On a warm June evening one year into a 15-year mortgage, I put my seven-month-old daughter in the stroller. My husband slips the harness over the dog’s shoulders. The sun is still high when we set out along the trail in front of our suburban neighborhood. Walls of greenery are in bloom, and my daughter’s pudgy fingers reach out, trailing along emerald leaves and ruby petals.
We walk to the local elementary school and I lift her into a swing, jabbering about how this is will be her school someday and how she’ll run out those doors after lunchtime, chase her friends, and climb the tower to the tallest slide.
As the words tumble out of my mouth, my mind entertains what-ifs: What if I don’t want to live here by the time she’s in kindergarten? What if we take a leap and move before she hits the school years?
The wind picks up, and I hear the rustling of leaves on a nearby oak tree. Its trunk is thick and sturdy, enough so that it doesn’t sway in the breeze, but an acorn detaches and drops to the ground. I wonder if the acorn will work itself into this soil or if it will be carried miles from here. Which would be the better fate? I ask myself. Which option would provide the best chance of not just survival but flourishing?
With my daughter securely in the swing, I push her away from me, and then the momentum changes direction and she comes flying back toward my outstretched arms. Back and forth, back and forth. I fix my feet to the ground in front of her and fight the instinct to divide.
Gardeners divide plants for a wealth of reasons: the plants grow overcrowded and become stressed, or the soil lacks enough nutrients to sustain the growth. Some need to be divided every couple of years for their own health and for the health of the land. I wonder if division is what I needed all along, or if I came to need it because it’s all I’ve known.
The first time it happened, my family moved across the country from Illinois to Florida. I was a tender shoot, a lanky 11-year-old new girl. The squeak of my shoes against the sticky lunchroom floor was a rushing wind in my ears, and my skin smoldered as I imagined all eyes were on me. I tightened my grip on my tray as I searched for a place to sit in a landscape of faces I didn’t recognize.
What had started out as a grand adventure now felt like a walk in the wilderness without a map. I was navigating the terrain of middle school alone. I wished one of those girls would wave me over and plant me next to her on the cafeteria bench.
It took a few months, but eventually a classmate named Robyn adopted me as her friend. We had the same homeroom teacher, the same class schedule, and the same transient background. She had been uprooted from Texas a few years earlier. When she passed me a note in class for the first time—Which boy do you like? Write back with your phone number!—I felt a tightness in my chest unfurl. I didn’t belong to this place quite yet, but I belonged to her.
Within weeks we had memorized each other’s phone numbers and the bike routes to one another’s homes. Our parents gave us permission to ride to a nearby restaurant, where we spent our babysitting money on a medium pizza and garlic knots. We giggled as we whispered the names of our crushes, our eyes darting around to make sure no one could hear us. Sleepovers punctuated our weeks, where Robyn taught me to apply foundation, casually half-tuck my shirt, and pluck my eyebrows as she held an ice cube against my angry skin. She was the stake that kept my growth strong and steady, and because of her I bloomed in my own time.
Three years later, on my fourteenth birthday, I was uprooted and divided again. I said good-bye, hugging Robyn in the same hallway where we had walked arm-in-arm hoping to pass the boys we liked. I promised to write and visit, and I know now this was more for me than for her.
Three months after that tearful good-bye, in a house that didn’t feel like home yet, I ran to the bathroom to involuntarily vomit my breakfast. My body was consumed by the experience of being the new girl. As I wiped the smeared mascara from under my eyes, I wondered once again if someone would provide me shade from the harsh light of other people’s stares in the lunchroom.
I tried to keep my head up as I stepped into this new school. The hallways smelled faintly of mildew and easy laughter tumbled down the double staircase in the middle of the building. I found my seat in homeroom, and a few minutes later, Samantha swiveled in her chair to introduce herself. She kept me by her side for the rest of the day—showing me to my classrooms, introducing me to her friends, and asking thoughtful questions about the life I left behind in Florida. When she invited me to her house for a sleepover that weekend and confessed that sometimes she felt lonely in the town where she knew everyone, she guided my roots further into the red Georgia clay.
More quickly than I could have imagined, I was sown into the landscape of suburban Atlanta, and I began to bloom among the foothills. Samantha and I tried out for the school play, sat together among friends in the cafeteria, and walked laps during gym class, dreaming about where we’d end up. Neither of us believed that Georgia would hold us in place forever. But at night I found myself still connected to my old life: I chatted online for hours with my middle school friends and made plans to visit Florida for spring break.
Two years into high school, just when I had stopped thinking of myself as a transplant and instead felt native to the southern soil, we moved again. I was heartbroken at the thought of leaving my friends, but I also felt a strange new prickling under my skin, an urge to throw myself into the change and drive my own roots into fresh soil. I had done this before, and I knew that this time I could replant myself.
I didn’t vomit on my first day of junior year but instead felt my heart skip, a pleasant kind of thrill, at the prospect of carving a spot for myself on this new plot. I was growing accustomed to the life of division and multiplication, perhaps even learning to thrive on it. Now, I crave it.
Two years in one place makes me itchy, and three years makes the itch unbearable—it must be scratched. I must prove that I can thrive in unfamiliar conditions. At 30, I’m still not sure what to make of this. Am I trying to run away, always believing life will be better somewhere else? Or am I trying to divide and replant, to create beauty and sustain life in a new place?
After three years in Chicago post-college, I hatched a plan to move to Spain. Just as I began to take action, I met my future husband, a man who had lived on the same street his whole childhood. He introduced me to his closest friends, who had been his first friends in middle school. On paper it might seem like staying for him would be the safe decision—settling, even—but it felt risky to me. He represented the promise of dividing me one last time and planting me in a more permanent life—the kind where I would stay and bloom longer than a few seasons.
We got married, bought a house, adopted a dog, and welcomed a baby. We installed new floors, painted the walls gray, and bought furniture that is meant to last. When we purchased our house, we knew it made financial sense to be here for at least seven years. But now, in a spot I can’t quite reach, the itch is growing stronger.
At the time, each of my childhood moves felt like certain death as the shears sliced through me. But now I see that I have left behind pieces of myself without becoming smaller; I have grown resilient. I may lack a clear answer to the dinner-party question—So, where are you from?—but I am not homeless. I am alive in each place where I have resided. I carry the landscapes, the friendships, and the rhythms of each home within me.
I lift my daughter from the swing and walk her over toward the jungle gym. She kicks her feet against my hips, and I can tell she is itching to climb the stairs, but her seven-month-old legs aren’t quite ready. She would eagerly race down the slide on her own, but her baby back isn’t strong enough to hold her upright and keep her safe.
I carry her to the top of the play structure and we glide down the slide together. When we reach the bottom she giggles and makes the sign for “more.”
I press my lips to her downy hair and whisper in her ear, “If that’s what you want, baby girl.”
P.S. If you enjoyed this essay, don’t miss our podcast episode, Parenting for the Long Haul with Krista Gilbert.
Guest post written by Brittany Bergman. Brittany is a writer and editor living in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband and her daughter. She is passionate about living a simple life marked by authenticity and gratitude. She is unashamedly incapable of pacing herself when it comes to reading mysteries or eating French toast. Brittany writes about living thoughtfully and savoring motherhood at BrittanyLBergman.com. You can sign up to receive her Self-Care Planner for Busy Moms or follow her on Instagram.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.