What Lebowitz speaks to is a growing feeling that New York, with its Whole Foods and Buy Buy Babys, is no longer New York. The town once dominated by many diverse subcultures (gays, nightclubbers, smokers, deviants) now looks far more white and nuclear. And this makes some people very, very angry. It’s this anger that led to Park Slope’s now infamous Stroller Manifesto, which bartender Andy Heidel posted last summer after a group of toddlers and their parents ruined his Sunday-night shift, again. “If you’re a parent now,” the manifesto read, “your child doesn’t have to be the center of everyone else’s universe too. Get a babysitter if you want to go out to a bar. . . . Just stop imposing your lifestyle on the rest of us in our sanctuary of choice.”
Heidel and other non-parents are quick to offer the standard line. They don’t hate kids—they hate parents who don’t control their kids in public. “There are two sects of people,” says Elora Cosper, a 33-year-old space designer in the East Village. “One group has children and adores them and expects everyone else to get onboard with how adorable the kids are, even when they’re being inappropriate in public places. The other group likes kids but can’t tolerate parents who can’t control them. No matter how disruptive the child is being, if you address the parent, she will jump down your throat.” Cosper has noticed more kids in her neighborhood lately, at outdoor restaurants like Veselka, running around making noise. Most of the time, instead of complaining, she leaves.
In a struggle for control, families will always win because they take up so much more space. This breeds animosity. “I had to stop going to the Tea Lounge,” a 27-year-old male friend told me. “There were too many breasts. And not the right kind.”
Jen Yip, 39, an actor, finds herself fighting her way through hordes of strollers at cafés in her Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. Even when a child is blocking her, she stays quiet. “I never want to say anything. So I wait while they ask little Lucy eighteen times to move. I have a friend with a toddler who was complaining that her kid misbehaves when they go out. I said, ‘Why doesn’t your husband just grab her?’ and she said, ‘We like to make sure her feelings are okay.’ ”
Part of what is at issue in this tug-of-war is the changing nature of public space in the city. Self-employed freelancers can now earn a living entirely in cafés, conducting business on laptops and cell phones at the same Tea Lounges and Starbucks where new mothers congregate to discuss mastitis and Maisy books. Manhattan family therapist Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic (to be published by HarperCollins in September), remembers friends’ raising infants on the Upper West Side in the late eighties. “There were these places you could not go with a stroller,” she recalls, “like Cafe La Fortuna. And you just accepted it and didn’t go. Now that’s unheard-of.” In a struggle for control, families will always win because they take up so much more space—physical, aural, and emotional. This breeds animosity. “I had to stop going to the Tea Lounge,” a 27-year-old male friend told me. “There were too many breasts. And not the right kind.” “Most people don’t mind someplace that’s child-friendly,” says Perel. “What they mind is an atmosphere that’s child-centered. When a restaurant that used to be defined as an adult space becomes overrun by families, it becomes a family space.”
So why are parents taking their kids places they shouldn’t? For some, it’s money. Our nanny costs $100 a night, including takeout money and taxi fare, and that’s without the price of our relaxing dinner. Go out once a week for date night, and you’re out more than five grand a year. That’s on top of whatever you pay for your weekly child care. For other New York parents, the trip to the too nice restaurant, the kind that serves organic Hudson Valley ingredients, is a result of denial. They don’t want to admit that their lives have changed. These are people who were able to take advantage of the city before they became parents and don’t want to stop. So instead of going to Two Boots, they opt for Bottino.
My friend Anne, a 33-year-old publicist, frequently takes her husband and 1-year-old daughter, Mary, to restaurants like Sorrel and al di là. She’d be more inclined to hire a babysitter if she were a stay-at-home mother, but the last thing she wants when she comes home is to leave her daughter all over again. Most times, the trips are a mistake because Mary makes too much noise. “We went to Ici at six,” she says, “and told ourselves it was okay because it was early, but there were all these couples having pre-BAM dinner and they kept giving us dirty looks.” Still, she finds it hard to give up. “I know it’s wrong, but I keep bringing her out one more time. Our lives have changed so much already that there are certain things I don’t want to give up. If I can’t go to the bathroom in the middle of the night without tripping over an ExerSaucer, I should be able to eat tuna tartare with my kid.”