Living in the city—any city—has a way of instilling a certain sense of pride in a person. And I don't mean the endearing kind of pride, like an excitable sports fan or a doting parent. I mean the kind of self-righteous, sneering pride that makes promises it can't keep simply to uphold its reputation. My promise as a city-dweller was that I would never, ever move my (yet-to-be-established) family to the suburbs.
I envisioned my forthcoming children like tiny, human versions of Curious George, roaming the safe, sunny streets surrounding my urban oasis, all the while co-parented by convivial neighbors and endeared to whatever version of nature our city, Minneapolis, had to offer that season. We would frequent farmers markets on weekends, and the baristas at our local third-wave coffee shop would always know our order (assuming we could afford it after our mortgage payment). I would drink white wine on a patio with ample twinkle-lights while my kids played quietly in their rooms — and we definitely wouldn't own a television. My life with kids in the city would be cosmopolitan and precious, an extension of the life I had already been living, and loved.
And then came actual parenting, the great equalizer—the thing about which absolutely nothing is cosmopolitan or precious (unless you're the fictional families in Curious George's apartment complex and/or Princess Kate). But I didn't realize that my version of convenience was selfish until I reached the very frayed end of my rope. Suddenly, I was two kids (including one very active toddler) into parenting in an under-900-square-foot apartment, and our world felt very, very—for back of a better word—crammed. (And a crammed life does not a happy toddler make.)
In the beginning, the promise I made to build a family in the city was fairly simple to keep, in large part due to the ease of getting around with an infant attached to your body. Even in winter months (remember, this is Minneapolis), I would trudge daily through the snow to get my prized iced latte (I'll explain my cold-drinks-in-winter habit another time) with my infant in tow. Even happy hours consisting of a reasonable number of margaritas weren't off limits. If he could ride in the baby carrier, I would go. Barring unexpected bodily fluids and a very long string of sleepless nights, life with one small child in the city was a breeze, and I will probably always be nostalgic for it.
"Life with one small child in the city was a breeze, and I will probably always be nostalgic for it."
When we decided to have a second baby, we didn't immediately entertain the thought of moving. We rented a two-bedroom apartment we loved down the street from my husband's downtown office in an irresponsibly expensive neighborhood. My three-year-old son had his own room, just big enough for his bed and toys. The baby could live with us in the master since he'd be waking up at night a lot anyway, and if worst came to worst, we could just move his crib to our walk-in closet. Since our older son went to daycare, we figured he had enough time during the week to run around, so who needed a yard? Besides, there were plenty of walkable destinations in our neighborhood. At that time, moving into a house with two crazy kids seemed like a distant dream, in part because we were spending almost all our money on that apartment. We were fine. Until we weren't.
Life with two kids wasn't as rocky of an adjustment as I thought—and our sleeping arrangement in our little apartment worked fine, until the baby contraptions started to accumulate. (Note to future parents: Even if you promise yourself you will only buy sustainable wooden toys from the south of France, somehow, invasive plastic baby accessories will magically appear in your place of dwelling, and on bad days they will talk and play music. Plan your space and choice of beverage accordingly.) And then my infant son started to get bigger, and soon after, mobile. By this point our posh little apartment seemed unreasonable, annoying, and maybe a little unfair to our kids. We may not have needed tons of space, but it was becoming clear that they would be so much happier if they had it. So instead of renewing our lease, we began to search for a house—as luck would have it—in the most lopsided real estate market since we had had children.
At first, in our trademark idealism, we kept our search area small. There were two or three neighborhoods in Minneapolis we wanted to be in: They all had an abundance of craft beverages readily available and were somewhat walkable. They had good enough schools, were easy to get to from downtown, and were close to our friends' houses. But between our high expectations and our low price range, we had tremendous difficulty securing a house that would work for our family. Often, the reasonably-priced homes got snatched hours after they were listed, so we wouldn't even get the chance to look at them, especially since viewing houses with kids requires both a significant amount of schedule juggling and patience.
"Were we really willing to shell out that much money for that little space just for a zip code? Just to inflate my pride?"
When our realtor encouraged us to broaden our search to some neighborhoods at the edge of the city, we reluctantly agreed. My husband could ride the train into work, and I would be fine driving short distances with the kids when we needed to go somewhere. At this point, even though the amenities I thought I needed were a bit farther out of my reach, my cosmopolitan lifestyle (read: my pride) remained somewhat intact. As we scouted houses in these less-hip (but still city) neighborhoods, we were discouraged to see they weren't really that much cheaper than the neighborhoods we really wanted to be in. And for the price we'd be paying—at or above our max, plus astronomical property taxes—we weren't getting much more space than we already had. Sure, at least there would be a yard, but not with space for a jungle gym or sandbox. Were we really willing to shell out that much money for that little space just for a zip code? Just to inflate my pride?
One Sunday afternoon, I was particularly discouraged about the house search. We had made half a dozen offers on houses that would suffice, but never had an offer accepted. I knew what my core values were—convenience primarily—but it felt like we couldn't afford to do what was most comfortable for me and what was best for our kids. If we wanted a big yard (and a happy toddler) in a "cool" neighborhood, we'd have to make twice the money we were making. So I had two choices: Stay in our apartment until we could afford something ideal in the city, or expand our search to—gulp—the suburbs.
After wallowing for a little bit about the houses on Zillow we couldn't afford, I typed in the zip code of a first-ring suburb just northeast of downtown Minneapolis. I had gone to college there and remembered there were a lot of parks and lakes in the area, which had always felt peaceful and somewhat convenient to the city. It also had a lot of Targets, which, let's be honest, should have been a non-negotiable from the beginning. One house caught my eye right away: It was recently updated, had a lot of space, and behind it, there was a monstrous, fenced-in yard with a giant maple tree. Objectively, I knew this suburban house was the stuff of someone's dreams, it just wasn't necessarily mine (yet).
The hard conversation came when I showed the listing to my husband, whose eyes glistened as I scrolled through the pictures of the space (which I'll admit looked increasingly attractive as I eyed the three baby jumpers strewn about our tiny living room). "This isn't that far from the city," my husband reasoned. "And besides, a suburb this big is kind of like a city, so you'd have everything you need fairly close by. We should think about it." I laughed. If you've bought a house in a market like this, you know that unfortunately, there isn't really time to think about things. We had to act soon. Our lease was about to end, and we were emotionally exhausted by making offers on houses we knew we could never get. So I texted our realtor, who showed it to us the next morning. We made an offer that afternoon, it was accepted that night, and by the next morning, I had anxiety.
"We made an offer that afternoon, it was accepted that night, and by the next morning, I had anxiety."
"Think about how great that yard will be for the boys," my husband told me as I listed my grievances at the breakfast table. "Yeah, but think about how far we'll be from good coffee and real food," I replied smugly, mentally counting the number of Applebee's and Chili's within a ten mile radius of our new house. "Our kids will be so much happier in that house, Ashley. Maybe that means you will be, too."
My pride visibly deflated as I realized he was right. For the three years of my life as a mother, I had elevated my comfort above my kids', assuming that if I was happy, they would be too. But when I think about the moments I have experienced pure, unbridled joy, I'm not holding a $7 latte or glass of wine. I'm holding my kids, giving myself to them. I'm doing what I can to make their lives vibrant and colorful, and my own joy is a byproduct. I'm happy because my family is happy, not the other way around. And if that's in our perfect-for-us 3-bedroom rambler with a backyard even I couldn't have dreamed up, then I'm for it. Even in the suburbs.