Deep Patterns in Suburban Life
Underpinning the whole of life in the suburbs, in fact, the whole reason for the existence of the suburbs, is a particular vision of “the ideal life”. This ideal is incredibly pervasive. Just as fish who swim in the ocean or an aquarium may have no particular awareness of water as such, so it can be that we who live in suburbia may not be aware of the omnipresence of this ideal in our lives. Nonetheless, when we see it in explicit terms in front of us, it may seem very familiar.
This ideal can be best expressed in terms of a story, a narrative. It would run something like the following.
A man and a woman love each other. They decide to get married. They want to have children, but they don’t want them to grow up in the city proper because of the crowding, because of the anonymity, or because they simply feel that the city is not a very wholesome or healthy environment for children to grow up. So they decide to buy a house and move to the suburbs, where there is more space, where the neighbors are friendly, and where kids can just be kids in a safe, hospitable environment. In this ideal vision, the husband has a career, at which he works very hard. At the end of the day, he comes home to his loving wife and they share an evening of warm family time with the children. The wife is a devoted mother and devoted to making the family home all that it can be, and in the updated version of this ideal, she also has a valued and meaningful career, which she somehow advances by working extremely hard while simultaneously carrying out the child rearing and homemaking functions.
The couple raise their children in this supportive community environment. The children are loving, well-educated and ambitious, and go on to university or some other form of education that prepares them for upward mobility. The kids individually leave home and go on to good careers in which they are even more successful and prosperous than their parents.
The kids in turn get their homes in suburbia, and have children, who come to visit their grandparents and enrich their lives with memorable multi-generational family gatherings in which the older couple are cherished. The couple grows old surrounded by a loving supportive family. They leave the working world for a rich and rewarding retirement, savoring the material comfort they have created for themselves in the family home. The couple stays healthy and is able to garden and look after their house, and to enjoy the material benefits of a lifetime of hard and successful work. Perhaps as they grow older they go on cruises, or buy a boat or a second home.
Please understand, I am not advocating this vision of suburban life. Nor am I saying that it is all negative or wrong. Nor am I trying to make the point that people who live in suburbia or exurbia necessarily hold on to this picture as their conscious personal ideal.
My point is that this ideal / picture / narrative is actually built right into the structure of suburban life. We can see this clearly in the way that new suburban “homes” (note how frequently that word appears, as opposed to “houses”!) are marketed. We can see it in the way that suburban neighborhoods are planned and constructed. It is also a part of popular culture. “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Brady Bunch” may be TV shows that predate many of us, but their influence on the collective psyche lives on, and is subtly present in TV shows as diverse as “The Simpsons” and “Hannah Montana”.
We may be more sophisticated as a society than we were in the 1950s, or the 1970s, but on some level the yearning embodied in the 1940s and 50s ideal of suburban life lives on. It has real consequences for our expectations of ourselves and of those whom we live with and love, and to how we feel about our lives. In Jungian terms, it derives its power from the symbol of Home.