When I first started spreading the word about our relocation to New York City, I received two types of reaction: enthusiasm from some, who I suspect, have already been picturing a future of free accommodation in the Big Apple than truly understanding the implications of another displacement for my family; and in contract, a concern in particular from other women and moms.
"New York? How are you going to survive there with the kids? Manhattan? It is a crazy and dangerous place. Why don't you go and live in Brooklyn or in the suburbs?" And then the ultimate “compassionate” line: “I WOULD NEVER MOVE THERE!"
Had it been my first expat experience I would have felt tremendously discouraged and demotivated. But it wasn't the case. Therefore, I simply ignored the comments because one very important learning acquired in years of moving from one country to another is not to be influenced by people's different opinions. They tend to be based mostly on preconceptions, rumours or simply different views people have about moving.
I was well aware that a significant change was at stake. Moving from a suburban house in quiet Westmount, Montreal, where you can leave your front door unlocked all night and in the worst case find a raccoon in your kitchen, to an apartment building in the Upper West Side where neighbours don’t bother greeting each other as they meet in the elevator, is after all quite extreme. However, to my surprise, settling in New York turned out to be much smoother than I had expected. Clearly, I could still think of more pleasant things than unpacking boxes and entertaining two boys in the dazzling heat of July.
But New York was rather embracing.
1. The neighbourhood
After considering a few options, we eventually picked the Upper West Side (or “UWS” as it is better known to New Yorkers) for a place to live. The UWS really is a great neighbourhood for families with children for a number of reasons:
a. It's in Manhattan but a lot less bustling and hectic than other areas. It is just a few subway stops, or a short cab ride, from Midtown where most offices are, which makes your husband's commute easy, quick and less nerve wracking.
b. There are more kids and strollers on the UWS sidewalks than adult pedestrians which made my daily trips more relaxing than in other places. (for all their qualities, New Yorkers are not known to be a patient folk so anywhere else in the city they tend to be less welcoming to a slow place stroller pushing mamma).
c. But in the land of family with kids that is the UWS, it is easy to get help from peer parents when I would you find yourself trapped trying to push the stroller into a store or up or down the stairs of a subway station.
2. Central Park
If there is one good reason to choose the Upper West Side this is undoubtedly the proximity to the City’s best outdoor playground : Central Park.
This is where, from my first days in NYC, I took my two boys to let off their energies. Moreover, in summer time it's the perfect place for a picnic or to run around in one of the many playgrounds scattered all over.
To my surprise these play areas are very SAFE. Not only are they clean and well-kept but also fence. So, though it's always necessary to keep an eye on the kids, they cannot run away too far and I don't have to strain my eyes. Almost all of them are equipped with sprinkles which offer a free relief and fun without necessarily going to a pool. Taking my kids to a playground was also for me a chance to break away from my domestic enclosure and strike up short conversations with strangers, other parents or nannies, seeking relief from the summer heat under the trees shade. This is how I started collecting more detailed information about my neighbourhood, places to take the kids, and phone numbers of potential babysitters and housekeepers.
On rainy days I must be honest and say that I'd rather empty more boxes than entertaining my boys. This is the time when I'm entitled, as a mother, to use tv and tablets as a distraction when the kids can’t take it any more in the confines of the apartment. However as I would have later discovered there is no shortage of indoor places where to register your kids for a very wide range of activities (that do not come cheap though).
My usual destination was the American Museum of Natural History on 79th Street and Central Park West where you can get in just by paying a symbolic fee and the kids are always so excited to see the dinosaurs rooms or, even better, the big hall with the whale hanging on the ceiling.
The attached Rose Center for Earth & Space is also worth a quick visit and then, if hungry, we would head to the cafeteria located on the underground level where the kids menu is all you need. In summer time do not expect to be alone though. The museum is under siege by flocks of tourists so walking your way through them is quite challenging and can get you easily tired and… frustrated. Well, you will quickly become an impatient New Yorker too…However if you manage to get there rather early in the morning and enter through the space wing located on the back side along Columbus Avenue, by the time it gets crowded, you are done.
Option number two was the Children's Museum of Manhattan on 83rd street where the entrance fee is not discretional but not too expensive either.
My kids really love this place which is basically a big playground on 4 levels with different educational sections that, in case of my kids, are totally ignored. I love it less and every time they ask me to go there I get goose bumps because the idea of finding myself surrounded by a countless number of frolicking kids yelling and squealing is how I picture hell. However, this is my job so after ten minutes of breathing exercises I would give myself in and escort the boys where you shouldn't go if you are still hesitating about motherhood.
My favorite floor is the underground level where there is a contained play area so you can simply stand or even sit by the entrance without becoming cross-eyed, trying to keep a visual contact with your kids who are, otherwise, disappearing amid the crowd.
On my daily outings with the boys, I would often bump into groups of children wearing colourful shirts, giggling and happily playing under the attentive supervision of young counsellors. They were all attending summer camps, a few weeks of fun activities starting right after the end of school and organised by various institutions. Many times, while chasing, in sweat, my kids on their scooters, I asked myself: “Why didn't I think about a damned summer camp? Wouldn't it be easier for me, for them, for us?”
A really pointless question because, first, when we arrived, it was too late to register to any of them and, second, even if given the chance, I would have opted out of it. The transition from Montreal to New York City had been, on a different level, an emotional challenge for the kids too. Therefore, we had to go through our first weeks of adjustment to our new environment together. When everything changes around them they only have me as their steady reference and I must softly guide them towards their new life until they’re comfortable enough to fly alone.