young city life
I read this article in the Globe the other day, written seemingly on a lark, by a woman who brought her two little boys back the South End (Boston’s Brooklyn, replete with brownstones tugged from the hands of artists who were there first) for a weekend, “to see what it was like living in the city.”
It annoyed me that it was implied that living in the city for a weekend was in any way close to actually living in the city. Like if I went to Spain for a weekend, I could then write about how crazy it is to have kids in Spain.
But to my surprise, even in that short amount of time, she quickly experienced and noted the tough stuff about city life with young children. By the end of it, I didn’t feel that it was a romantic article. In fact, it was the good stuff about city life that didn’t get fair play.
Tough stuff: 1/ You are conscious of your close neighbors whenever your children behave like children, and are noisy—crying, stomping, jumping, dancing. You worry that they hate the noise and aren’t complaining out of cringing kindness. 2/ You experience meltdowns in public places regularly because you started the two mile walk back home just a little bit too close to nap time. 3/ You spend less time dwelling at home because home is actually pretty small. 4/ If you use your car, you often can’t find parking close to your apartment, and therefore add 10-15 minutes of walking to your trip home.
Anything written about this, at my stage of life, must be caveated by the fact that having young children in the city is deemed the toughest. Asking your three-year-old to walk six blocks at the end of the day because you couldn’t find parking and didn’t bring your stroller on the car-adventure, yes, that’s tough. Living on the fifth floor and having the elevator break for most of the summer, yes, it slows you down on your way in and out, particularly when the one-year-old likes to climb stairs on her own. Hopping on the T is complicated by the presence of a stroller and a snack-loaded bag, no matter how small the bag and how slim the stroller. Rest assured the T car will be dead silent when one of yours throws a screaming tantrum, as well. The fact that your children can never wander outside on their own, with you simply watching from the window is tough and feels restraining, even unfair (to them) at times.
Having a nine year old, on the other hand, who is allowed to run to the corner market to pick up milk, who can walk side-by-side with you on the way to class before you go to work, who can name five friends who live within walking distance, and knows which train line to take the the museum, that is nice.
So I can see the future and the future is promising.
But back to the present: here are just a few things I like, limited to four lest I drone on.
1/ Every walk turns into an ad hoc lecture and discussion as we encounter new signs, businesses, cars, people, or destinations. Almost as if the city coaches me into talking to and engaging with my child. It’s probably just Boston traffic talking, but I never have these type of discussions when we’re in the car.
2/ I get excited about visiting new places. New coffee shops, bakeries, markets, parks, these things get me out of the house. They are probably the primary reason I live in the city at all. Your children have a calibrated barometer on your mood and know very well the things that please you. It makes me happy to know that Lux knows I’m excited about what we are doing, and that she gets excited too.
3/ You learn that the “tough stuff” is actually not that bad. It doesn’t matter how many people see your child freak out. It’s not really that big of a deal if you go out to eat and it goes terribly. It’s actually pretty fun to get stuck on a long walk in the rain, even if the baby does cry the whole way. In the end, you always end up home, and you always begin again the next day.
4/ Hyper-awareness of strangers. I like that the girls see so many strangers every day, they get very good and clear about whether they want to interact with them. If they aren’t feeling it, it’s obvious (here I’m remembering Lux dropping everything and sprinting towards me when she didn’t like an older lady that had started talking to her) and I don’t have to worry about them wandering into something. Conversely, I like that no one is really surprising to them. They see people from all over the world smiling at them every day (even if they choose not to smile back!).
What do you like about where you live? What’s tough? I’d love to hear.
I always admire how you parent in the city with grace, and I do wish we had the cool things to do in Boston.
We are really lucky to live a few blocks close to the campus in the city so I like that we can walk to the nice park there and to church. There are also two lakes, wide open quads and tons of giant, old trees to explore. I’ve discovered that having all of this in walking distance is so essential to my well-being as a mom. I fell in love with walking everywhere when I did your typical study abroad in a French city. If we moved even a bit away from campus, our life would completely change with having to drive everywhere.
It’s nice because we have that healthy exercise option, but still being in suburbia, I do have the option to let my oldest play in the fenced-in backyard with me being inside. Before the fence was built, I briefly knew that restraining feeling you spoke of.
Ideally, I want to live in a quaint, not-too-small town where we can walk to a lot of events like school if we don’t home school OR out in the country with at least 6 acres like where I grew up. I would be more happy about driving places if we had the open country. Both of those can be scrapped to live near my husband’s family, ha!
Whew, what a novel!
I totally have those hierarchical “other” options just as you laid them out. I would love to do a country life thing once the girls are old enough to keep me company in a real way. There is something so wonderful about campus life…sometimes I hope one of us becomes a professor so we can experience that for awhile.
