My Summer in Brooklyn Fantasy: A SAHM’s (Failed) Attempt at Cool
A year ago this week, my husband was staffed in Brooklyn. We live in Florida. He’s a consultant and gets staffed here and there; I work from home, so I can go here and there with him. To me, this looked like a prime opportunity to pick up out Floridian existence and live amidst the New York boroughs for the summer. We’d lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn several years prior, so it was easy to dream of a summer return there, filled with negronis on Williamsburg rooftops, jaunts into Central Park, skyline views on sunset runs, and a delightfully ironic and risk-taking wardrobe. It would be a summer away from the norm: I would write in funky coffee shops, go see oodles of improv comedy, take the ferry to my Manhattan destinations, and dang-near become a local.
One minor detail: we had a 5-month-old and a 2-year-old.
But I persisted. I became stubborn about getting our summer in New York. My parents suggested it might put too much pressure on me. My girlfriends started telling me I had “real balls” to go do something like this for a few months. I’d laugh them off and say, Sure, my husband might be working 15 hour days, but there were parks to play in! And I’d have a stroller and an Ergo! And we’d just do life like Brooklynite families and make mom friends…what’s the big deal? I’m down for an adventure! I began to feel like our potential summer in Brooklyn was a symbol of how much I could handle as a mother.
We committed. We found an AirBnB where the whole family could stay. We decided to book the kids and I a one-way ticket so that we could survey the landscape and decide just how long we’d want to stay. We arrived in Williamsburg and found ourselves situated on a super hip block and surrounded by other young families. As my husband started to get into his flow at work, I tried to get the kids and I into our flow in our new home. We found the parks and carousels I’d read about, we made grocery store runs, we went on walks, we tried to establish regular nap times, and I tried to cook on the scant supplies our hosts had left us. (Making pancakes for my daughter by measuring/eyeballing the mix in a cocktail glass and then cooking them in a cast iron skillet took real skill.) My husband and I went on dates occasionally. On work days, he’d sometimes leave our apartment at 6 and return close to 9, exhausted. I made use of a babysitter recommended by friends so that I could take a few hours a week away to breathe. I’d go write, do yoga, go to the grocery store alone, meet an old friend for lunch. Each time I’d go away, the babysitter would cost up to $25 and hour. I felt spoiled to have the time, but then desperate for it, too.
My husband and I quickly realized that we’d made a mistake.
My two-year-old daughter who normally snoozed for 12 hours was consistently sleeping maybe 7, confused about why she was in a big girl bed that wasn’t hers. She was confused about where we were living and when we’d go home, or if this was home, and why she couldn’t see her grandparents (who lived back at our real home) The baby slept (poorly) in the bathroom in a bassinet. The lack of sleep and stress about how my family was doing made my period came back in a way that made me sick. There was something weird about my Womanhood returning full steam as I slept and took care of myself in a 20-something male stranger’s apartment. Something about it was not private or sacred enough.
The stress and hormonal changes made my milk supply plummet. As my fussy son grew fussier, I desperately tried to pump, but I could barely keep up with my son’s needs, and the pump just made my breasts more sore and led to more stress as I produced mere drops that did him no good. I had never planned on using formula, but instead I found myself schlepping through the uncharted waters of the Williamsburg outskirts, in the rain, wearing my hungry-as-hell infant son and pushing my tired toddler daughter to every grocery store, market, CVS, Dollar Tree – ANYWHERE – to find organic baby formula. I suspect that makes me sound stupid or at least overly-conscientious, like: if you and your baby were so desperate, then why didn’t you give him any kind of formula and move on? But as any mom who has been there knows, this felt like a process of giving in – no, giving up – on my body and part of my motherhood. I thought the least I could do was give him what I’d read was “the best” on the blogs that the internet dumped on me when I nervously Googled “best formula for a 5 month old.” I’ve come a long way since this point, in honoring my process (and my body’s and my son’s,) but at the time, it felt awful.
On a lighter note: were you still curious about my fun, summery, artful wardrobe I had planned? Nay. It was cold and wet most of the time we were there. Even though there was an American Apparel right across the street (so Brooklyn!), there would be no gold Spandex or dresses with an ironic 90s flower print. Rather, most days I wore the brown men’s hoodie I’d purchased there on clearance (on a day it dipped into the 40s) with the one pair of jeans I’d brought with me.
One thing that expensively lifted my spirits when the babysitter came was going and sweating things out at SoulCycle. Endorphins would flow, the music would lift me, I felt strong. In one class, the man cycling in front of me turned and abruptly stated that I had my seat adjusted poorly. I told him it was how the instructor told me to do it. The man insisted that he help me. I was surprised by my own reactions, essentially refusing and saying I’d figure it out on my own. It wasn’t about the bike seat – it was my frustration about our family situation overflowing into this stupid class, and on to this man. Everything pointed back to THIS IS NOT WORKING. Like a neon sign in my face that I could not see.
A few days later, the kids and I set out on a grocery shopping trip, only to return to a broken elevator. We lived on the 7th floor. There was no way the three of us were going to get up those stairs with all our grocery bags in one piece. The building super didn’t answer his phone, and neighbors declined to help. There were still a few more hours until my husband returned from work. We just had to wait for the super to call back. So at the risk of returning to no groceries at all, I gathered up my positivity and breastfed my son one more time in the lobby as neighbors passed by, averting their gazes and walking up the steps after cursing the elevator – and we left the groceries in the lobby and went back out on to the street to kill some time.
