Sunday, December 5, 2010

Parentem Civi

There is a world of difference between raising kids in a city and fifty miles outside of one.

This realization slapped me in the face and spun me around like a tourist on the Central Park carousel when I arrived in New York with my husband and kids for a four day visit. We pushed our stroller (fully equipped with snacks and two kids it weighs 70 lbs) eight miles a day and observed an alternative universe of parenting. Elevators instead of stairs; sidewalks instead of carpools; giant parks with wonderful swings—and five hundred of your newest friends; bodegas and gourmet grocery stores instead of acres of aisles in one Stop & Shop, and everywhere, a constant hum of traffic, whistles, jack hammers, and language. We were never more than a few blocks from a bookstore, or museum, or landmark, which made the experience of feeding, entertaining, or attempting to enlighten our children both simpler and more complicated.

Long before Ava (right) was born, Tom and I,
along with a mouse, shared a tiny apartment
 in this building on E. 83rd.
But, the parents who called this environment home looked calm and seasoned, having adapted fully to the city—walking their kids to school against the construction of Second Avenue, carrying a soccer ball for a pick-up game a few yards from the Met, and eating breakfast at 8am on a Sunday at a kid friendly spot like Big Daddy’s--strollers parked with balloons attached, and coffee mugs stretched out, ready for a free refill. Whatever challenges and frustrations they faced appeared to come from the children they’d created, more than the city in which they were raising them.

"How do they do this?" I wondered. Until our visit, I hadn’t realized my skills in parenting had evolved in relation to a specific environment. But, here I was, surrounded by a familiar but distinct type of city parent—a Parentem Civi—against which I might only be classified as a close relation, that minivan driving, Parentem Extracivi, distinguished, among other features, for her ability to buy 48 rolls of toilette paper and stash them in closets throughout her suburban house.

The Parentem Civi, in contrast, had developed the instincts to fasten a car seat in a moving cab, cross four lanes of traffic with three kids in tow in less than twelve seconds, fit an entire week of groceries in the bottom of a stroller, and manage, most impressively, to get her dog to pee on a four inch expanse of sidewalk grass while breastfeeding a newborn in a sling.

We are reminded, especially on the Internet and Facebook, of our similarities. And, we are, virtually, very similar. In reality, though, on the pavement of Manhattan, or the freeway of Los Angeles, or in the parking lot of the Mall of America—we might say that, even if we are in the same place or phase of parenthood, we are in extremely different places.

So, I asked a few experienced city moms to talk about their life raising kids in big cities. We’re going from coast to coast today—with one family living in Brooklyn, New York, and the other in Los Angeles, California.

Brad Alperin and Jody Drezner Alperin: Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, near Prospect Park. Have lived in Brooklyn for 8 years and in their house for 5. Children: Dov, not quite 6.5 and Zoe, not quite 3.75
Why do you live in the metropolitan area? Brad works here but we also love being here. We live in a neighborhood that our friends have nicknamed 'Urban Mayberry.' We have block parties, chili cook offs, weekly stoop dinners in the summer and where you can really borrow a cup of sugar or have your neighbor watch your kids while you get dinner started. We love having that but also having easy access to all the city has to offer.

How does living in NY influence you as a parent?
If you asked some of my friends who DON'T live here, they would say it's made me crunchier, more granola and a bigger purchaser of organic products. I think the competitive nature of parenting and especially mothering are heightened in the city and I try hard to avoid that and not play in to it. I'd like to think living here has made me more flexible and more able to roll with the punches. I love that the kids are exposed to people of all different backgrounds, races, ethnicities and sexual orientation, which is not really something I grew up with. It inspires conversations and I hope those conversations help our kids have open minds as they grow. We also see a lot of economic and social disparity here and we talk about that a lot too. I like to imagine that the ideas of social justice we discuss with the kids will inspire the choices they make as they are older. We could certainly have those talks wherever we lived, but I think living in the city makes it somewhat easier.

How does living in NY influence your children or the way in which you believe they experience the world and their own maturation? Our kids are city kids, no doubt, which is funny for two people raised in decidedly non-city environments. We once went to an event at a synagogue in Westchester. To get in to the building from the parking lot, we had to cross a small stream. Dov looked at it and us and declared, 'It must have really rained here a lot! It flooded!' I think that is a good example of how being city kids shapes their world view. Things that are commonplace to non-city kids, like streams, are unique to our kids. On the other hand, things that were so foreign and somewhat exotic to me are commonplace to the kids-subways, national landmarks and the like. They have a certain amount of street savvy I think but I don't think they are more mature than kids their age elsewhere.

What’s the most convenient part of living in the city? If you have a hankering for any kind of food, you can always get it. There is ALWAYS something to do for us and for the kids.

What is the least convenient part of living in the city? There is ALWAYS something to do! No, really, things that I think are more simple elsewhere are a pain here. Running a whole series of errands with both kids in tow and without the car. Getting somewhere quickly with a three-year-old and no car. Picking up two kids from two different schools at the same time with no car. Can you tell we have a car? (They do—it stays parked in their driveway)

What is one thing that people (or family) who do not live in the city probably don’t understand about raising kids where you do? When I went to my high school reunion in NC one of my classmates said 'I feel so sorry for y'all living up there in those tiny apartments.' But we really don't see it that way. Would I like a bit more counter space in my kitchen? Sure, but I don't daydream about a 4,000 square foot house and some of our family and friends seem to think I ought to. I think people imagine a very cold and hostile New York when they think about raising kids here and our experience has been the polar opposite of that.