Oh man. What a great/timely post. I have been reflecting on these issues now, two months into our new city (Philadelphia – before, we lived in Cambridge). I think some cities are better set up for families than others. For example, in Philly you can’t bring an unfolded stroller on the bus or trolley. I did that all the time in Cambridge – it was so easy to just fold up the seats and bring it on. It’s really impeded our ability to explore more, which bums me out. Along that same vein, walk up life is super tough.. since we walk more now, we come home with a stroller loaded up with farmer’s market produce, snacks, etc and have to get that plus our 1.5 year old up 3 flights. He’s learning to navigate steps better now which helps, but still. I’m doing a lot of babywearing because of the bus thing which is tough because he’s 30 lbs. But the toddler Tula is great!
There are so many positives, though. I think the biggest one for me is the spontaneity of city life. Running into friends and deciding to do something spur of the moment, which would not be possible if we were in the burbs and driving everywhere. Meeting people at the park. And just in general, having children has made settling into a new city both tougher (the pressure of maintaining their routine amid moving chaos) and easier (instantly have an icebreaker with other parents).
There’s also a neighborhood school movement here – the Philly schools are really bad, and there’s a movement of parents to try and improve things (volunteer days to clean up, donations, starting/staffing a volunteer library, bringing back music/art, improving the playground, etc) to get parents to stay more invested in their local school vs sending to private or charter. The goal being to have parents walk their kids to school and be more involved in the community and have more of those spontaneous interactions I was talking about. I’m hoping to get more involved in that as my bub gets older.
Mmm this is truly interesting—comparing cities. The little stuff really makes a huge difference there–that must be a huge! pain! to not be able to bring the stroller on. So odd that they would dictate that. (Although I read once that it went to vote whether strollers would be allowed on the T!) Post-farmer’s market is my worst moment of walk up life.
I totally agree about the spontaneity thing. And my friend Kate lives in Philly, I’ve seen some of the neighborhood school stuff on her facebook!
Welcome to Philly! I really wish I still lived in the city, but my husband is a Jersey boy and doesn’t like city living (although he loves visiting). I was definitely in better shape when I lived on a third floor apartment in South Philly! We live in a 2nd floor apartment near the high speed line, so we do sometimes take that into the city, and I agree, navigating public transportation with a toddler can be hard — but for awhile, he behaved so much better on the train/subway than in the carseat.
I do love walking (soooo slowly) in the city with little ones. Everything is such an adventure to them! I am a big fan of people watching myself, so I enjoy that with my toddler. I do feel like the Philly area in general is a great child-friendly center, though — so many places, activities, etc., for them. I feel like we always meet nice parents wherever we go, too.
Jana @ One Drawing a Day
I love living close to the beach-it never gets old!
I can only imagine! We lived near the beach for a summer. Every day it was new and refreshing in a prehistoric human way.
We live in Oakland and I like being able to walk to pretty much anything we need/want…except for nature. Sure there are lovely parks big and small but I like getting out into some real fresh air and I just can’t get to that without a car (which we don’t have right now). Before I had my child I was a big city lover. The diversity, events, culture, networking, public transportation, ease of civic engagement and joining of social movements live and in person – I loved, lived and breathed it. I still do, but I find myself wanting to get away to what sounds in my mind like a simpler life.
Maybe a smaller, mellower city like Portland Maine or maybe a cabin somewhere about a mile from the nearest neighbors. I totally have had the itch to leave since my child was born 18 months ago. It’s the litter, pollution, ridiculous rent, late night noise and crowded everything that is starting to bother me. Maybe I also feel like I have my hands so full with my child that I can’t be as much of a part of the real work of helping my community be a better, stronger, happier place as I used to. I guess it’s kind of taken the wind out of my sails for being in a big city.
I love Boston though and I love getting little peeks and reminders of it through your blog!
I feel a lot of what you’re saying here. First of all I think feeling like things are dirty and polluted and that it’s too noisy at night–those would be deal breakers for me too! And I’ve definitely had that feeling that I can’t *really* do the things the city is made to do. (Though I like to think that is shifting as Boston becomes more family-centric.) It helped me a lot once I found a cheaper “sleep sitter” to come by once the girls were asleep, and once I started going out by myself once a week or so to meet up with friends while Joe was at home.
you know….that’s a really good point with the sleep sitter. I haven’t been able to get out and enjoy the city on my own since my child was born. I should give it a go and see how it feels! Only trouble is I’m sooooo tired by the end of the day lately! Thanks for the idea.
You are so tired till you step outside for 20 minutes. Then it all falls away. For an hour or two at least. : )
Hi Rachael- great post! I read the other article too… And just could t really relate at all. That’s not me trying to be ultra hip and urban- I just really couldn’t imagine the feeling of needing a suburban context for children. But, I didn’t grow up in a suburban context so that is probably why. I grew up in a rural context, and that I definitely miss that on occasion! Partially the way small communities run. I love living in Chicago with Mae though! It sounds silly, but I really usually find one thing a day that I’m really thankful for in our corner of the city. don’t get me wrong, there are plenty if things that feel like a drippy faucet. But really, my mind has stopped comparing it to something else. I guess that’s how you know you’re home!
