A few thoughts on what it means to leave a home

On Friday afternoon at 3pm we pulled out of Philadelphia—sweaty, tired, and with our clothes streaked with grime from a day spent moving boxes.  We nosed into Poconos traffic going West on I-76, headed for a week’s stay with my dad before we drive to Ann Arbor next Monday.  The bumper-to-bumper pace didn’t make for a triumphant departure from the city, but after weeks of scrambling from one moving-related chore to the next, it felt good to have nothing left to do but drive.

The previous night Caroline, Jay, Wally, and I had gone over to a friend’s house where we’d had a last supper of sorts: pizza from Gusto on paper plates.  We walked home slowly in the cool summer night (a thunderstorm had just passed through).  As we rounded the corner onto 20th street, Caroline, who’s felt the impending move more acutely than I have, said that in five years Philadelphia had become home, and that on a gut level, it made no sense to her that we were leaving.

I had not put it in exactly those words before, but I agreed with Caroline completely.  I might not be able to say exactly what makes a home, but there’s no doubt that Philadelphia had become one for us.  The next afternoon, as we drove north to my dad’s, I thought about what it means when we say that a place has become home.  The first thought that came to mind was a moment from the last place I’d lived before moving to Philadelphia, at a time in life when I felt just about as far from home as I’ve ever been.

It was a morning in October 2005 and I was standing beside a busy intersection in Varanasi, India, watching the tumult of the morning commute: rickshaws and bullock carts, four-axle trucks, shiny SUVs, diesel-belching buses, and pedestrians all whirling together.  The scene was so unfamiliar, so dizzyingly chaotic, that it felt almost like the world was being created right before my eyes.

After a moment, though, it occurred to me that if I came back to that intersection every morning, eventually I’d begin to make out the patterns of daily life—bus drivers, sidewalk merchants, rickshaw peddlers who came that way every day.   It’s the first time I remember consciously thinking about the value of staying put, and standing there in my hiking boots and my oversized backpack, I found myself wanting the sense of place that I imagined the people in front of me had.

And that’s what I’m going to miss most about our lives in Philadelphia.  After five years living on the same street in the same apartment, I knew the lay of the land around me better than at any time since I’d left home for college.

I could tell the difference between Saturday, Sunday, and Monday mornings by the number of cars passing outside my window, and when I’d run through the city at night I could have told you what day of the week it was by the number of people sitting at sidewalk tables.  I knew Mrs. Kim who sold produce, the hipsters who sold hardware, and the mail carrier who on hot days went to work with a towel around his neck and a white safari hat atop his head.  I knew that every weekday afternoon at 5pm the same five moms and the same five toddlers could be counted on to come out to the park to play.

It’s hard to assess the value of something like waving hello each morning to a neighborhood friend whose last name I didn’t even know, but something about that type of interaction, multiplied across my days, gave me a greater sense of ease and satisfaction than almost any other experience I’ve ever had.

And this, I think, begins to get at what makes having a family so rewarding.  In the same way that I loved being able to tell the difference between Saturday and Sunday morning by the number of cars going by on Pine Street, I love being able to read in Jay’s body language how close he is to needing a nap. I love knowing that as I type Jay is asleep in the room down the hall and Wally is upstairs in his bassinet and Caroline is right beside me. I love the small-scale rhythms and routines of the four of us waking and working, eating and sleeping together.

So sometime late next Monday night when we exit I-94 and lay our bleary eyes on Ann Arbor for the first time as a family, I imagine I’ll be thinking both of Philadelphia, which is where I learned what it means to make a home, and of Jay and Wally, whose presence in the backseat means that when we begin to lay down tracks in our new city, we won’t be starting from scratch.

A glimpse into the method behind Jay’s madness

A funny moment this morning involving Jay had me thinking of one of my favorite movie scenes, from Throw Momma from the Train.  Larry (Billy Crystal) is a bitter ex-husband and Owen (Danny DeVito) is a soft middle-aged man who lives with his verbally abusive mother.  The two men become entangled when they strike a deal inspired by the “criss-cross” in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train: Larry agrees to kill Owen’s mom if Owen will kill Larry’s ex-wife.

Larry and Owen spend a lot of time together as they try to carry out their bumbling plan.  This grates on Larry, who disdains Owen as a loser and fears (correctly) that the association brands him as a loser, too.  One day the two are hanging out when Owen says he wants to show Larry his coin collection.  Larry refuses, but when Owen says “Never showed it to anyone before,” he relents out of guilt.  The following heartbreaking exchange takes place:

Owen: This one is a nickel. This one also is a nickel.  And here’s a quarter. And another quarter. And a penny.  Nickel. Nickel. Quarter. Quarter. Penny.

