Manhattan Mother Lode

My children’s first sitter left with excruciating exactness every day at five o’clock, and having quickly discerned that it was easier to entertain the troops abroad than at home, I routinely took to the streets with a double stroller that had all the maneuverability of an eighteen-wheeler, 2-year-old Matthew in the front, baby Karen in the back. Eighty-ninth Street was a must-do because of the high concentration of garages (Matthew’s obsession); 87th because of a splendid long, tall ramp attached to an apartment building between Park and Lexington Avenues. We plied the waters (the fountains in front of the Metropolitan Museum) and watering holes (3 Guys, Jackson Hole) of the Upper East Side, stopping in at the local shoe store to gossip with the manager and cadge popcorn. Then it was on to the now defunct Canard & Company, where I had iced coffee and where, when it came to Matthew, the counterman showed a remarkably free hand with the smoked salmon. It was – and is – a fine life, not just because of my neighborhood but because of my town. This town. When I moved here from Michigan after college twenty years ago, it was love and it was for good. I certainly saw no reason to step out on the city when I got married and had children.

Not so long ago, the conception of a second child, sometimes even a first, was the signal to phone up Century 21 and start memorizing Metro-North schedules. Manhattan was too noisy, too dirty, too dangerous, too crowded, too complicated – take your pick – to provide the proper setting for bringing up baby.

But now we’re staying here with two children, in some cases with three – as long as we can find a place to nest. “The really desirable eight-room apartments are scarcer than ever, and they usually sell above the asking price,” says Joanna Simon, a broker at Fox Residential Group. “The demand is just wild. I’ve yet to see one of them on the market for more than a week.”

If the seventies were the me decade and the eighties the decade of Much Too Much, the nineties, in Manhattan at least, seem to have been the Mom decade, a time to stash on high shelves, away from small, sticky hands, the stuff we accumulated in the eighties (when we knew from disposable income). I have learned I’ve got lots of company in what has effectively become a metropolis of Maclarens. Many women – whether on the Upper East or West Side, uptown or downtown, whether patronizing public or private schools – believe, as I do, that to be a mother in Manhattan is to have located the mother lode.

What has made the city so attractive to tourists – cleaner, safer streets – is precisely what’s making it so appealing to mothers. “The coincidence of my 11-year-old going into adolescence and having more independence when the crime rate is low is very reassuring,” says an Upper West Side mother of three. Women also talk of convenience (food and diapers just a block or a phone call away day or night, child care readily available) and conveyances (no bundling snowsuit-clad kids into car seats and being in thrall to an SUV). They talk about community: “There are six people within a block radius who know my son by name,” says Sara Nelson, editor-at-large at Self, who lives with her husband and 5-year-old son, Charley, in SoHo. “I could imagine if something happened and I had to go out for fifteen minutes, I could leave him with the dry cleaner. It’s this unusual extended family.” They talk about cultural opportunities: “Since he was six days old, he’s been dragged to everything from Karen Finley to the Met,” says West Village artist Barbara Pollack of her 11-year-old son, Max. And they talk about the cross-section of people: “I don’t think you find the heterogeneous population in the suburbs in terms of ethnic groups, income, or family structure,” says one Upper West Side mother. “Here we’ve got Heather who has two mommies – as well as everything else.”

Certainly the stores, restaurants, and other establishments we frequent are taking note. According to the Parents League, the number of toddler programs (those designed for children under 3) has jumped in the past decade from 83 to 258. For the first time this year, the 92nd Street Y offered a standing-room-only seminar directed at older first-time mothers. The Baby Gap at 76th Street and Columbus Avenue has a bathroom seating area for mothers to feed their infants. At Starbucks, whose coffee bars in the family-friendly neighborhoods are overrun with strollers every afternoon, “we cater any way we can,” says the chain’s New York City marketing manager, Paul Williams. “We carry books the kids can look at. If moms are getting a drink, we’ll sometimes give the kids chocolate milk and a cookie. If a manager tells us his store is filled with moms, we may have balloon artists come and make things for the kids.”

Zabar’s has eliminated several center-aisle displays to make it easier for mothers to navigate with strollers. And if they need to go to the housewares department on the second floor, “we’ll watch the baby downstairs or carry the stroller upstairs,” says manager Scott Goldshine gallantly. There’s even talk of adding cereal to the café’s bill of fare. “Not Cheerios, because we’re Zabar’s,” says Goldshine, not so gallantly, “but maybe muesli.”

