If you want advice
on how to bring up children, get a manual. But if you want to
find out what it's really like to be a New York City parent,
pick up a good piece of fiction.
When we were in our
twenties and our crowd was beginning to think about babies,
there would invariably come a moment when someone would say,
“But I just don’t know about raising kids in this
city.” At which point, everyone would stare at me, because
I was this odd duck: a born-and-bred New Yorker. Our friends’
eyes would narrow as they thought things through: A kid raised
here may turn out like her. Is that what we want? And I would
stare back, thinking, “Man, if you can’t dig it,
then you squares should go back to squaresville.”
That’s Suzuki Beane–speak. Back in the sixties,
Suzuki Beane, in the book named after her, was a cult figure
for New York girls. She was a little beatnik from Bleecker
Street who liked a boy from the wrong side of the tracks—Park
Avenue. When I was a child, she taught me the importance of
listening to your own different drummer, and when I was a
parent, she taught me that we can become imprisoned in self-regard.
But between you and me, here’s the main thing I learned
from her back in 1961: Wear black.
My husband grew up in Alabama. He rode his horse, Star,
to a one-room schoolhouse. I rode the Amsterdam bus and the
86th Street crosstown. The fundamental differences between
us: I wore black as a kid, and when his friends got drunk,
they wrapped their cars around trees, whereas mine just took
the wrong train to the wrong borough. Now we’re parents
of a teenager, which in any state can be a worrisome proposition.
How do you protect a child? And what kind of parent do you
want to be?
When she was tiny, I’d read our daughter Margaret
Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny, the gist of which
is this: A bunny is testing his independence, so he tells
his mother he’s running away. She says, “If you
run away, I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”
At first her response seems properly maternal. “If
you run after me, I will become a fish in a trout stream and
I will swim away from you,” he tells her, and she replies,
well, then I’ll just fish you out. But matters grow
more tense. I’ll become a crocus, he says. I’ll
dig you up, she says. A sailboat? “I will become the
wind and blow you where I want you to go.”
It took me a while to get the picture, but this is one sick
mother bunny. She’s not protecting her child, she’s
trying to possess him. Okay, so she’s no Mrs. Portnoy.
But she’s no role model, either. When you get right
down to it, there aren’t a lot of role models to be
found in fiction. By far the mightiest mother in recent books
is Rachel Ebdus, Dylan’s idealistic and bohemian mother,
in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude.
When an angry kid from the Boerum Hill projects rides off
with Dylan’s bike, Rachel kicks that boy’s ass
right out on the street, to the wonder of all the local kids.
She is glorious. But then she falls for a man who’s
not Dylan’s father, and she’s gone.
The most perfectly loyal mother in all of literature isn’t
a person at all—it’s an elephant who, in Dr. Seuss’s
Horton Hatches the Egg, withstands natural disasters
and humiliating captivity (he barely survives being shipped
to New York), yet never abandons the egg that’s been
entrusted to him. “I meant what I said / And I said
what I meant . . . / An elephant’s faithful / One hundred
If it can be said that such a thing as a “natural
mother” exists, Horton is it. But humans are flawed,
and as Anne Lamott writes in her extremely honest memoir about
her colicky baby, Operating Instructions: A Journal of
My Son’s First Year, “I think we’re
all pretty crazy on this bus. I’m not sure I know anyone
who’s got all the dots on his or her dice.”
Operating Instructions is highly popular, and for
good reason: It’s smart, warm, and precisely what an
anxious new parent needs to read. And as the babies grow up,
the logical next book is Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life
Parenthood, a terrific collection of essays (mostly by
mothers) edited by Camille Peri and Kate Moses of Salon, with
a foreword, appropriately enough, by Anne Lamott. The engaging
pieces cover everything from the agony of labor to the agony
of preparing for a child to head off to college. Sallie Tisdale
sings an ode to teenage boys; Nora Okja Keller and her daughter
can’t make the break for preschool; Ceil Malek is tracked
down by the daughter she gave up twenty years before. In “Mother
Anger,” Lamott writes that the colicky boy is growing
up wonderfully, but still “he can provoke me into a
state similar to road rage.” Again, she lays it on the
line: “The fear is the worst part, the fear about who
you secretly think you are, the fear you see in your child’s
Just as we dread the times we’ll behave poorly, we
pray that when we are truly needed, we will rise to the occasion.
Lorrie Moore’s astonishingly fierce and funny story
“People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical
Babbling in Peed Onk,” from Birds of America,
captures that dream better than any story I know. A woman’s
baby is hospitalized with cancer. “She wants to pick
up Baby and run—out of there, out of there. She wants
to whip out a gun . . . Don’t you touch him! she wants
to shout at the surgeons and the needle nurses. Not anymore!”
This is war, and Mother climbs into the trenches with Baby,
and even though he’s groggy from morphine, he knows
Sharon Sedaris, the wonderfully acid-tongued, chain-smoking,
jug-wine-swilling mother of memoirist David Sedaris, is also
one to jump into battle on behalf of her children. She’s
as tough as Moore’s Mother and as loyal, in her fashion,
as Horton. In Sedaris’s latest best-seller, Dress
Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, his mother kicks her
kids out of the house one wintry day, but comes to regret
it, and heads out into the snow, bare-legged and in floppy
loafers, to find them. “This is how things went,”
he writes. “One moment she was locking us out of our
own house and the next we were rooting around in the snow,
looking for her left shoe . . . Gretchen fitted her cap over
my mother’s foot. Lisa secured it with her scarf, and,
surrounding her tightly on all sides, we made our way back
Sharon Sedaris loved her kids; they loved her back. It’s
as simple, and as stunningly complicated, as that. I’m
a New York parent, but in the end, it’s the geography
of the heart that concerns me. What kind of parent do I want
to be? I don’t want to be Lorrie Moore’s Mother,
but I want to protect like her and love like her. And I don’t
want to be like Sharon Sedaris, but I do want to be loved
like her—loved, in spite of everything. Regardless of
where we live, don’t we all?
Sarah Crichton is the publisher of Sarah Crichton Books,
a new imprint at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
By the Book
A city kid’s
education is one part classroom and three parts street. Below,
some favorite NY texts.
BY JADA YUAN
My New York, by Kathy Jakobsen. This kids’
Let’s Go has a map and a “Where’s
Waldo?” search for Woody Allen.
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,
by E. L. Konigsburg. A must-read for any kid planning to run
away and live in the Met.
The School Story, by Andrew Clements. How two private-school
girls enter the publishing industry at the age of 12.
The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden. This
tale of three animals and a boy in a subway newsstand is about
the great things that happen if you keep your eyes and ears
open—and go to Chinatown.
Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street, by Roni Schotter.
A bored girl writer finds an abundance of stories on her own
It’s Like This, Cat,, by Emily Cheney Neville.
Proof that adolescence is best survived with a stray cat,
a friend who’s a J.D., and multiple trips to Coney Island.
The House on East 88th Street, by Bernard Waber. A picture
book about the merits of taking baths, doing chores, and making
friends with the creatures you find in your brownstone.
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume. An
Upper West Side boy thinks life is bad when his little brother
eats his turtle—until the next book, when the family
moves to . . . Jersey.
Madlenka, by Peter Sis. In this beautifully illustrated
ode to diversity, a 7-year-old visits her neighbors and inadvertently
makes a trip around the world.
Eloise, by Kay Thompson. The quintessential guide
on how to torment an apartment building (or the Plaza Hotel),
from your nanny to the doorman.
Stuart Little, by E. B. White. An Upper East Side
mouse shows how even the smallest people can make a big impact,
and that sometimes you have to leave the city to find yourself.