When I was single and living in Cobble Hill not too many moons ago, I resented all the families with kids. The stay-at-home mothers in the cafés seemed so smug and myopic, gabbing incessantly about the most inane subjects. “Michael wants to go to his twentieth high-school reunion in Chicago,” one mom would tell another as she rhythmically bounced her Björn, “but I’ve just gotten Jacob on a good sleep schedule and the last thing I want to do is uproot him.” I didn’t hate them for being married when I wasn’t or for breeding when I hadn’t. I hated their expansiveness, the way they seemed to take over whatever environment they were in.
Now that I have a baby girl, I have become the enemy. I am aware that by virtue of my gray Maclaren, my tendency to frequent Union Street’s Tea Lounge, and my VNB (visible nursing bra), I am the kind of woman the once-single me would have hated. Every time I cart my daughter into a café, I want to shout to all the single people on laptops, “I know I look like one of Them, but I’m not! All these other moms, they were never you. But I was!” Visually, I do what I can to distinguish myself from the pack. Instead of getting a sensible mommy cut, I wear high buns in my hair to channel Björk. I monitor my decibel level. My goal is not to look like a mother so much as a still-young, still-cool person who just happens to have a child. Of course, I’m not fooling anyone. As Kyra Sedgwick said to Campbell Scott in Singles, “I think that (a) you have an act and (b) not having an act is your act.”
This all became clear to me when my daughter was 3 months old and Jake and I took her to Amorina on Vanderbilt Avenue with two couples from our birth class and their newborn girls. We decided to go at 6:30 and arrived breathless but excited to be out on the town. By the time we had arranged our strollers around the table, we took up a third of the available space in the restaurant. We popped open our BYO wine and began telling birth stories, and although our mood was merry, it was immediately apparent that this had been a terrible idea. One baby was screaming nonstop as her mother was desperately trying to breast-feed her, pinching her nipple between her fingers because a lactation consultant had told her the sandwich latch was best. The second baby was quiet, but her Bugaboo was next to the door, and as patrons came in, they eyed the monstrosity like it was a Nets arena. My own usually cheery daughter was squirming and whining, and then I realized she’d done a Number Two. “I’ll change her,” Jake said. “No, I will,” I hissed, emotional and postpartum. Before we could bicker further, I carted her into the minuscule bathroom. There was no changing table, so I sat on the closed toilet—a frustrating and unsanitary ordeal that left me red-cheeked and furious. When I came back to the table, my food was cold.
As we ate and shouted over the din, I began to notice that people were staring. There was a middle-aged couple nearby giving us dirty looks, and our waitress, who had started the evening pleasant enough, had long ago stopped smiling. A young, handsome guy at the next table glanced over. “How old is she?” he asked. “Three months,” I said. “I have a 5-month-old,” he said. “He’s at home.” I slunk down in my seat. We thought we had conquered the world—able to wrangle newborns into one of the hottest joints in Prospect Heights—but in truth, we were irritants. We were taking way too long at the table, and our kids were making a ruckus. We had Cabernet, cool baby names, and all the wives worked. But there was no fooling anyone. We had become Them.
All over the city these days, not just in supermarkets but also in fancy restaurants, Chelsea galleries, French cafés, and even dive bars, families with children have taken over. Manhattan’s 26 percent increase in children under 5 from 2001 to 2004 is unthinkable to people like my parents, who had me in 1973, after moving to a middle-income apartment complex in Brooklyn built to keep people like them from fleeing. Today, New York has become so livable that families are the dominant culture. Bloomberg’s smoking ban and the boom in restaurant culture have led parents to take their kids out at night in such droves that few places are child-free. You can’t walk two blocks in Manhattan without hitting a Bugaboo Frog or a Subaru Forester with a roller shade. Creative Visions on Hudson Street is now Belly Dance Maternity. The Tunnel? Chelsea Mini-Storage. Childless adults in New York have become a persecuted minority. As Fran Lebowitz complained, “Of all the places in the world that should never have embraced this idea of safety and family values, it is New York. I mean, they have the whole rest of the country.”