Restaurateurs, many of them new parents themselves, are adopting an “if you can’t beat ‘em, seat ‘em” attitude. “You start out trendy, you’re the new place, but then your customers get married and have children,” says Sebastiano Cappita, owner of the eight-year-old Upper West Side restaurant Isola. Now, according to one habitué, the trattoria has so many mothers breast-feeding that there seems to be a nursing section the way there used to be a smoking section.

When my children were in preschool, there was, each year, a certain thinning of the ranks as families decided to make a break for Westchester or Fairfield County before kindergarten began. My first thought, I must admit, was: So you can’t take it here, is that it? My second thought, I must also admit, was: Hmmm, do they know something I don’t know? In every sense, was the grass greener? It’s a question that plagued literary figures as diverse as Mr. Blandings and Marjorie Morningstar. It plagues some of my friends. Off and on, when things get difficult here, it plagues me as well.

And they do get difficult. It’s not just the school-admissions thing (which I’ll get to in a minute). We tend to live or die by the MTA and the Taxi & Limousine Commission – both of which work around the clock, though not necessarily my clock, and neither of which has always demonstrated grace or charm in coping with strollers and kids who suddenly don’t feel so good. And in a city where dealing with frustration and anxiety can reach the level of performance art, I am often undone by how long it can take to get anything accomplished, and done in by all the choices. Is the tumbling-tots program best at Jodi’s Gym, Asphalt Green, or the 92nd Street Y? If my son sings well, should he be in the school glee club and let it go at that, or must we think about the children’s chorus at the Met?

Then there’s the flip side: What isn’t available here? I consider, with varying degrees of wistfulness, houses equipped with basements, backyards, barbecue grills, and a basketball hoop over the garage; the singular joy of scuffling through leaves and going door-to-door outside on Halloween. One friend speaks longingly of closets big enough to hold the family luggage, a pantry for lining up her canned goods, wide aisles at the supermarket.

Yet I’ve been fortunate in finding several women more than willing to disabuse me of my bucolic fantasies. Five years ago, fed up with dirty streets, increasing cutbacks at the public library, and the looming specter of the invasive private-school admission process, Michele Weinberg headed for Westport, where her family had spent several summers, with her husband and 5-year-old daughter. “You know the movie Stepford Wives?” asks Weinberg, executive director of the Village Child Development Center. “That’s what the town was like. There was no passion. I was a working mother; most of the other mothers weren’t. And the commuting started to be very wearing, because I’d try to get home to meet the school bus.” After five years – “I think I was getting clinically depressed” – Weinberg insisted that they move back, calling dozens of private schools until she found a place for her daughter. “We had to live in our offices on mattresses on the floor from September 15 to Thanksgiving until we got co-op approval. But you know what? I would do it again. I was happier living on a floor in Manhattan than I was in a house in Westport.

“Manhattan is three-dimensional,” she adds. “You have to use your five senses. That’s good for kids and mothers.”

In an effort to preempt those calls from the Westport Chamber of Commerce (not to mention my brother-in-law, who’s on the town council), I hasten to add that I heard a similar story from a woman who spearheaded her family’s move to Scarsdale. Six months later, she, too, was back. “You have no anonymity in a small community,” she says, insisting on anonymity here so as not to offend her suburban friends. “Everyone knows who you are, what you do, the works; I didn’t like that.” Then she adds what may be the Gotham matriarch’s ultimate dis: “And you couldn’t get food brought in. I had to cook every night.”

Another Upper East Side mother of three, tired of being outbid on apartments, impulsively bought a house, also in Connecticut, one weekend; renovated it; then returned to Manhattan. “Door to door, it was seven months,” says the woman, who didn’t want her name used because her husband has business interests in Westchester and Connecticut. “For me, a stay-at-home mother, it was very isolating. My husband was my link for ‘Who did you see today?’ ” My daughter’s school is four blocks from our apartment, and on any given day, I’ll see half a dozen people I know along the way. One is Janet Chan, editor-in-chief of Parenting, whose daughter and mine are kindergarten classmates. “If we lived in the suburbs, I’d be kissing her good-bye and putting her on the bus,” says Chan. “To be able to walk with her through the park is a wonderful treat. If there’s a nuclear tragedy, I can get home quickly. I can take my daughter to the pediatrician during lunch.”

