As the pinch of inflation and L.A.’s high gas prices cause many people to rethink where they live, I’ve been revisiting our decision to move away from the city. Four years ago, my husband, our 2-year-old daughter, and I left from Los Angeles International Airport on one-way tickets to Madison, Wis. We had careers (me an automotive manager, him an adjunct professor at UCLA). We owned a home in Mar Vista, with two dogs and a succulent garden. After 15 years, we had established L.A. as our home. And then suddenly, it wasn’t anymore.
On a recent visit back, friends and strangers asked, “Is life better outside L.A.?” They all have oft-repeated mental exercises where they uproot to a Bend, Ore., Boise, Idaho, or Austin, Texas, utopia where the iced lattes flow and traffic is nonexistent.
I stared blankly. Am I happier? Our old house in Mar Vista was listed for sale again by the new owners, so I really thought about it.
Back then, my husband and I theorized that we could be more satisfied elsewhere. There were a few specific moments that pushed us to make the leap. First, we discovered a black widow’s nest in the baby’s room. Then, I had a panic attack in traffic on the 405. Finally, we learned of my dad’s Parkinson’s diagnosis.
Was our theory true? Here’s what I discovered leaving L.A. for the Midwest to be closer to family.
1. You can’t exactly go home again, but that’s OK
I thought we would fall in with old friends when we moved back to my home state, but we barely see them. Most are married with the Wisconsin-requisite three children. They welcomed us home with open arms at first, but now we don’t get together that often. Maybe it’s their kids’ grueling soccer schedules.
At our stage, you make friends through your kids, and that’s what we’ve done. Funny enough, most of our new friends are transplants too, from California or the East Coast, who made the same decision to seek a quieter life, so we feel right at home.
2. There’s less diversity
In one downtown L.A. car dealership I visited for work, 32 languages were spoken. In Madison, I once attended a meeting with four other white women named Sara/Sarah.
We didn’t want to raise our blond daughter among only kids who look like her. So, we asked around and chose a neighborhood and a preschool with a relatively diverse racial and ethnic makeup. We also made friends with families from around the world through the university where I work.
My daughter started public school last month. There are four languages spoken at our bus stop. Madison will never offer as much variety as a global center like Los Angeles, but you can build a diverse friend circle if you make that a priority.
3. Life is easier elsewhere
In L.A., we worked crazy hours to keep up with our mortgage, expenses and nanny. In Madison, with lower-stress jobs, we can afford a colonial-style home that is almost three times the size of our L.A. bungalow on a lot filled with oak trees. I get to be the one who takes my daughter to the park on sunny afternoons.
We traded the ocean for three lakes and the perma-sunshine for seasons. Our daughter loves ice skating and snow. Other things are easier too. The zoo is free, and we actually go.
4. Creativity flourishes with less stress
At least for me it did. A calmer lifestyle provided downtime where I found space to write and revise a novel and several children’s picture books. Who’s to say all the dreamers are in the City of Angels?
5. It means a lot to care for aging parents
When people ask me why I left, my dad’s face pops into my head. We didn’t know the extent of his illness and we couldn’t have known how quickly he would decline. When my father died two years after we moved back, I got to be there for every step of it. That alone made our decision to uproot worth it. And, now with my dad gone, my mom needs us more than ever.
6. Change can be good
The pandemic made travel harder, and I’ve felt literally stuck with our decision at times. Recently someone asked me if Madison was our “forever home” — a platitude that reminds me worms will one day eat my remains. Nothing is forever.
But today I can breathe because my commute took seven minutes. I had extra snuggle time with my daughter. I found time to write and work out. I took a big chance moving back, and I’ve grown because of it, both creatively and as a wife and mother. My daughter and I are learning how to paint with acrylics together on cold winter days. She gets to see me go after my dream to write for a living, and not just talk about doing it one day.
7. I still long to move back
After my husband and I clicked through the pictures of our old home, poo-pooing the changes the new owners made, he asked me, “Want to move back?”
“No way,” I said, because I know that’s what he wanted to hear. It was listed in June for a shocking $2 million, twice what we paid for it seven years earlier.
But, it was a lie.
My feelings are way more complicated. Despite what Madison offers, a deep-rooted part of me longs to move back. L.A. got under my skin, with its barely contained chaos and lingering twilights. Growing up in Wisconsin, I was always searching. I longed to escape the conventions of my childhood. I was restless, and L.A. offered endless variety. Despite my rational side checking boxes, a part of me wants to be back there. Someday maybe we will.