Mama in the City

Mama in the City

The toughest part of mothering a toddler in New York City isn’t finding a babysitter who doesn’t cost half your income or fighting for time on playground swings.

It’s navigating the subways with a stroller.

I envy my sister and brother, who both live in the suburbs and drive their kids to the grocery store, to swim classes, to playdates. They pop them in the car in climate-controlled comfort, put on some music, and go. To me, that is only-to-be-there territory.

There are many wonderful things about being a parent in the city, of course, which is why I live here. Lucas’s friends are of all colors and economic backgrounds. I’m not the only mama he knows who’s gay. We don’t have a backyard, but we do have vast parks. We have easy access to the penguins at the zoo, the vegetables in the community garden, and the daily, quirky parade of humanity that is Manhattan.

But then there is the subway.

In summer, subway platforms are hot, often 10 degrees hotter than the swelter outside. In winter, they’re cold. In all seasons, there are rats. And because I’m anti-device, at least for my child, the only thing occupying him on long rides is me. I pull faces. I sing songs. I tell stories. I feel like an always-on birthday clown trying to entertain a party of one.

But worst of all is simply getting to the train—because most subway stations don’t have elevators.

Oh, the big ones do, like Times Square, or Columbus Circle, or 125th Street— but often they’re out of service, or someone has recently urinated inside. But most don’t, like my own stop, in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan.

Which means on this Monday morning, I’m carefully maneuvering Lucas’s stroller down the grimy stairs, bouncing down one step at a time.

“Bumpy, Mama!” he says.

I balance him on the stroller’s back wheels and peek at him in the stroller. “You OK, buddy?”

“Yes?” he says. But his face looks worried. He’s 2½, and everything makes him a little anxious these days.

Occasionally, Lucas will do the stairs himself, but it’s an ordeal. I have to unbuckle him; I need to balance his diaper bag in the stroller and then guide it with one hand while holding his tiny paw in my other. Sometimes, it scares him to walk on the steps, particularly if a crowd is rushing up or down, and so he stops still and cries for me to carry him.

On this day, a young man jogs down next to us. “That looks tough,” he says. “Go, Mom!”

He flexes his arm, paying tribute, I suppose, to my strength.

I sigh.

I’m a native New Yorker (not from the city, from the suburbs), which means that I don’t like to ask for help. No one else needs to take responsibility for my kiddo but me. Still, I’m struggling. Lucas’s donor was 6’4”—he’s a big child.

A few other men zip down as if they don’t see us. But the next person to approach us is an older woman, maybe in her 70s. “I remember those days,” she says. “Let me help.”

I do.

She lifts the stroller by the footrest, I take the handlebars, and we gently walk him down the stairs, just in time for the train to pull in. She smiles at my thanks, gives a little wave over her shoulder, and dashes into a subway car.

This is what always happens. It’s women who help us up staircases, who help us down, who open the heavy subway entrance doors for us and hold the elevator, when there is one. Tiny women, elderly women, women who don’t speak my language, but gesture with hands and eyes and smiles. It’s women who play peekaboo with Lucas on crowded subway cars, and women who retrieve his toy trucks when he drops (or throws) them.

I couldn’t be a mama in the city without these female strangers. They make me feel like I’m part of a community of mothers. They remind me that people, even in a place as big as New York, are kinder than we expect. I chose this life—but they make it possible.

Jennifer Vanasco ’94 is an editor and theater critic for WNYC public radio. She lives with her son, Lucas, (and a Wellesley roommate!) in Manhattan.

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