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The Suburb Not Taken

City or subdivision: Where’s the best place to raise kids?

Marjorie Ingall
August 09, 2010
(Welcome to the suburbs photo by Ian Forrester; some rights reserved.)
(Welcome to the suburbs photo by Ian Forrester; some rights reserved.)

My kids are frolicking in green. Everything around us is green—huge verdant lawns, graceful willow trees. Every day, Josie and Maxie take a yellow school bus past green cornfields and farm stands brimming with fresh tomatoes and pickling cucumbers.

It’s beautiful here in Wisconsin, where we’re visiting my in-laws for a couple of weeks. My kids love the local JCC camp because it has a Wibit, a giant inflatable obstacle course in the lake that is apparently the coolest thing ever made in the course of human history. On weekends, they go to the JCC pool, which has its own water park, featuring a series of slippery frog-shaped semisubmerged lily pads you traverse by clinging to a rope suspended above the pool. There’s a climbing wall arcing high over the water—if you fall from the wall, you land in the pool, sometimes upside down or sideways. There are a million fabulous, fun ways to hurt yourself in Jewish Wisconsin. Such glories would never fly in litigious NYC.

After dinner, the kids race out the back door. My in-laws’ yard is huge and the grass is pillowy and the lawns blend one into the next. It’s just like The Backyardigans. There are no gates, no fences. The house behind my in-laws’ has a huge swing set and a tree house. The one two doors over has a backyard trampoline. The kids run barefoot through the yards of the subdivision, other kids joining in and peeling away, everyone playing with friendly dogs and shrieking.

Some mornings, Jonathan gets up at 4 a.m. to go fishing with his dad on Lake Michigan. He brings home lake trout, coho and chinook salmon. It’s like he’s a goy. We drive to the smokehouse and, voilà, we have break-fast after Yom Kippur covered. And our friends and relatives’ break-fasts, too.

All the moms here have perfect manicures and wear gym pants when they drop their kids at the camp bus stop with a kiss. There are no dads at the bus. There are no nannies. Everyone I have talked to in the past week has been Jewish, with the possible exception of the guy who scooped our frozen custard. (His name tag did say “Neil,” so who can say.) Jewish day camp here costs a quarter of what it does in NYC.

My in-laws’ home is the only place my children have seen wall-to-wall carpet. When Maxie was younger, she used to sit dreamily in the middle of my sister-in-law Ellen’s huge childhood bedroom, doing nothing but digging her fingers into the bubble-gum-pink plush pile, brushing it back and forth with the flat of her small hand. At home, she sleeps in a bunk bed in a room the size of a veal pen. Here, she and Josie could each have their own room. They’d never have to step over a mostly empty 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor or a puddle of vomit on the stoop.

The other day Josie said, “Why can’t we live here?” Jonathan replied, “Well, it’s fun when you’re little. But when you get older, there’s not a lot to do. You can’t go anywhere unless someone drives you. You can’t bike to your friend’s house in the winter. When you’re a teenager, you can’t have a job unless you have a car.” Josie pondered this and decided: “Let’s live here until I’m 10.”

Seeing the kids’ bliss, I can’t help thinking about the trade-offs we’ve made. As Jonathan is fond of saying, “In New York City, the hard things are easy and the easy things are hard.” Just getting groceries in Manhattan is a thing. In Wisconsin, you drive to a big Trader Joe’s with a big parking lot and big aisles and push your big cart (and they give your kid a balloon) and you drive home and unload the groceries from your two-car garage into your kitchen. In the East Village, we lug a finger-pinching wheelie on uneven sidewalks and teeth-rattling curbs to a sardine-packed T.J.’s, then plan to stay home for our two-hour delivery window, what with not having a doorman. Jonathan and I work so hard and yet we’re barely getting by. If we lived in this subdivision, we could have a huge house and vacations. And my nails would look awesome.

But I ache thinking about what I’d give up. I love the diversity of my kids’ school, its progressiveness, the fact that it’s a block from my house. I love the quirky public art events on Governor’s Island and gallery shows like the one we just saw, in which an artist asked all his girlfriends to make him a cake and then photographed it—a chronicle of a romantic life in pastry. I love the fact that as teenagers my kids will never drive drunk. I love that no one blinks at families with two dads and that the parents of Maxie’s best pal speak Arabic at home. I love that we live in the heart of Jewish immigrant history, and Josie shares my obsession with the Triangle Factory Fire and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. I love that the other day at 8:45 a.m. on First Avenue, a Japanese man with long hair, a top hat, tails, and teeny-tiny bike shorts smiled at me. I smiled back, and he flipped up a little sign around his neck that said, “Your smile is beautiful.” In NYC, I have strange, wonderful moments of connection like that all the time.

Wisconsin is a warm bath; NYC is a leap into an icy rock pool. Wisconsin is a promised land of comfort and ease beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams. I think about the 1930s and 1940s, when refugees from Europe were figuring out where to go: America or Palestine? They too could choose soothing or invigorating. Either choice was valid. But Jonathan and I identify with the folks who chose vigilance and effort. Ultimately, more often than not, we feel purified and engaged by the struggle. Our kids, in their veal-pen room, do gain a pluralistic, mind-expanding education. It’s terrible not to be shielded from homelessness and mental illness, but it’s also thought-provoking: The need for tikkun olam is right in your dewy, open little face. It’s never theoretical.

Roads are constantly diverging into yellow (or in this case, green) woods—I’d never presume to tell someone else which one to travel by. But for now, we intend to stay on ours.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.