We all have an image in our minds of what the American dream looks like, but rarely do we see it photographed. For the past 20 years, Beth Yarnelle Edwards has been documenting suburban families in an effort to capture how the American dream has changed over time.
Edwards’ Suburban Dreams project was born in 1997, growing out of Beth’s disillusionment with her own life in the suburbs. “I felt isolated and trapped, but I realized that the people around me really loved being there,” she tells TIME.
Edwards started the project by photographing her network of friends and acquaintances near her home in San Carlos, California. She interviewed her subjects extensively to better recreate common scenarios in their home life for the portraits. “It’s really important to me that the images are authentic to what is happening in the home,” she says. Edwards collaborated with her subjects to determine the best approach, then allowed the scenes to unfold organically.
In 2016, Edwards revived the project, revisiting many of her original subjects. Since creating the original work, she divorced her husband and moved into San Francisco before getting remarried in 2014 and moving back to the suburbs. During that period, the housing market in Silicon Valley boomed, and many of her original subjects had become property rich or priced out of the area.
Looking at the lives of those who were able to stay, Edwards was surprised by how little about their lives had changed. “This population is kind of blessed,” she said. “This isn’t how the larger population lives.”
Below, see Edwards’ images along with commentary from her subjects reflecting on how their lives have changed over the last two decades.
“My sisters and I grew up with parents who prioritized family and who made sure that we maintained a loving relationship with one another. We saw our mom have a close relationship with her sisters, so she modeled what that looked like. Our mom used to say, ‘You can hate me, but you can’t hate your sister. You’ll need her. She’ll be your best friend someday.’ It’s true! We share a sense of humor that can usually get me out of a bad place in a matter of seconds. And I think we do a good job of sharing our strengths to support one another.
“Our parents still live in the house they got married in in 1975. They remodeled it a couple times, from a small bungalow to a larger but simple home to fit their family of five more comfortably. Even after they remodeled, and we each had our own room, we still chose to sleep in the same bedroom together for the first few years. And dinner was like a sacred act. Every single night we sat down as a family, 99% of the time made from scratch by our working mom, and often with produce that our dad grew in the garden. Dinnertime was when we talked about school or work, complained, laughed, cried, shared advice, and got into fights.” — Lucia
‘”We’re all located in the Bay Area but at different ends, San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose, so it’s very different from the days of living together at our parents’ house in Redwood City and more difficult to get together these days with everyone’s schedules. I feel like we’re always catching up and we’re never done, whether it’s the latest family news, what’s going on at work, sharing recommendations for a new favorite aluminum-free deodorant or Netflix show. I was used to living with my sisters and talking every day, and now there’s so much we squeeze into our scheduled time together.
“We are beyond lucky to have our parents. They raised us to be close, to look after each other, to be honest with each other, and I think that gave us a really strong foundation for our relationships with each other. We grew up in an environment where the truth — whether it was difficult, uncomfortable, or ugly — was valued, along with education, community and family, above all else.” — Niki
“In the first photo, I had an average life for that time. It was all about friends and school.
Now my life is all about the children. Having two kids under two takes over in a good way.
Our lives really revolve around food and eating. The kids and Joe and I love to eat, and we are all good at it. The weekend is about farmer’s markets and Costco, and then barbecuing or cooking big dinners or eating at our favorite Chinese or Vietnamese places. And music.
There isn’t really anything I wish I’d known before. I think everything turned out the way it did for a reason. Maybe just don’t sweat the small stuff. Think big picture.” — Erin
“In the 2002 photo, we were first-time parents who had just purchased a home in the Hayward Hills. We were a young and hard-working couple with dreams. We wanted to give our daughter, Danielle, the best life possible.
“Before the second photo, we had added a son, Darien, who is now fourteen. Danielle is now a freshman in college. She did extremely well in high school and was accepted into many prestigious universities. We have done some home improvements. I lost my mom, and James lost his dad.
I grew up in Oakland, and James grew up in Richmond, California. We both lived in the inner city in blue-collar communities with modest single-family homes. We now live in a larger home in a middle-class suburban community. It’s a more affluent neighborhood than the ones we grew up in. Like us, our children have only known one home from the time they were born.
“Time flies by quickly, so you have to enjoy your children at each stage in their lives. Also, spend more time with your aging parents, as they may not be with you for much longer. — Antonette
“A year after the second photo, I am a senior in high school. It’s my first year at an online school, because my ballet schedule doesn’t allow me the time to attend a brick-and-mortar school. I do ballet from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. I have a lot of schoolwork. I spend very little time in Brisbane, where my mother lives and where both photos were taken, because my parents are divorced and my dad lives in San Francisco, and also because the San Francisco Ballet is located in San Francisco, and because all my friends live in San Francisco.
“I still love clothes and fashion. I also love cooking. I still spend lots of time at my mom’s art gallery, but now I work for her on the weekends. I also still spend almost every weekend with my grandparents, cooking, swimming, and reading. Life is crazy and busy and overwhelming, but also exciting.
“Deciding I wanted to become a professional ballerina is probably the biggest change in my life since the first photo was made. Also, my parents’ divorce is something that I definitely didn’t see coming in 2004 and that drastically changed my life. For smaller things, my friends have changed, I have my driver’s license, and I can, sort of, speak Spanish!” — Lilah
“The first photo was almost fifteen years ago. My kids were six and nine. I was a single mom, widowed at thirty years old. Today I’m living in the same house in San Carlos with my children, 21 and 24, and two dogs. I have a career in art and teaching, which has flourished after going back to college for an MFA. I’ve worked with a wide variety of people, including the elderly, children with cancer, people with autism, and young people in a juvenile hall. I’m also a scuba diver now.
“I wish then I had known that I was capable of taking care of myself and had felt less anxious. — Lisette
“2000 was a hectic time in our lives. John was working long hours at a Silicon Valley startup, Marg was working as an assistant grade school teacher, and Rachel was an active teenager involved with many sports, extra-curricular activities, and a thick web of friends.
“We live in the same house today in San Carlos, California. Between the first and last photos, both of our children have moved out on their own, and our oldest, Sara, got married. John retired from full time management activities, and both of us have had to deal with some significant ‘medical adventures,’ which we happily have gotten through. We’ve done significant remodeling of our home and continue with improvements.
“We both grew up in the East. John in Wisconsin and Marg in upstate New York. We are third-generation Americans, whose grandparents were born in Europe. We remember some of the traditions from the ‘old country’ and try to incorporate them in small ways, especially during the holidays. — John & Marg
“In 1997 my life was fun and free, living by the moment. Now it’s more structured. I’ve graduated college and am working as an IT engineer while I try to get my startup, which I’ve been working on a little over a year, running. In addition to my startup, my goals are to travel the world taking photos and to buy my own place. I’m currently living with my parents in Hillsborough, where I grew up.
“If I had known then what I know now I would have invested in Google and other tech companies.” — Kyle
Beth Yarnelle Edwards is a photographer based in San Francisco Follow her on Instagram @bethyarnelleedwards.
Josh Raab is a TIME Multimedia Editor. Follow him on Instagram @instagraabit.
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