About six months ago, the unthinkable happened. Relatively abruptly, the husband and I hit the “city wall.” We knew it would never happen to us. We loved the city. We would never leave the city. Living in the city defined us. We hate suburbs. We hate remote-ness. We hate peace and quiet.
Turns out, we hate child care induced poverty, cooped-up toddler tantrums, and April to November street cleaning more. We both woke up one day and it was as though a strange peace had settled upon our existence. We danced around it a little, at first. “So, um, I, eh… I was thinking… Well, nevermind.” Then it came out. We couldn’t do it. It takes a single salary of almost $50,000 a year to cover daycare costs in the city. Couple that with an even bigger haul on the rent and a salary of almost $100,000 a year was being eaten between childcare and rent alone. Worse, we were starting to outgrow our space. Small signs were appearing– temporary stacks of things were becoming permanent piles of “there’s not a place for it” or “I’ll call the storage people.” But more space meant more money. A lot more money.
New restaurants would open, bars would pop up, but we weren’t seeing them. At best, a Saturday stroll to a park or sandwich spot would give us the opportunity to walk by and talk about what it must be like. And we had babysitters; plenty of times, but when you have to make an executive decision about your one free Saturday night, you find yourself defaulting to what you know, what you’re sure won’t fail you. (And you’re tired and look old and haggard. And you no longer wait for anything. Not a table, not a spot on the dance floor.)
What seemed to be the real trouble was two fold. First, we didn’t know where to go. We felt like a family without a country. West of the city wasn’t right, nor was south. Truthfully, we’d never been anywhere else, really. Bigger than our inability to know where to move was the incredibly emotional experience of admitting that it was happening. Our identities were so tied to the city that everything felt like an asterisk-ridden compromise. One Saturday we decided to drive up north to visit Salem. My interest in the city was fueled ludicrously by the most ridiculous reasoning: a former client and his wife lived there. And they were cool. And they stayed cool. And they did cool things. And I was okay being like them. Especially if it looked like I couldnt keep being me.
So we went. We drove the 45 minutes to the seaside town of Salem, parked our Prius, unloaded our child, and stood there. I don’t know what we expected to happen, but nothing did. We had no idea where we were or where people went in Salem, so we just started walking. As we passed coffee shops, restaurants, and stores, optimistic (if not incredibly stupid) exclamations of “it’s just like the city!” or “they carry the kombucha I like!” began to emerge. We took the small boy to see a big ship. He ran in a wide open park by the ocean. His thin wisps of hair becoming wind blown and his nose red. He walked down the sidewalk and pointed at other kids and dogs. He laughed when a restaurant owner made faces at him through the window. We were fucked. Charmed doesn’t even begin to describe it.
We got back in the car a few hours later, knowing we’d be back soon, armed with our meager savings, ready to buy a real, grownup house. Driving back into the city was strange. On the one hand, we were both aware of the distance. It pained us to know that our new lives would be shrouded in commutes and schedules. As we hit every godforsaken pothole along 1A we willed one another not to say anything. For his part, Author looked out the window. He’d point occasionally at a sign or person or let out a squeal as we fell into another pothole. Maybe if he would have screamed all the way, the whole thing would have turned out differently. But he didn’t. Worn out from having his pants charmed off, he half dozed and mindlessly grazed on bits of food he’d hidden in the crevices of his carseat.
The short version is that we bought a condo and moved. Like most of these stories, it’s riddled with mortgage drama and near divorce, massive disagreements about Big Things and small things. But in the end, we became homeowners. The husband’s commute to work actually improved. Rather than walk to a train to take a bus and deal with weather and inconsistent schedules, he can now hop on the commuter rail. Four stops and he’s in the city. For me, life became dramatically different. My usual 8 AM wake up became 6 AM. Frantic showering, waking, feeding, dressing, and getting out the door is followed by a daycare drop off and an hour and a half of source-less traffic. Work now becomes an exercise in efficiency because when the clock strikes four, I’m out the door. Back on the road. And it repeats. Five days a week.
