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Aug 25

Why I Left New York By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC-S

I was keen to stay home and raise our three children. Happily, in New York City, where we were living in the 80s and 90s, it made more economic sense for me to quit work.

But this choice was fraught: women in New York who leave their jobs to raise their children generally vaporize into the suburbs, and the few who stay end up feeling awkward and isolated in the parks and playgrounds among paid caretakers. Such mothers become invisible. Stripped of a CAREER, a woman loses her identity. The first question anyone asks at a party is, of course: “What do you do?” Motherhood was not a respected full-time vocation; it was not PC.

Fortunately, by the time I had three children, a couple of years apart, we had moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, a “softer” borough where I managed to find a handful of other mothers. But as time went on, and our first two children entered first grade and preschool, we could no longer keep up. Because of the marginal neighborhood in which we lived, we had to send the kids to a private school nearby in Park Slope. With a third giant tuition looming, we began planning to move. Besides, I was exhausted from hauling three children—one in a backpack, one in a stroller and one on foot—on daily errands, to recreational activities, and to pediatrician visits in Manhattan on the subway. My husband traveled non-stop, so the child-rearing fell to me. We didn’t own a car. I cannot count how many times the middle child jumped out of the stroller, causing it to upend from the weight of groceries hanging from the handle. A dozen eggs smashed, again.

Our decision to move accelerated one spring when all the residents of our coop building collectively planted a beautiful garden out front. Our once-grand building, the Copley Plaza, circa 1920, had fallen into disrepair. The marble, brass and mirrored lobby was cracked and fading, the doorman geriatric, his uniform askew. The place needed a facelift. But the next morning, the garden was gone: stripped bare, the plants uprooted and stolen. Ugly, cavernous holes and gnarled, errant roots greeted our bedraggled doorman, Albert, as he arrived for work. Although we got back on the horse, replanting the garden—this time, with deeply buried chains tethering each shrub—the emotional damage was done. I’d had enough.

When the children were seven, five and two, we moved to Austin: a cushy landing in 1993. We moved to a tranquil, older suburb, complete with greenbelt. We had a real house, a fenced-in backyard and a school bus stop right at the top of our cove. Public school was now an option. We finally got a dog.

At first, I was relieved. It was PC in Texas to raise one’s own children. Then I began to feel strange, like I’d landed on Mars. Suburbia was so very clean. Lawns and people were manicured. Cars were shiny, fresh from the carwash. The women, solo and clad in stylish tennis garb, piloted giant Suburbans with one hand, clutching a Starbucks latte in the other. When I attended my first Booster Club meeting, the pre-chatter was all about back-splashes. I had no idea what a back-splash was, and to this day I don’t have one.

But I have adjusted. We’ve launched our children and I’ve painstakingly, obligingly, re-invented myself. I inhale the big sky. I eat lots of Mexican food. I hike daily with my dog. And I dream, sometimes, of Brooklyn.