Staying a City Mouse
“Is that Ethan?” My friend Wendy asked. She took a step back from the framed watercolor portrait of a blonde two-year-old, fingers tucked in his mouth. “Oh, that’s definitely him. Who painted it?”
I stood at the granite counter chopping vegetables for our brunch. “This woman I was friends with when Ethan was small. She’s not in town anymore.”
Wendy took a strip of pepper off the cutting board and popped it in her mouth. “The suburbs got her, huh?”
I smiled. As usual, Wendy understood. “Actually, in her case, it was the country.”
All my life, I’ve been a city girl. I grew up in Queens, moved to Brooklyn after college, and after that, Manhattan. About two years into my marriage to Richard, he talked me into giving the New Jersey suburbs a try. I still worked in Manhattan, and hated the three-hour round-trip commute. More than that, I hated the feeling of isolation on the pretty, unpopulated sidewalks of Montclair.
“Where is everyone?” I asked Richard as we walked into town for our first dinner out.
“In their cars.”
Because of my cerebral palsy, I have a kind of spacial dyslexia. It’s hard for me to tell how close things are to me. As a result, I never learned to drive. This hadn’t been a problem in my life as a city mouse where any place I couldn’t walk to I could get to by subway. But in the burbs, I found myself depending on Richard to run the smallest errands.
The commuter train I took to work brought me to Hoboken where I had to change to the PATH system. One day, on the way home, I decided to explore Hoboken, which I’d heard was a hip little town. Its artsy feel, historic brownstones, and bustling walkable downtown area reminded me of Park Slope, where I’d lived in Brooklyn.
“It’s so vibrant,” I told Richard that night. “I really felt at home.”
“It’s like Manhattan, only nicer,” he said when I brought him there to check it out.
So, that’s where we settled and it’s proven to be the perfect home for me. Everything’s within walking distance — the bank, the post office, the pharmacy, an array of markets, and a train that gets to Manhattan in ten minutes. I’d been a Hobokenite for three years when Ethan was born. To me it seemed the ideal place to raise a child. It never occurred to me that anyone would see it differently.
In the first few months of Ethan’s life, I didn’t have any trouble meeting Hoboken’s other new moms — once I figured out how to get myself dressed and out of the apartment with an infant in tow. They seemed to be everywhere — in the parks, the crowded sidewalks, the coffee shops, and frozen in front of the baffling baby section of the supermarket.
“Do you think there are too many chemicals in these wipes?” one of us would ask the other.
“Have you found a diaper cream that really works?”
It was pleasant and affirming to spend time with these other shell-shocked creatures. We were all love-dazed and so unsure of ourselves as mothers, so determined to get everything right. Months went by before I realized I didn’t know anything about my new friends’ lives before they gave birth. Were they business executives? Lawyers? Artists? I had no idea. Nor did they know that I was a librarian and writer. The only books we talked about were What to Expect The First Year and Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care.
I was just starting to get desperate for broader conversation when I met Pamela at a La Leche League meeting. She was a fellow nervous mom, but also a serious fiction writer — a fact that she shared with me as soon as we met. Finally I had someone I could talk to about nursing pillows and novels.
That first year, some of the women in our circle began talking about backyards and better school districts. It was true that you had to be pretty wealthy to live in anything but a small apartment in Hoboken. I’d also heard that the public schools didn’t have the best reputation. But the last thing I wanted to do was leave my dynamic accessible home. When these friends, who were really just acquaintances, began to go house hunting in the suburbs, I thought, to each his own. That is until Pamela and her husband began looking at real estate ads.
“We’re going to have another and I want my kids to have space. A yard and their own rooms. We’re going to have to do it eventually.”
“But we have all these parks,” I argued. We were sitting in one at that moment, watching our boys crawl through brightly colored tubes. “You’re not going to meet anyone if the kids only play in your backyard.”
“There are parks in Maplewood too, you know,” she said, chuckling. “Really, Ona. It’s not that far. You’ll come visit. Who knows? Maybe you’ll like it and wind up joining me.”
“Yeah, right. You know you’re only going to have Tupperware ladies to hang out with.”
Despite my good advice, Pamela did make the move. I visited her in her new home once. They had a sweet little house in a suburb that, to my surprise, had a charming, walkable downtown district.
“I really don’t use the car all that much,” she told me.
Those were the magic words. For the briefest moment, I could picture living there. I saw myself ambling down the tree-lined streets while Ethan gazed out from his stroller and sitting with him on our front porch listening to the birds sing before bed. But the truth was, the traffic noise back home helped lull me to sleep.
“How long does it take to get to New York?” I asked Pamela.
“Only about an hour and a half.”
I nodded. Imagining myself in the suburbs was like trying on a perfectly lovely outfit that somehow just wasn’t me.
By the time Ethan was three I lost two more terrific, creative mom-friends to big houses and lawns elsewhere. Each time, I couldn’t help but take it personally. It felt like a breakup and, petulantly, I refused to stay in touch. Looking back, I realize a part of me was feeling guilty. Would I be a better mom if I thought more about open space and school districts?
My friend Hope, who raised her son in Manhattan, gave me my answer. “He’ll thrive where you’re happiest,” she said.
I decided to trust that his life here would be a great one, and it’s turned out to be true. Ethan went to a quirky, loving local charter school that was founded the year he was born, and though the schools here are actually quite good, he chose a fine high school three train stops away. He and his friends are happily busy and independent. At fourteen their needs are not much different from mine — a lively town with everything in walking distance.
4 replies on “Staying a City Mouse”
As a Manhattan mom with three young children, I can relate to this all too well as I, too, have lost countless friends to the suburbs and beyond and sometimes wonder if I am somehow deficient as a mother for not succumbing to the call of a bigger house and a backyard. I loved the comment of your wise friend, Hope, about children thriving where their mother is happiest and am going to keep that to bring out again and again when I’m feeling uncertain about my city life.
Quirky? Hmmmmm. Seriously,I love this piece, honest, true to life. I could even taste the peppers. Glad you stayed but I’m starting to miss you.
Such a lovely post