What is something about living in the suburbs that mystifies you?
Do you have impromptu playdates? Or do you have to schedule everything? Do you have to drive everywhere? As much as I complain about running errands without a car, we do like being able to walk or bike or take the bus or train places too. Does the sheer amount of stuff in the grocery stores there ever make you feel like you can't breathe?

If a new family was moving to your neighborhood from the suburbs—what advice would you tell the mom if she said she was feeling overwhelmed by the pace and largeness of the city?
I think the key is to make connections. If you have small kids, join a mother's group that meets in your neighborhood. If your kids are older, perhaps get involved in a project at their school. Meeting other people makes your world tighter and more manageable, I think even if the initial people you meet end up not being a great click for you, they do help bring some shape to the overwhelmingness of the city. Also, don't try to do too much at once. If you are used to driving everywhere but are now using public transportation or walking, your times for doing things are going to differ now. The kids don't need to do three exciting activities in a day-if you make it to a playground, they are happy! Also, use a babysitter sometimes if you can. Go back and see that exhibit your kids ran past on the way to their favorite part of the museum or catch a show. Take some time to explore the city without your kids too and you may find more things to like about it.

Alyson and Cody, Westside of LA, a few miles from the beach. In Condo for 6 years, in LA for 12. Child: Brett will be 3 in March.

Why do you live in LA?
Work is the main reason, (Cody works in Television) but the longer we stay here, the more it feels the right place for us in so many ways. We love our friends and Brett's friends. The diversity, the culture, the beach, the mountains and all the opportunities that are available to us year round. Oh and the weather, we love the weather.

How does living in LA influence Brett or the way in which you believe he experiences the world? Well in an ideal world, I hope that living in an urban environment will help Brett to be an open-minded individual, because he interacts with a wide variety of children and adults. But it's not a given. There are plenty of city kids who have a more rarefied existence than those living in the suburbs or in a rural area.

What’s the most convenient part of living in a large city? The access to museums, parks, events, friends, trains, car shows, etc, etc. I've visited more of the above since Brett was born, than I have in the 10 years before that, and there are still so many to visit. I love feeling like the options are limitless and many of them are incredibly affordable or even free.

What’s the least convenient part of living in a large city? The lack of space. I wish we had a larger living space and a yard. And the schools. We're in LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District), the 2nd largest school district in the country and I feel like it's going to be a part-time job to navigate it successfully. And I do wish we had more nature in our lives, but I feel fortunate to be close to the beach and the Santa Monica Mountains.

What’s one thing that people (or family) who do not live in the area probably don’t understand about raising kids where you do?
I think most people think about space and schools, and those issues often motivate people to get out of the city and into the suburbs. One thing that has occurred to me as a stay at home mom in the city is that I am incredibly stimulated by my surroundings. Life is never dull, but maybe that's the case everywhere....

When you return to the city after a trip away, what’s the first thing Brett wants to do that he’s missed on vacation? His trains. His friends. The beach.

If a new family was moving to your neighborhood from the suburbs—what advice would you tell the mom if she said she was feeling overwhelmed by the pace and largeness of the city?
I would encourage them to make the big city a small city by getting involved and finding a local neighborhood based MOMS Club, volunteer at the preschool or enroll in a class (oftentimes the ones through the city are affordable and full of stay at home moms) where she and her kids can meet like minded people. And if the first or second one isn't a fit - keep looking. The upside of living in a city is the amount of options, so keep looking for the right one until you find a fit.


Tim Morrissey said...

Many paths can lead to the same destination. Great writing!

Kerry said...

Very interesting! Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

We live in a more suburban or rural area, but my sister lives in LA. I have to say, when we visit, there is just so much to do! I can spend hours with the shopping alone. While I appreciate the lack of traffic and ample space in my hometown, there's a tiny part of me that would love to live with the kids in a city - even if it's only for a short time.

Danielle G. said...

I love this post - but I'd love to see more moms in "suburbia" spend some time taking their kids to the wonderful mini-cities we have very, very nearby. Places like Princeton, Lambertville, Newtown, PA, Trenton and others offer a lot of the same attractions and benefits as major cities like NYC and yet moms in our area (at least many I have met) cringe at taking their kids to Trenton or making a trip to Princeton or Lambertville - things I do at least weekly, if not more. There is more diversity in these places and its a blast to spend time with my children where we can walk to everything - eat, play, shop, etc and I don't have to take them 60 miles to NYC to find it.

Lunch Box Mom said...

That's a great point, Danielle. I just discovered the state museum in Trenton and now that I know how to get there and where to park I am so excited about going back. Sometimes, it seems like it is harder to have the motivation or knowledge to explore in your own backyard--but worth doing.

parenting ad absurdum said...

Great article - I absolutely see the benefit of urban, suburban and rural upbringings, and we should take advantage of all these areas have to offer!