Paradoxically, what we value most about our lives as mothers in Manhattan – running into neighborhood friends at every turn, taking our children to the playground, organizing play dates a few floors away rather than a few miles away, schmoozing with shopkeepers – is also what most makes the city seem suburban.

When I feel defensive about raising my children in the city – this happens every time my aunt and uncle come from Michigan to visit and criticize – I start blithering about the cultural opportunities. Because of my job, my children have a working knowledge of the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook (they were in the audience at the recent Broadway revivals of The King and I and The Sound of Music). They have warmed seats at almost every screening room in the city and demonstrate – my son especially – an indiscriminate enthusiasm matched only by Jeffrey Lyons’s.

But because I live on Museum Mile, I’ve got more than a little guilt that my children do not know the holdings of the Guggenheim even one fourth as well as they know the listings on the takeout menu from First Wok. I do, however, take an odd comfort in knowing that Mr. De Montebello’s minions are there and ready when I am. “When you live here, you can just dip into things without making an elaborate event about them,” says Chan. “We go to the Metropolitan Museum, see the Temple of Dendur and throw pennies in the fountain, and leave because we know we can come back.”

All Piranesi and no play? Not exactly. “People need to know there are all the normal things, even in the West Village,” says Barbara Pollack. “There’s soccer and Little League, but because they’re city kids” – here she laughs heartily – “they’re terrible.”

“I feel a little wistful,” admits Chan. “My 14-year-old son was in West Side Soccer League, and when he played in Scarsdale, there were beautifully manicured fields and the team came out in matching jackets. The New York City kids looked like they were from the Fresh Air Fund.”

Until I had children, the three letters I dreaded most were IRS. They have long since been replaced by ERB, a test that, depending on which know-it-all you ask, sort of, or partly, or largely, or totally determines whether and where Junior will get accepted to private school. One Upper East Side woman had such agita about her 5-year-old’s placement that she was almost a week late going into labor with her second child. “I needed to resolve the most important issue in my son’s life before I could bring my other child into the world,” explains the woman, whose contractions began precisely three hours after she learned that Nicky had gotten into Saint David’s, the family’s first choice.

Yet her worries are hardly over. There was a time when younger family members had to register little more than vital signs to be assured a place at their siblings’ school. Today there are no such guarantees. Some of this has to do with the large pool of family applicants. “We could fill an entire class with just siblings,” a school administrator noted recently. But according to one popular Upper East Side rumor, it’s also because a study has shown that parents tend to contribute proportionately less money when they’ve got two or more children enrolled in the same school.

There’s a quite predictable pattern of worry for us when it comes to school. By the time our children are 2, we begin scrutinizing them to make sure they’re preschool material. Just when they’ve comfortably settled in at the sand table, we start fretting about ongoing schools. When that’s been nailed, we begin rethinking our choices, wondering if the standards at our offspring’s school are quite as exacting, the A’s quite as meaningful, as those at the school down the street or across town. (I beamed when my son’s first-grade teacher at Allen-Stevenson told me the curriculum there was more demanding than at Dalton, where she’d previously taught). What we really wonder, of course, is how our kids are doing compared with everyone else’s.

A few months ago, I received my daughter’s first school report, a document that had, instead of letter grades, the assessments SA (for strong achievement), P (progressing), and NS (needs strengthening). I scrutinized it as though it was a coded dispatch, searching futilely for nuance and hidden meaning where there were none. I began eavesdropping on conversations at pickup time, hoping to put things in context. “My daughter got three ‘needs strengthening’ and three ‘strong achievement,’ ” one mother observed plaintively. “Do you think that all averages out to ‘progressing’?” Damned if I knew.

When I first began visiting New York as an adolescent, “the city” meant midtown, a belief bolstered by radio meteorologists, who would always assign it a separate temperature reading. I am seeing it again through the eyes of my 7-year-old son, who knows no greater joy than an idyll in the Fifties. While I try to widen his scope – our last visit included a peek inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral – the core itinerary takes in Paley Park, the Rockefeller Center concourse, and a certain delicatessen for turkey on white and a cream soda. Matthew, who, all things being equal, would vote for transportation to get him from first base to second, suddenly is half a block ahead of me. I run to catch up, and his face is aglow: “This is living, Mommy, isn’t it?”

It absolutely is.

Manhattan Mother Lode