You can tell it’s autumn: Leaves are falling, MoveOn.org bumper stickers are slapped on the backs of strollers, and mothers are musing whether their tots should be Moby or Eminem for Halloween.
There’s a bit of Dr. Evil in the heart of every urban parent. We may love our children for everything that is unique, idiosyncratic and innocent about them, but deep down, what we really want are miniature, completely mature versions of our own bad-ass selves. My children are my world and my life, the seat of my soul and my reason for being. They are also my biggest, loudest, most prominent accessories. And if they don’t look cool, honey, I don’t look cool.
When our first child was born, a musician friend burned us a CD and called it Lullaby; it was composed entirely of reggae tunes. My heart swells with pride every time my 4-year-old considers the distance to a destination and asks, “Can’t we just take a cab?” She wears T-shirts emblazoned with “Anarchy in the Pre-K,” boasts that City Bakery has the best hot chocolate and sings along with They Might Be Giants and Avenue Q. Her baby sister sports little black onesies and has recently developed a penchant for tamago. Some of their sophisticated inclinations, I know, are encoded in their Gotham-dwelling DNA. And some, I reluctantly admit, are the result of their pushy parents.
My husband and I live in a home blessedly free of many of the average American accouterments of childhood, studiously steering our rug rats toward what we consider acceptable outlets. Japanese party puss Hello Kitty? Yes. The Wiggles? Oh, noooo. Pre-ordering Pee-wee’s Playhouse on DVD? Party on. Veggie Tales? You’ve got to be kidding me. When their inevitable adolescent rebellions occur, they won’t involve piercings or angry poetry. No, my daughters will wind up embracing the Olive Garden, smooth jazz and natural hair color.
The world of children is soft and fuzzy, robed in pastels and set to the tune of “I love you, you love me.” In short, it’s the antithesis of everything being a New Yorker stands for. So we compensate. We shoehorn ourselves into an apartment the size of our suburban friends’ decks, ostensibly so we can expose our offspring to every cultural marvel the city offers, but also to ensure they grow up savvier, more sophisticated and, well, edgier than their mall-prowling counterparts. And we’re not alone.
A friend’s twins recently visited family in the Midwest, where they promptly snubbed the average white bread their relations offered. Their predilection for artisinal sourdough is already too pronounced. A neighbor’s 3-year-old confidently refers to her mother’s jewelry as “bling-bling.” And there’s a preschooler in my hood with a mohawk. Even more than we pride ourselves on our progeny’s gross motor developments or mastery of French nursery rhymes, my fellow breeders and I brag of our children’s savoir-faire. Parents share tales on the playground of young Talullah’s addiction to edamame, or how Duncan loved the Metallica documentary. And we keep our kids’ vices—a fondness for Care Bears or American cheese—conspicuously overlooked.
The challenge is figuring out how to maintain our hard-won blasé attitudes while not completely overwhelming our children’s artless enthusiasm. My kids find the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty utterly mesmerizing, and so, for the first time in ages, do I. They let me get romantic about the city again, and I adore them for it. More difficult is accepting their inclinations toward everything that is crassly, crappily kid-oriented, the things that send a shudder down the spine of every self-respecting hipster. What am I to do when an out-of-town relation sends the girls gag-reflex-triggering matching ensembles that are a riot of pink, lace and bows? I can only pretend it’s an 80’s Lacroix homage so much. My mother recently gave my elder daughter a huge dress-up box. I console myself that in her silver tutu and pink marabou boa, she looks like a meatpacking-district tranny.
But I’m trying to recognize when my ego starts butting against not merely the inclinations of my brood, but the enjoyment of my fellow adults. Because it’s pretty easy to be a real tool. At the recent Elvis Costello show, a single friend spotted parents in the crowd waving their toddlers like oversized lighters. People, I’m a mother myself and I say to you: Hire a damn sitter. The kids can have an Almost Blue period when they’re 7 or 8. No one who hasn’t yet mastered continence honestly wants to go to the gig. And the other people in the audience, who just turned over half a paycheck to Ticketmaster, are now hating not just you and yours, but everyone within three area codes who’s had the audacity to reproduce.
Yet I sympathize with those baby-brandishers. Behind every leather-clad toddler stumbling around Jivamukti, there’s a tattooed ex–club kid convinced that the moment they start favoring Barney over Barney’s, they’re going to move to New Jersey, get fat and die. The scariest thing about parenting is that we’re all pretty much making it up as we go along. And it’s hard to hang on to one’s edge while holding on to a baby.
I believe if God hadn’t meant for my daughters to be attired in Moschino, He would not have their toddler line discounted at Century 21. And I want to beat up the newspaper-reading jackass who glares at my children the moment we walk into Starbucks. My baby will learn, as her sister did, her letters and numbers from riding on the subway. But I also know that an ironic T-shirt doesn’t make much of a statement on someone who can’t read. And that maybe my elder daughter isn’t absorbing all my best maternal behavior when she bellows at a restaurant, “I need a new freaking spoon … please?”
In a city of eight million people, not everyone at every moment is going to throw their arms open for me and my adorable, pooping, squealing, hissy-fit-throwing entourage, no matter how hard I’m trying to make them blend in. So that won’t be us making your life hell at the 10 p.m. showing at the Angelika. But it might be us among the early diners at Superfine, scoping for the nearest exit and choking down a few bites before someone blows a gasket. If you see us, cut us a little slack. We’re not trying to be your buzzkill. We’re just trying to avoid the birthday-party crowd at Chuck E. Cheese.
Follow Mary Elizabeth Williams via RSS.