I’ve been flooded with observations and realizations over the last few months. I’m by no means getting old, but I am getting older. I can see the subtle changes in my wardrobe, choice of footwear, and tone of my skin. Though I am envious of those who are thinner, better put together, and more youthful, I find it harder and harder to muster the energy to give it much more than that. When I find myself driving Estelle (the Prius) around on errands, clad in a flowy top and skinny pants, my flat loafers giving away my over-thirty, motherhood status, I realize that all those years I spent saying I’d never become this or that or another thing was because I assumed those people had changed. They’d given up or given in. It never occurred to me that they’d finally gotten some perspective or found peace. Life is a lesson in living.
The boy has switched to a small in-home daycare. It’s quirky and imperfect and he loves it. They play outside all day. When it’s raining, they suit them up in their rain gear. When it’s snowing they bundle them. At his previous daycare, he spent four months staring out a window, never going for a walk. Never playing in the snow.
When I pick him up, he beams, running towards me with open arms, squealing and covered in dirt. He speaks absolute nonsense in great detail, pointing for emphasis and understanding. We pile in the car and he eats his snack, not letting the food get in the way of his senseless story telling. On Fridays we go for frozen yogurt. There’s a place to park and the college students who are there let him take bites out of their bowls and laugh at how seriously he takes spoons (“poons”). It’s a ten minute drive to our house. Sometimes we go upstairs and have some dinner, other days it’s straight to the park. “Pups” will eventually make his way through the park on his way home from the train station. The boy has a sixth sense for Pups’ presence, like a hound. He’ll stop look up, and repeat his open-armed running from daycare. We go home together.
The park is approximately 5 houses down from us. Our street is one way, so the boy can amble along, jumping in puddles and picking up sticks, while we keep an eye out. Cars rarely come down, but when they do, they smile and wave. They slow to a stop to let A make his way across the pavement. He usually waves and says “bye.” Even if “hello” would be more appropriate. He doesn’t know “hello.” Everything is “bye.” There are dogs, neighbors, and some strange sense of mutual understanding that I can’t quite describe. The boy isn’t just mine. In just a few weeks time, he belongs to the neighborhood. He’s the little boy who lives next door. They man down the street knows how much he loves balls. The lacrosse team that practices in the park knows to save him a tennis ball. The girls soccer team plans to take a few minutes out of practice to let him “shoot” some goals. They laugh and pass him around.
It’s not all idyllic and perfect, but it’s not the sad compromise I believed it would be my whole life. Strangely, I feel myself “coming to terms” with the idea that it can be easy to be happy. It’s okay to like the wine selection at the Bunghole. It’s okay to find out you’re not all that fancy, after all. It’s okay to park your Prius in your driveway and unload your Whole Foods grocery bags in your comfy mom shoes.
I still wear leopard underwear. I do my hair and put on make up. I haven’t given up. I think this is what it’s like to give yourself a break. To realize that sometimes the extra 30 minutes of perfecting doesn’t give you a 30% boost in happiness. There’s a point of diminishing returns on perfection and I’m learning that I can have a lot more with a lot less. I’m not going to ever live in a $6 million brownstone in the city; it’s time to move on. (Let’s be honest, I’m not ever going to live in a $1 million brownstone in the city.)
When I walk out of my new version of that brownstone in the city, past the house with the creepy number of dollhouses in the window, across the nicely painted crosswalk, and through the wrought iron gates of the Salem Common I’m already beginning to jog slightly to keep up with the increasing pace of the small boy. When the park comes into view, he strains against my metered pace. He runs ahead, sometimes disappearing into a playscape for a few seconds before emerging on the other side. He laughs wildly at his own liberating abandonment and makes a dash for the stairs to the slide, eager to get to the top, eager for the view, eager to slide down the other side.
In some ways I am eager for the same: eager to get to the top, eager for the view, eager to slide down to the other side. But in truth I only have one bittersweet thought after that small boy, throwing himself headlong into the crowd and chaos.
“There he goes.”