… stopped. They must think our life is like one of those foreign films where people talk around a dinner table about existence and then go to bed early.
The other day, I uncovered a woodcut print given to me by a co-worker named Owen on the day I left The Suburban. The print depicts a man with a goofy grin on his face. He’s walking through an empty city, tie loosened, with a dog on a leash, the sun shining. It’s called “Oh Happy Day!” Owen said it’s a picture of a man on his last day of work.
I can’t remember Owen’s family name, and I can’t make it out on the print. He was a good guy. He had a ponytail, but I might have been in my bandana phase then, so I can’t say anything. I think Owen and I could have become great friends if I had stayed at that non-grownup job.
I wonder from time to time what happened to Owen. Does he still have a ponytail? Does he still listen to Joy Division? Does he still make art? Did he take on a grownup job? Did his life stop? Or was it, like mine, filled with adventures that his kids don’t even realize? Is he now watching the scary parts of his children’s own movie-lives through his fingers?
Because it turns out we don’t know how this ends.
And who doesn’t like a surprise ending?