a little boy in a baseball cap in a field
(Photo/Flickr-jted CC BY-SA 2.0)

After 10 years in S.F., staying afloat in Midwest is a walk in the park

“I can’t do it!” Nate says.

And yet, his teacher lets go of him in the water, and he does it, over and over again. He swims to the wall, he submerges and touches the bottom of the pool, he flips onto his back and floats.

This past year, my oldest son has been learning how to swim. By year, I mean from last fall until now, because my life is lived in school years now. We have spent this year, the year he was 4, living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a pretty, pleasant, medium-size Midwestern city. It’s the kind of place where kids ride their bikes on the sidewalks and play together in the long summer evenings, where neighbors invite you over for impromptu cookouts, where the block goes all out for Halloween. It’s a place with a good economy, where the cost of living is affordable and the quality of life is high. It’s a great place to raise kids. And we will soon be leaving it.

Nine months ago, my husband and I decided to pack up our life in San Francisco after 10 years. We moved there together in our 20s, and we got married there, standing together under a chuppah in Precita Park as a group of kids played a raucous game of soccer a few yards away. We had our children there, crowding one and then two little people into our one-bedroom Mission District apartment.

My husband was a Californian from the foothills of the Sierras, and I was a Californian, too, living most of my childhood in Los Angeles. But we were also products of the East Coast: we met in college in Massachusetts, lived together in Washington, D.C., and continued traveling regularly to New England, where I was born a fourth-generation Mainer, to visit my parents who have returned there. We were outgrowing our life in San Francisco, and a job opportunity for my husband in New York City prompted us to make the leap east. But his job would first require that we spend fall, winter and spring in the Midwest.

So this city family took a break from apartment living to spread out in a house with a yard on a tree-lined block. At preschool, Nate traded the paved playground at his San Francisco school for a large grassy field and a ravine. In the late afternoons, my kids run around out back while I watch them from the kitchen window and cook dinner. In the city, I sometimes felt like I had to fight for everything — parking spots, school placements, even walking down the sidewalk in my busy neighborhood. Here, I was able to secure a last-minute preschool transfer with just a phone call, and everything is a 10-minute car ride away. When I take my youngest to the weekly baby program at the library, the librarian passes out a copy of the book she is going to read to each baby so everyone can hold — or gnaw on — their own copy. Life is easy and abundant.

Never do I feel that more than when I take Nate to his weekly swimming lesson. When I watch him and the other kids in their swimsuits, shivering and clinging to the wall, the image fades to black and white and I can see earlier generations of boys and girls struggling to learn to stay afloat and blow bubbles underwater. Swimming lessons, to me, are the epitome of middle-class life. They feel like a universal experience, yet they’re characterized by privilege and access to resources. If we had stayed in San Francisco, we would have sent Nate to swimming class this year, too. He would have learned to swim, but it would have taken us twice as long to get to them and cost twice as much; it would have required more sacrifice. Middle-class life is easier and more abundant in Grand Rapids.

And yet, I won’t be unhappy to say goodbye to this place. West Michigan is so culturally homogenous that it’s sometimes disconcerting, and I’m ready to return to a place that’s more diverse with a bigger Jewish community. I’m excited to burrow in, to meet new people and feel strongly connected to my community. We may have to kick a little harder to keep our heads above water in New York, but we’ll stay afloat.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.