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.”
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.”
I have eaten tuna tartare with my kid, and I have eaten tuna tartare alone with my husband, and as nice as it is to have the whole family together, in the long run, I’d rather go out without her. My suspicion is that the real reason so many new parents cart their children along is because they’re afraid to be alone with each other. There’s less sex, more financial pressure, and a hundred new sources of anxiety. There are fewer shared experiences and friends, and conversations can feel stilted. So they bring along the baby as a buffer, because when you’re child wrangling, there’s no time to converse. But intimacy is a lot like sleep: The more you have, the more you want.
A few months ago, my parents came over to babysit, and Jake and I went to a casual Japanese place on Flatbush for dinner. We drank sake, and the food was good and cheap. On the way home, we passed Brownstone Billiards, and I had a sudden yearning to shoot pool. Inside, there was loud hip-hop blaring and the lights were way too bright, but it was only ten bucks for the table, and I beat him three games of eight ball in a row. I mocked him for losing, but I felt the closest to him since the baby was born. For one night, we weren’t breeders. We were just a young couple enjoying a night out. When we got home, my parents said she’d been quiet. They left, and we got into bed. It had been a good night.