If you’re not aware of the breeder-nonbreeder infighting in this town, well, we’re not sure where you’ve been hiding. But a recent essay sparked a response from one of our BB Kids writers, and that in turn elicited another parent’s take on the stroller wars.
Dear Parent Hater,
I don’t know you, but I know your kind. I know, because once I was you. Back in my childfree days, I remember playing chicken with a particularly vengeful-looking mommy on a narrow stretch of Hicks Street. I was walking one way; she was walking the other. We locked eyes and barreled toward each other. Sure it felt petty, but I just wasn’t willing to be bulldozed for what felt like the twentieth time that day. Was it so much to ask to be able to walk in a straight line from here to there without having to dodge a sea of Maclarens? No, it was not. I ended up getting wedged into a planter studded with decorative lettuce. Mommy dearest screamed past me, the acrid scent of righteous indignation wafting off of her.
When I got home that night, I spent at least twenty minutes ranting at my then boyfriend now husband about the hazards of childbirth. “Why is that pushing out a shorty makes people feel like the world owes them something?” I asked. He shrugged and resumed playing Need for Speed: Underground. I vowed never to become “one of those moms.” I would never be a sidewalk tyrant; I would never treat my favorite patisserie like my living room. I mean really, how hard could it be to exhibit good manners? Enter baby.
Okay, so here’s the thing. I’ve read all of the essays—the apologia and the rants—and what no one seems to be acknowledging is the obvious: it’s fucking hard. I’ve only been a parent for a year and a half now and I’m here to tell you, raising a child in the city is not for the faint of heart. Yes, being in New York has its undeniable benefits: rich cultural amenities, a many-hued and multifaceted population, yada yada yada. (You don’t need me to tell you this. This is why we’re all here, right?) It also offers an array of practical challenges that threaten to transform parenthood into a full contact sport. To all the parent haters out there, I say this: you try pasting a smile on your face after schlepping your 25-pound kid and your own weight in groceries up two flights of piss-slick subway stairs with people bouncing off you from every direction like angry billiard balls. You try piloting a stroller and a grocery cart through Trader Joe’s without occasionally blocking peoples’ path. You try “subtly” navigating a stroller past someone gabbing away on his cell on a turn-of-the-century Brooklyn block. It’s next to impossible. It’s easy to sit in judgment of all the “entitled” parents out there when the hardest logistical challenge you face is squeezing your ass onto an over-packed subway car at rush hour. Now summon up the irritation you feel at that moment and multiply it by about a thousand. That will give you some sense of the physical hurdles and minor indignities people suffer through every day to have a family in New York.
Now I know what you’re going say, nonbreeders. You’re gonna say: no one told you to have kids, lady. And you’re right. It was my choice to breed in the most populous (and stinky) metropolis in the States. A place conceived and built before things like elevators and two-lane streets came into vogue; a place where a one-bedroom apartment sells for more than my grandfather earned in a lifetime. I took on that challenge and no one else should pay the price for any resulting discontent. There’s no excuse for being a shithead. Because of this I make every effort to mind my Ps and Qs when I’m out with my daughter and to be ever mindful of how much space we’re taking up. I’ll admit that I’m not always the paragon of civic virtue I set out to be. (There have been a couple of bared teeth incidents involving doors smacked shut in my daughter’s face, and some aggressive stroller maneuvering on narrow walkways commandeered by couples sauntering hand-in-hand.) But overall I feel like I’m more conscious of my fellow New Yorkers post-child bearing than I was prior to it. I never would have turned my back on an old lady in need, but now I’d be hard pressed not to fling my purchases to the ground and run to her aid. Why? Because now I’ve personally experienced that type of powerlessness. I can still reach the highest shelf, but stick me and my stroller in a subway station with more than four flights of stairs and no volunteers and I’m a lame duck.
Nothing has brought home the meaning of the word community to me like trying to raise a tiny human in a big city without any immediate family at hand. I’m a better, more engaged citizen now than I ever have been. And I know I’m not alone. Which is why I maintain that the smug parents so oft conjured up in anti-breeding epistles are the exception to the rule. I’d be willing to lay down money that Daryl Lang’s nemesis, Mr. Potato Chips, was an asshole long before he ever got around to procreating. Replicating his genetic code just intensified his condition.
