One of my favorite films of all time–holiday or otherwise–is The Family Man, starring Nicolas Cage and Tea Leoni. In it, Cage plays a Wall Street businessman who seemingly has the perfect life as a wealthy bachelor. One Christmas Eve he stumbles into a world that is a glimpse of what life would have been like for him had he taken an alternate course, that of a common family man living in a chronically untidy house in the suburbs with two adorable children and a wife whose career has been less than stellar.
I love this film for a number of reasons, but specifically because it questions what most people would consider the perfect life–fancy cars, a driver, a penthouse suite, the attention of beautiful members of the opposite sex. It begs the question, what would life have been like had we steered onto a different path? How different would our lives have been and would it have made us happier than we are now? And the film makes you question what is perfection. Is it the Ferrari and the penthouse suite, or is it a comfortable home with a loving spouse and children? Leoni’s character, Kate, is a lawyer–typically a well-paying career–but Kate is content helping the disadvantaged, taking on pro bono cases instead of the ones that could make her much more money. To her, the house in the suburbs and the minivan and the child in a decent public school is the perfect existence.
For sure, the movie poses an interesting scenario to ponder. What if you had married someone else? What if you had chosen a different career? What if you had more children–or none at all? What if you had never moved from that city or ended up in this one? What if you had never left the farm?
One of my favorite scenes in The Family Man is when suburban Jack gets a break at cracking into the lucrative career he had lworked at in his former/real life. On their anniversary, he takes Kate to a magnificent Manhattan apartment that he has been offered as a perk for accepting a high-paying, high-powered job on Wall Street. When Kate wants none of it, Jack pleads that this new business opportunity and living in the city would provide them with “a perfect life, a great life. Everything that we pictured when we were young; the whole package.” When Kate continues to protest, Jack says, “I’m talking about us having a life that other people envy.” To which Kate replies, “Oh, Jack. They already do envy us.”
This movie hits a nerve because my husband chose a career that makes many people quite wealthy. There are millionaires in his field. They live in mansions or at the very least McMansions. They drive foreign cars (and by “foreign” I do not mean Toyota). They have country club memberships and second homes in the country. They travel to expensive places on extensive vacations. In other words, they live the high life, what many would label the perfect life.
But even before my husband had started his career, the two of us had started a family. By the time he graduated from school, he was the father of two children and the husband of a wife with no job. We lived off of student loans the first three years of our elder daughter’s life and the first year of our younger’s. We worked part time at whatever we could manage. The loans totaled $15,000 for the first year, and $12,000 for each of the following two years, maximum. Try buying groceries and diapers, paying for health insurance, car insurance, paying the utilities and rent in the Bay Area for four people on that income, and without taking any kind of a handout. We had one car–a two-door Nissan Sentra, which posed a problem when getting the babies in and out of the back seat–and little more to our names. We ate a lot of spaghetti, lasagna that lasted an entire week, chicken, and macaroni and cheese (the boxed kind, not the luscious stuff featured on the Food Network). A treat would be a very occasional bucket of fried chicken or lunch at McDonald’s. We shopped on an extremely tight budget and somehow made it work. By the time my husband got his first job, I’m sure our elder daughter thought “generic” was a brand name.
We started out behind the 8 ball, and it’s been a struggle ever since to roll it out of our way let alone push it completely aside. To this day–more than 20 years after my husband first started his career–we’re still living a modest life in a modest house with many flaws. No, we don’t have hardwood floors, marble or granite countertops (or even Corian, for that matter). Our carpet is old and grungy, but I keep shampooing it, and when we need new flooring, we tend to pull up the carpets and lay down peel-and-stick vinyl. I shop at Target, not Nordstrom. Eating out is reserved for special occasions–birthdays, our anniversary, and the occasional holiday. Needless to say, most of my husband’s peers would not be able to even stomach our lifestyle. I’m sure they’d hardly consider this a perfect life. But it’s what we’ve made and it’s all we have. And it’s really not so bad. We pay our bills on time, have four terrific kids, two of whom have reached adulthood and one who’s less than a year away, and we have friends and family who love and care about us.
Now that my husband is struggling to find a job to replace the one he has been downsized from, I have once again begun pondering the what ifs. What would our life have been like had he taken a different road on his career path? What if he had gone for the high-paying, high-powered career? If it would have meant being without our cluttered, funky home, having three kids instead of four, or two instead of four, or none at all, I’d have taken the very road we’re on. It may not be the perfect life, but it’s an enviable one just the same.