06 Apr City Mouse, Country Mouse
On a warm day over spring break, I watched as my two kids roamed around a friend’s backyard — a rambling yard, perfect for kids. Thickets to be turned into hiding places, trees to climb, a creek for tossing an entire loaf of stale bread to the neighborhood ducks. My two year old flopped on his belly on the little dock at the creek, staring into the water, reaching for its surface. As I stood amongst the kids, my boots sinking into the mud, I couldn’t help but wonder about our family leading a life more like this. A green yard, a house. Freedom to lie in the grass or dip fingers in a muddy creek. Plenty of closet space and a kitchen bigger than a small alleyway! Neighbors would not be heard passing in the hallway, but off in the distance, across yards. And my two boys would tumble about in the outdoors, happy as puppies.
But along with these notions of a more idyllic life, there would also be the commuting, the maintenance of a house, and the heat to keep it warm all winter with its four walls, unattached to anything else. There would be the solitude of driving the long roads into town, alone, in one’s car to do errands and get groceries and look for other like-minded humans. I pictured myself staring out the windows of my imaginary house, looking for signs of life beyond the squirrels and the birds. I grew up in a small town and, since it was the 70s, my three brothers and I lived with an unsupervised kind of liberty. When we flew through the screen door of the house, down the steps to the yard, the neighborhood was entirely ours. The meadow down the street was boggy and full of thick, hay-like grass. We knew every glacial rock and tree in those few acres — all the divots and turns for playing hide and seek. We rode our bikes everywhere (without helmets or bike locks, back in the olden days). And we walked a half mile in any direction to visit our friends’ houses. We knew all the alternate routes through the town’s backyards. We knew which neighbors had a mean streak, and we knew how much a dollar would buy us in candy at the drugstore.
I took these Polaroid-hued memories of childhood entirely for granted until I became a mom myself. I was shocked in those first months of motherhood — like so many moms, I’d spent years of my adult life building a career! And suddenly I found myself in charge of this tiny creature who was as remarkable to me as he was needy. Leisure time, time alone — vanished. All I knew to do on maternity leave was to tuck baby Shiloh into the stroller so we could walk the city for hours, escaping the quiet of our apartment. Gradually I adjusted to this new life — and my long walks all over Boston helped me to settle into a more balanced place. Over those months of new babyhood, Shiloh and I became experts together. We learned one neighborhood after another. Playgrounds and cafes. Toy stores and bookstores. The Commons, the Seaport. Three different branches of the Boston Public Library! We were explorers, learning the city together.
This is one of the most wonderful things about a city — the streets that unfold, one upon another, the way you can go so quickly from worn out apartment buildings to narrow streets filled with brownstones. And if you’ve got a baby in tow as you travel between micro-cultures, then you also have the key to interacting and making friends along the way. Everyone loves a baby, especially one who raises a fat arm and breaks into a gummy grin to greet you. And Shiloh loved everyone right back, curious and social as he was even from the seat of his stroller.
So as my boots sunk further into the mud on that late winter day and the kids played in the wet yard, a part of me winced at how what worried me most about moving to the ‘burbs was my fear of being secluded and also entirely dependent on the car. As a parent, you live in a field of constant choices — what to feed your children, how to guide them toward play and creativity and away from that nemesis of too much screen-time. And then there’s the choice of where to live that gains traction as our kids start entering school. Year after year, our family keeps choosing to stay in the city. It’s not an easy or immediate choice, but it continues to be where we most want to make our home.
Advent has become an anchor in our city life. In a healthier and more just world, all schools would be more Advent-like. And I wish that going through the BPS lottery system four years in a row had felt more fruitful or promising (we have never been placed in any of our top choices).
We are grateful, though, to have found a place that so values diversity and dialogue. We were struck on our very first visit to the school by the emphasis on social justice — it was announced to us by the class projects on display in the Parents Center and the emphasis on change-makers. The Advent curriculum engages with the city itself — the social history of the city and even how a school like Advent came to be, back in the 60s. And the level of engagement we’ve seen between Shiloh and his teachers is remarkable to us as a family. He is working with teachers who are so talented and inventive and he thrives in his relationships with them, too. What he is learning in class is reflected back into our family life on a daily basis. At the dinner table, Shiloh has taught us about monarch butterflies and Frida Kahlo and the rain forest and Rosa Parks — to name a few lessons that have struck a chord in him.
Advent is an investment. It is not one that our family can make without pause and deliberation — and it is not without sacrifice. The social implications, as well, are not lost on us — Boston is among the many cities that keeps losing its middle class families to the suburbs as housing costs stay high and families seek high-performing school systems. But for now, Advent has allowed us to keep building our life within the city — and this means no one is commuting to and fro, spending hours in the car or on the train just to get home again. Quality of life is so much higher for us if we can all be together for those end-of-day hours. These hours are often chaotic and messy, to be sure. The seven year old chases the two year old around the couch. The two year old trips and falls. Mom and Dad try to enjoy a glass of wine or even hear each other over the dinner. But at least we are together! We have the time, as a family, to talk and eat and plan the next adventure together.
The rambling, green yard will have to wait a bit longer, years longer maybe. And my kids will make their own maps of childhood, city maps, with places to hide, places to get into mischief and places to make their own. Lately, my two year old toddles past his many toys and goes right to the kitchen, pulling out pots and pans, banging on them with a spoon, making a healthy ruckus. Kids are endlessly inventive and it is goodness at home and goodness at school that nurtures them, wherever home and school may be.