My Daughter’s Suburban Childhood Looks Nothing Like My Urban One

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Photo: Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

After marrying my husband I told him I didn’t want to get pregnant until we bought a house and moved out of our Boston apartment.

For my husband, it was simply the next logical step to adulthood. For me, it was about grasping a life I’d dreamed of since childhood. “I want to give my child something different,” I told him.

We bought an old pink house on a hill with a price tag that left me uncomfortable and trying to shake the feeling of becoming all that I hated as a teenager and young adult: wealthy, lucky, undeserving. My husband, a successful restaurant owner, made the house possible. I laughed as I filled out the mortgage paperwork — with my massive student-loan debt, what business did I have signing my name?

For a while our new domestic reality — a driveway, three bedrooms plus three bathrooms — was almost too luxurious to handle. We spent a year settling in, getting used to the longer commute, the walls that didn’t close in on us, the windows that overlooked tree branches where woodpeckers hopped to avoid squirrels. As wonderful as our house was, it was missing something. I got pregnant a year after we moved in.

On walks, our daughter, now a toddler, often holds acorns upward toward the trees. It reminds me of playing behind my best friend Anna’s building — the city swirling around us, sirens blaring while she climbs metal bars secured in concrete and I crack open acorns from a nearby, lone tree, grinding them down with a rock. This was New York City in the ’80s, when the playgrounds in our Upper West Side neighborhood were a place of caution.

My parents made the decision to raise three children in a one-bedroom apartment for financial reasons, but also to avoid living in suburbia. I have loved and hated them for this choice.

Until I was 9 years old, I had the bedroom, and my parents slept on a folding futon in the living room. There’s a home video shot by my grandfather that’s meant to report on our living space for family members who lived on Long Island and in upstate New York.

“Here is the living room,” he narrates, panning from one wall, bike dangling from it, to the other side of the room, where my parents slept. “If you can call it that.” You can hear my mother in the background trying not to laugh as she scolds him.

When I was about 14, I slept in the living room on a raised bed. There was a storage area underneath and an exposed outlet — with a red Christmas bulb and the door pulled shut, I could find some solitude. When my sister was born, I convinced my parents to create a “bedroom” in the living room by building a sliding-glass partition. That wall was about as effective as a see-through shirt.

By the time I reached my 20s, I realized that while there were plenty of things I hated about my New York childhood — the apartment we’d lived in, the chaos of the world outside of it — there was something special in those years. Whatever it is makes me bite my tongue when someone calls themselves a New Yorker after moving to the city as an adult.

A New Yorker is someone shaped by the city at a formable age: a child witnessing a stranger’s penis on the subway, just casually hanging out of his tan, penis-colored slacks while the other passengers pay him no mind. Or a teenager spending an evening in a police station looking at mug shots, searching for the man who just held her up at her after-school job.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been proud of my origins. When the Long Island kids I met while visiting my grandmother found out I lived in the city, I felt like a proud, neurotic peacock, flashing stories that made their suburban mouths drop open.

But I yearned for a house. A home with more than one bedroom, with windows that didn’t look out onto other gray buildings where preteen boys heckled me or decorated our windows with eggs. I longed for a day when I would never have to pound on a bathroom door, legs crossed, praying I wouldn’t pee myself.

My daughter, almost 2 years old, doesn’t yet understand the beauty of where she lives. The beauty of a green backyard, her own bedroom, the miles of quiet streets to bike down. She may never understand the privilege of knowing her few neighbors and trusting them, instead of being overwhelmed by the number of strangers living on the other side of a wall, above her head, below her feet. It’s unlikely a homeless man will take shelter against the front door of her home, or that her father will ask her to hand him an old winter jacket.

We are so different already, my daughter and I. My husband, who grew up in an affluent town outside of Chicago, is able to observe with an air of understanding and nostalgia. He is familiar with playing in the untainted cold, winter air and riding a bike through summer breezes that don’t carry the smells of the city. He remembers what it’s like to walk down the street as a child and not have to avoid other pedestrians. A room, dedicated to a child, messy and colorful, is nothing new to him. I sit on the sidelines cheering my child on, happy for her blessings but wondering if she needs a good bump from a stranger, flash from a pervert, or shove from the universe.

When I ordered a cedar playhouse for my daughter, it was no secret that one of my own childhood dreams was about to come true. My husband spent three hours putting it together in the backyard, under a large conifer tree whose branches hung over the tiny roof. When it was complete, I walked my daughter down the stone steps of our sloped backyard. Once we reached her new house, she pointed and gasped.

“It’s a house just for you!” I told her, letting go of her hand so she could run the rest of the way.

My Daughter’s Childhood Looks Nothing Like My Urban One