I’m a City Mom But I’m Test-Driving the Suburbs

Photo: Michael Hitoshi/Getty Images

I moved to Brooklyn from the suburbs of Central Jersey in my early 20s: broke, exhilarated, invincible, and often confused. I spent weeks riding the wrong train to destinations I’d been to only the day before, the spindly subway lines making little sense to my already-poor sense of direction. But slowly, surely I started to acclimate, learning when to board an express bus and when to wait for the local, the best times to visit the laundromat, and which jerk-chicken restaurant I preferred. As that adjustment period started to fade, landmarks began to emerge, familiar corners that I could rely on to bring me where I needed or wanted to go. Finally, the city felt more like my own; it was loud and industrial and seemingly soaked with urine, but it was mine. I settled into being New Yorker–in-training, with barely a thought toward the day when energy might turn into exhaustion. Then I had a baby.

Two years ago, when our daughter was born, my husband and I were excited to show her the city that had so enraptured us — its lights, its hustle, the diversity of cultures, activities, events. Both Eric and I are products of sprawling, quiet towns where we played in the street and rode our bicycles to the park. Now, we were not only offering our daughter the kind of city life we never knew as children, but learning how to navigate the city as parents: the best way to maneuver a stroller onto a crowded bus or subway (have the stroller folded and MetroCard out before the bus pulls up; scope out an empty subway car and find a spot in one of the corners), finding parent friends in our neighborhood (through a group I formed), discovering the baby activities that fit into our budget and schedule (thank you, IDNYC and Mommy Poppins!).

But now that our daughter is 2, the sustainability of our Brooklyn lifestyle has come into question. How long should we stay? How will we know when it’s time to go? At times, it still feels as though we’re winging it — a feeling that was exciting as a child-free 23-year-old, but somewhat alarming as a 29-year-old mother.

Two months ago, we found out we might be able to gain some experience that could help us answer these questions: Eric’s co-worker asked him to house-sit for a week while he and his family went on vacation. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, a rapidly growing town some 22 miles from New York City, often dubbed “the new Brooklyn” by its residents (and their realtors). We’d recently added Maplewood to our short list of potential new cities, a thought experiment  that occurs more and more frequently as time goes on. This seemed like the perfect opportunity for our family to give the suburbs a test-drive.

But as much as we wanted the full experience of living in a house as a family for that week, our daughter’s babysitter lives three blocks from our Brooklyn apartment — we just couldn’t think of a way to make child care work for the week. So she stayed with her grandfather, in my childhood neighborhood, while we explored the one that could be in our future.

It’s a disconcerting thing, living in someone else’s house when you know that person. This wasn’t like renting an Airbnb; we felt a strange sense of quasi-ownership as we surveyed their bookshelves, records, beaming family portraits. There was none of the vague unreality that accompanies a rental: We were feeding their mewling cats, making trips to Burger King in their car, depositing each day’s mail on the dining-room table. But most of all, we were imagining ourselves as them, as the owners of this spacious house, their street a gateway to the neighborhood.

“Eve would love this” became our refrain: the gated backyard, the peaceful streets, the rolling hills of grass, all perfect for a growing toddler and the tricycle we have yet to buy her. She was never far from our thoughts, even as we — responsible parents — somehow struggled to make it home before 10 p.m. every night, thrown off-balance by the sudden lack of urgency to collect her from the babysitter, and stymied by the NJ Transit schedules that changed abruptly during rush hour. I tried to picture it: Our small family inhabiting that big house, Eve’s orange City Mini folded up by the door (or otherwise sequestered — in some magical compartment that our apartment-attuned minds can’t even imagine?), Eric mowing the lawn on Saturdays, my modest vegetable garden in the backyard. (No, I’ve never actually gardened before. I just like to think keeping several houseplants alive for over a year has provided a stable foundation for my future green thumb.) But with each conjuring of our potential suburban life, reality tapped me on the shoulder. No major life change can happen in isolation; every other aspect has to bend, even slightly, to make room.

It wasn’t until I was pregnant that we realized how little space we had, how directionless we were. We moved into a bigger apartment and got serious about our side hustles, determined for them to yield more income. And now: a house? We’d have to buy a car, right away. Begin the day-care search anew. Reconfigure our daily schedule, completely disrupt the regimented timing that we have down to a science.

Our week passed by too quickly, it felt. We’d barely had any time to explore the neighborhood beyond our morning and evening walks from the house to the train station, and vice versa. We tried to catalogue every building and storefront we passed on our way to get yet another night’s takeout meal: hair salon, wine shop, dental hygienist — as if we were visitors from another planet, rather than products of suburbs that looked exactly like this one. I kept careful count of the number of people of color I saw — an easy task in a town that felt so sparsely populated — and gave up after I hit the low 30s, satisfied we wouldn’t be the only black family for miles. Maybe Maplewood was more of a melting pot than I’d suspected.

But as we prepared to go back to Brooklyn, I couldn’t help but wonder, Carrie Bradshaw–style: Were we truly already here? On the brink of a mortgage? The word alone still makes me itch. Could we honestly give up our beloved, noisy city, in exchange for shoveling our own snow and paying for our own water?

The night before our final day as temporary New Jersey residents, we attended a birthday party at a bar in lower Manhattan. Joint nights out are rarely what they used to be, simply because of the constant reminder of the babysitter waiting for us at home. This week, it was different: There was no baby to resume care of, but that didn’t mean we weren’t haunted by something — the trip to Penn Station, a 40-minute train ride, then the 15-minute walk “home.” Naturally, that night, it rained.

It was Eric who brought it up first. “Going out dancing or drinking would be a lot more difficult here,” he admitted wistfully. I gave him the requisite hard time (since when do you want to go out dancing?), but I knew exactly where he was coming from — I had been thinking it too.

As we prepare to leave behind the adolescent revival of our 20s to enter a brand-new phrase, we find ourselves at a familiar crossroads, like so many others: Do we stay or do we go? The nightlife scene in New York is no longer so much a staple as it is a novel diversion when we can find a sitter. Nonetheless, we aren’t far enough removed to not miss it, were we to live elsewhere. Plus: the convenience of transportation solely by train or a car service, the walkability of the entire city, the proximity, at almost all times, to almost anything you could want, at almost any TIME you want it — it feels incomparable. And ultimately, as we realized from our New Jersey sojourn, irreplaceable.

We may not be a certain kind of grown-up, with the space for a record player and a washer and dryer that we own, but honestly? We’re okay with putting that off, just a little bit longer. And as for Eve, life in Brooklyn is all she knows. One day she’ll have a backyard kingdom all to herself, but for now, if we need a sprawling outdoor space to grill, attempt a picnic, run through a fountain, roller skate, or just tumble around a playground, Prospect Park is a 15-minute walk away.

I’m a City Mom But I’m Test-Driving the Suburbs