I think the way small communities are run is indeed something special. All our friends in Boston are pretty transient, and that can really be a blow to one’s faith in having friends for life….plus meeting their families, and seeing them in the context of their background. I love that you’ve stopped comparing! That’s such a good thing.
I love living in the city (we live in Toronto), although I do find it more difficult with two than one (esp public transit) I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. A couple of months while I was looking for a new job my husband suggested that I look at a small town nearby and I almost broke into tears thinking about all of the things the girls (as well as he and I) would miss out on – the food, the walking everywhere, the cultural events, the history and character that our neighbourhood has. I think there are city people and suburb people and it is great when you know where you are most comfortable and is the right place for you.
Yes–it’s a big difference if you actually feel you have what you want. Or you’ve gone through something that shows you that you have what you want. Contentment! I agree though–it’s quite a different show with two than one.
This is great, Rachael. Every few years we entertain the idea of opening another restaurant and making a go of it in NYC, but then I start thinking about how much fun screaming tantrums would be with close neighbors, and two dogs to walk and…. yeah. You make it sound almost enjoyable though. 😉 Even though Portland drives me crazy sometimes, I think we’ve become really spoiled living here. And like the above commenter said, some cities really aren’t great for kids, some are. Portland is a small city, but still has all the culture, restaurants, events, and public transportation we need, and is very kid-friendly with more park and green space (per capita) than any other place in the country. We live on the eastside of the river, where the population isn’t as dense, so it feels as easy as the suburbs, but without the suburban sprawl or chain stores (if that makes any sense), and with “downtown” just a short trip away. Not to mention the actual, honest to goodness forest and islands and rivers, that are a short walk or drive away from practically any neighborhood. I’ll probably never stop dreaming about big(ger) city life, but I also know when to count my blessings.
Count your blessings for sure–you make it sound amazing!! Is this a Portland advertising section? : ) Suburbs without the sprawl totally makes sense. Just driving around Maine making our way up here this week, I liked towns until the chainstore sprawl hit. It just kills the good feelings. Also it would be awesome for you guys to hit NYC with a kiddo at age 7, ready to hit the streets with you.
YES to tough thing #1. We have the 2nd and 3rd floors of a brownstone in Charlestown and I’m so aware of the noise we make. Our downstairs neighbor, who is super nice, swears he can’t hear us but I’m SURE he is lying as my 4.5yo and 2yo boys jump, run and crash all over the place. But it’s all the good stuff that keeps us here and I imagine (or hope!) the noise will go down as we exit the toddler years.
Isn’t it funny? A sweet neighbor is almost (but not really) worse that a complaining one because you worry FOR them. I agree, I feel like you must be a peak sound right now too. : )
We live in Orleans, on Cape Cod, where my husband grew up. The bad: It can be limiting as far as meeting other young families, since the population is dominated by retirees, and it’s lacking in ethnic and racial diversity. There’s also not a lot to do once summer winds down. The good: My little ones and I are at the beach all year long, exploring, swimming, and taking it all in. When my older boys get home from school we can head out into woods, mudflats, beaches to run and play. We can get to places that are jaw-droppingly beautiful within five minutes of leaving our front door (on foot)! And the young families that are here are wonderful. The schools are excellent and small classes are the norm. And we have all the charms of small town life while still having (fairly) easy access to Boston, where we head often!
You make Orleans sounds so beautiful Tracy! I’m jealous of those mudflats for my girls. And I like your point about valuing the families that do live there. Sometimes having it be an odder choice makes the environment refreshingly selective. You’ve all decided to live in the same place for a reason!
I always love reading about your adventures with littles in Boston, my favorite big city!
We live in Santa Barbara Ca, my hometown. We live in a nice neighborhood five minutes from the beach with a beautiful park across the street and a small lake around the corner. The weather is pretty much perfect year around and everywhere is a quick drive with no traffic. But lately we’ve been seriously talking about moving to my husbands hometown near Portland, Maine, mainly because housing is so insane here. We rent and even though my husband has a great job it will be years before we can afford a house we like in a neighborhood we like. The public schools are not good (although I went to private school my whole life so we will probably go that route regardless) And our two best friends with families have moved away this year along with a lot of other people we know, it’s just too expensive to live here. (Our neighborhood is probably 95% retired couples who’ve been in their homes for decades!) But my family is all here & most of my husbands now live in northern Ca so it’s doubtful we will make the leap before were done having kids…And not sure how I would survive a Maine winter having lived in SoCal my whole life! But my husband misses seasons and would both love our boys to have more of the rugged outdoorsy childhood he had.
So as you can see by this rambling post were currently very undecided and for now just getting our beautiful maine fix every summer!