Listening and Enduring — By Laura Houston
Before I lie down in the boy’s room to help ease them into their morning nap, I open the window. It lets in some light, some fresh air, and a cacophony of sounds from the courtyard: sounds of breakfast dishes being washed, coffee pots returning to their seats, other mothers and children going about their day. The Italian mother two floors down in apartment C puts her little girl down for a nap at the same time. The sounds rise up to our window. There is some crying, some pleading, some shushing and then a lullaby sung sweetly in Italian.
The Australian couple across the hall in apartment H has older kids. Ages four and six. They don’t do morning naps. This is their arts and crafts time, and I can hear them giggling with their Polish nanny as they cut, glue and create art at their special little table nestled just below the window next to ours.
Four floors down I can hear Megan the oily, zitful, teenager listening to Lady Gaga as loud as her cheap stereo will let her. Sometimes her brother yells at her to turn it down, but most of the time he is across the street skateboarding in the park. Megan is not allowed to go to the park alone because she is only 13. Their mother works full time, so it’s a free for all in their apartment most days.
And so it goes morning after hot summer morning in our 12-story community here on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. This is the meditative time of my motherhood. There are times when this consistency of sounds is comforting to me, and I ease into them with no resistance. Sometimes I doze off with the boys while listening to their breathing and the sounds of family life around me. Other times it drives me crazy. The sameness. The repetition. The fact that we are all stuck here in this towering brick building baking like brioche in a French oven, and we are too tired and weary of summer to do much more than drag ourselves out to the park where we might find a patch of grass or not.
This is my first summer in the city. It is my second summer of motherhood. It has been challenging beyond belief. Before we came to New York, we had a farm in Oregon. Our house overlooked the Tualatin Valley, our mountains were laced with pinot noir grape vines, and Mt. Hood stood guard over the sunrises just 70 miles to the east. We had a soft, green patch of grass that shared sun and shade with a flower garden. A maple tree offered shade during the hot parts of the day. I miss our farm more than I can say. When pictures of it come up on my computer screen, I have to look away.
I don’t believe cities are good places to raise kids. I never have. Not cities like Manhattan or Los Angeles or Chicago. My husband and I bought the farm specifically because we thought it was the ideal place to raise kids. And six months after their first breath, the boys were whisked away from the soft smell of cedar, the songs of coyotes, and the taste of peaches picked fresh from the tree and transported to the extremes of New York City.
I don’t know of any adult who looked back on their childhoods with fond memories of hot asphalt, honking cabs, or crowded subways. As great as New York City is for its art, culture, diversity, food, fashion, history and architecture, it’s still a stinky place and not great for children. The whole city is covered in a film of human filth, and it smells that way. There hasn’t been enough rain this summer to wash it away. To give us a break. There is just heat, more heat, and a mega dose of humidity to make it all stick. It makes me sad if I let myself look at it and feel it for very long.
So when I am lying down listening to the sounds of the other families and wishing we were all back at the farm in Oregon, I try to do what I want my kids to do. I think of the positive. I think of all of the good things the city has to offer. The preschools are stellar. The playgrounds are dialed in with interesting toys and big fences to keep us safe. The people here on the Upper West Side seem to love kids. The food is amazing. We try some new flavor every day. And whenever I want I can take a walk in Central Park and find musicians, jugglers, performers, and other families just as eager to play as we are. And I can imagine all of this while a neighbor sings a sweet lullaby in Italian as we lie down for our morning nap. And then it’s not so bad. It’s not bad at all.