Just a couple of blocks into our walk, the man from SoulCycle and his two children crossed our path. We said hi and quickly pushed through the awkwardness of my stumbling apologies about having been so rude in class. His kids were older than mine, probably 5 and 7, and very sweet. He reported they were on their way from their favorite steak dinner at St. Anselm, the most popular (and expensive), hip steak place in Brooklyn. They went there frequently, he said. He explained that they were often on their own in the evenings because Mom worked long hours. I didn’t pry into what that job was, so he asked me what I did. I told him about being a stay-at-home mom and briefly about my birth work and writing. When you tell people you’re a doula, it elicits all kinds of responses. His was, “I’m assuming you don’t work with women like my wife…she’s the type that wants slap a needle in her back, get that baby out, and get back on her Blackberry.” I looked at his kids, playing and smiling at my children. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that.
“Um, wow, that’s intense,” I finally got out. “Well, looks like they turned out great!”
“Yeah, it takes a village right? With her schedule, we flew in wet nurses on private planes from Jamaica and wherever that basically raised our kids for the first two years of each of their lives.”
“Yeah, that’s the norm around here. We all want kids, but there’s just other stuff to do, ya know?”
“Yeah….right. So what do you do?”
“Well, I do some private work, ya know, here and there. Like a contractor of sorts. And stay at home with the kids. But it’s tough, ya know? So we’ve got a nanny and an au pair, and an evening babysitter just in case. I get out and have lunch with friends and (scare quotes) do my thing outside of work, too.”
A work-a-holic mom, a stay-at-home dad who didn’t stay at home and was out doing an unnamable job and “doing his thing,” and a fleet of women to handle what the parents were not? I was blown away. Was this really the norm? But he went on.
“You know, having the au pairs really isn’t all that bad,” he added with a quick smile.
“Oh, I bet it is super helpful!” My naivete shown like a flare over the East River.
“Helpful, sure – but they’re also Swedish: young, tall, and blond. I used to date them all over Manhattan before I was married. And now they work for me.” Fuller, more Cheshire smile.
My chest tightened. I furrowed my brow instead of smiling. His clincher of a comment was bad already, but there was something extra in it, as I happen to be six feet tall and have blond hair. I’m decidedly less youthful and less Swedish than these women, but he’d made his wink known. I sifted through emotions like our minds can do so quickly in one moment: guilt that I’d made judgements on his family; surprise at the twisted prioritization of what he dubbed as “normal life;” disgust at the way he talked about it; confusion around what the balance is around having time with our kids and time alone; and remorse that I’d forced us into this situation. Parts of his story, this conversation, meeting him in an over-priced exercise class – all felt so strange. The nature of it all felt symbolic of my wanting to go back to simple, to feel at ease with my family.
I started to gather my grocery bags back up and told my kids we had to head back. I thanked his kids for playing with mine while we talked. Without making eye contact with him again, I wished him luck and told him I hoped he enjoyed the time with his children. As we walked away, he yelled out one final thought, as if to justify what he’d told me or to “impress” me more: that his wife was an executive at a wildly popular clothing company that shall remain unnamed (but I’m willing to bet any of you reading this get their catalogue in the mail.) I yelled back, “Ah! Explains why your kids are wearing their shirts then!” He gave me a thumbs up and yelled back, “See you at SPIN!”
No, he wouldn’t.
I was done. If the elevator was broken, so be it; I wanted to pack up everything in our apartment and haul it down our small-ass staircase by myself, wearing an infant on my front and a toddler on my back. Whatever it took. For some reason, this man’s account totally did me in. I could suddenly see through my self-created veil of the “cool factor” of New York summer living. It wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t that my family didn’t fit in or that we didn’t enjoy adventure or that we couldn’t “handle it.” But it wasn’t what we knew, and it wasn’t what we needed. This life wasn’t our pace, our comfort zone, our flow. And I wasn’t in the right place as a mother. I needed those things: pace, comfort, and flow, more than I was giving myself permission to. So much about mothering and simultaneously caring for yourself is doing what you can with what you have in the moment. And this revealed those limitations to me. I have always been the type to be comfortable with my boundaries being stretched, I enjoy the adventure. But this was a version of stretching that started to feel like I was trying to prove something to myself, and for what?
We’d only been in Brooklyn for three weeks, but it had felt like the full 3 months. That night, I told my husband the cycling man’s story and we both gawked over it for a while, in disbelief of the broad ways that families do life. I told him that I thought it was time for the kids and I to go, and he agreed. We booked the tickets and made arrangements, and we immediately felt better.
The next couple of days before our flight were easier, knowing that we were going to return home. I remember popping into a bakery after my daughter asked for a cookie on one of our walks. I’d never been so delighted to get her a $4 gluten free baked good named after an obscure flower. I passed on the $50 apron with the bakery’s name roughly stenciled on it.
When we got back out onto the street, my daughter said, “Mommy, will my bed still be there when I get home to Florida?”
I answered, “Yes, it will, Darlin.’ And we will all sleep like bugs in rugs.”
She smiled. “Will you sing me a song?”
“Of course! What song do you want me to sing to you when we get to Florida and sleep?”
“Alleluia,” she said.
Seemed perfect to me.