So if the vast majority of us are doing the best we can, where does all the hate come from? Are a handful of bad-mannered narcissists poisoning the atmosphere for the rest of us parents? Maybe, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Part of the ire leveled at today’s parents is the result of sheer volume. What you rarely hear about in the context of the breeder vs. nonbreeder debate is that we’re in the throes of one of the biggest baby booms since WWII ended. There are kids literally everywhere you look. It’s wall-to-wall strollers out there. Playgrounds are being erected faster then skyscrapers. You can’t spit without it landing on the helmet-clad head of a boy on a Razor scooter. And this upsurge in under-fives is upsetting the delicate equilibrium of the five boroughs. It’s putting a strain on already strained resources. It’s crowding sidewalks, clogging up lines at the grocery store, and claiming your seat on the subway. And it’s annoying. I’m annoyed and I’m part of the problem.
Just like that, parents have become the easiest target for disgruntled city dwellers everywhere. Part of the irritation is justified (that double stroller really does take up as much space as a Smart Car) but part of it is circumstantial. This city has always been filled with families, but it wasn’t built to accommodate hordes of them. And now that the middle-class parents who traditionally decamped for the suburbs are staying put, we all seem to have reached some kind of civility tipping point. Blame it on crumbling infrastructure or the “me-first” culture of the moment. Either way the fertile folk among us aren’t the only culprits. Still nonbreeders seem to think that the answer to this conundrum is to a) browbeat families into shrinking into the background, or b) drum them out of the city.
But both of these responses are wrong headed. Because guess what? New York is full of people, and when people reach a certain stage in their lives they have a tendency to make new people. (You did get that whole Birds and Bees lecture, right?) You cannot reasonably expect these newly hatched families to stay home all the time or quietly lurk around the edges of civic life, speaking in hushed tones. I’m sorry if we’re disrupting the lifestyle to which you, the single and unburdened, have become accustomed, but it’s my world too. Now I think we can all agree that dragging a kid out to the bar every night is not in anyone’s best interest, but please spare me the nasty looks next time I duck into my favorite dive for an afternoon beer with my family. And rest assured, I didn’t bring my daughter in there because I’m “acting out” or trying to curtail your free expression. I’m there because I need a drink and that beer you paid $8 bucks for will cost me $28 if I get a sitter. I’m sorry you find my family irksome, but I don’t remember signing anything when I moved to Brooklyn stating that I’d stop frequenting my favorite establishments the second I gave birth.
You have the right to your life, certainly, but so do I—and so do the other people out there toting their broods around, so get used to it. The only other option is to round us up and transport us to the suburbs, which sounds good until you contemplate the urban havoc wrought by so-called “white flight” two generations ago. Try renewing your liberal credentials after you’ve forced all the gentrifiers to trade in Kings County for Monmouth.
It seems like there are plenty of people out there willing to plead the case of disgruntled nonbreeders and a slew of parent-apologists playing attack and defend, but there don’t seem to be many people willing to step up and declare their right to have kids in the city without being made to feel like social pariahs. I mean, it’s not like we’re huffing glue here, people. These are babies we’re talking about. They might be disruptive, even a little obnoxious, but they’re pretty innocuous in the scheme of things. Some people even find them cute.
So go ahead and resent us—you’re a New Yorker after all, it’s practically part of the job description. But don’t vilify us. Trust that most of us are trying to tread lightly and if we sometimes screw up, well, it’s possible that you too occasionally behave in a less than neighborly fashion. Strong-arming your way through a pack of distracted mothers is no fun, but neither is getting manhandled when your teething toddler squalls in line at a Starbucks. Sure, your life’s no picnic, but at least you have the benefit of something approximating a good night’s sleep. Plus I’m guessing you don’t spend your days bagging up someone else’s poop. You’ve got that going for you.
Orli Van Mourik is a writer, a mother, and a budding curmudgeon. Photo by Tracy Collins.