Larry: Are any of these coins worth anything?

Owen: No.

Larry: Why do you have them?

Owen: What do you mean?

Larry: Well, the purpose of a coin collection is that the coins are worth something Owen.

Owen: Oh, but they are.  This one here I got in change when my dad took me to see Peter, Paul, and Mary.  And this one I got in change when I bought a hot dog at the circus.  My daddy let me keep the change.  He always let me keep the change.


Jay is too young to have a coin collection (in fact he can’t even be trusted not to swallow a penny), but already he’s developed his own idiosyncratic idea of value.

This morning while Jay was at school Caroline and I packed up his things in advance of our move on Friday.  We stuffed his books into boxes and his clothes into bags, and then we came to his plastic ride-along fire truck.  Jay loves to sit on the truck and propel himself around his bedroom, calling back over his shoulder, “I go to the supermarket [sooop-a-mahket!],” and showing off how fast he can go.  Riding on the truck makes him feel powerful, I think, like a boy who commands the world.

Jay’s favorite feature of the fire truck, though, is a small compartment beneath the seat, which intuitively he recognizes as a good place to keep special things.  This morning Caroline opened the compartment looking for stray Legos to pack away.  When she saw what was actually inside she laughed, and then sighed, and then called me over to have a look.  Here’s what Jay had collected:

  • The spare tire that had broken off of his favorite model car.
  • Three wooden people that he only gets to play with every now and then as a special treat (because we’re afraid he’ll lose them)
  • An old car key that we gave him after our car was stolen last year
  • A plastic butterfly that had once served as a cake decoration
  • A brown squirrel finger puppet that usually resides in the pocket of a quilt that hangs on his wall.  (I have no idea how Jay got his hands on it.)

It was a hodgepodge of things, all trivial at a glance.  But as soon I thought about it, I understood why Jay had chosen these out of all objects to squirrel away; it was clear what, through a toddler’s eyes, might have marked them as special.

It broke my heart to see Jay’s treasure chest, in the same way it breaks my heart every time I watch the scene of Owen with his coin collection: Owen are Jay are both vulnerable people and the world is a harsh place, and the more Jay cares—the more deeply he feels—the more potential he has to get hurt.

At the same time, I found this glimpse into Jay’s world exhilarating.  I spend hours every day watching Jay, but looking inside the fire truck’s secret compartment made me realize how much goes on right before my eyes that I don’t perceive.  If you’d asked me yesterday what Jay stores in his fire truck I would have said “Any old thing he happens to be holding when the fancy strikes him.”  But seeing the purpose to his collecting was a reminder that while Jay’s behavior may appear random and the things he says may sound like non-sequiturs, beneath his chaotic surface a person is forming.





Jay falls in love with his Grammy

The defining moment of our  week at the lake with Caroline’s parents took place last Monday morning, in their driveway.  We were loading up for a 45-minute drive to visit some family friends when Jay declared: “I want to ride with Grammy.”

“But the car seat is already in our car,” I explained.

“I want to ride with Grammy,” Jay repeated, and after a minute he got his way

At a stop sign Caroline leaned out the passenger side window and took a picture of Jay riding up ahead

The exchange was notable for how much Jay has changed in a year.  When we visited Caroline’s parents at the lake last year the mere suggestion of being left alone with Grammy was enough to send then 15-month-old Jay into hysterics.  Twice Grammy tried to take him for an early morning breakfast so Caroline and I could sleep in.  Both times the experimented ended with Jay screaming his way back into bed with us.

But a year later Jay knows a good thing when he sees it.  This past week he and Grammy went to the supermarket together, to the beach together, sat on the floor for hours making tall towers out of blocks together, perfected their swan walk together, and generally hung close like two people who had found in each other the exact person in the world they want to be spending time with.

Caroline and I discussed Jay’s growing comfort with a wider range of people as we followed her parent’s car down Virginia Route 3.  It was a strange feeling to be talking and driving without Jay in the car.   With Wally so quiet in the backseat you could easily imagine he wasn’t there, Caroline and I felt for a moment like empty nesters.

We agreed it made us proud to see Jay off on his own—proud that he is a little more grown-up and a little more independent, and proud, too, to see Caroline’s mom delight in the company of our effervescent son.

But I also told Caroline that I felt a little wistful watching Jay’s world expand.  I imagined Jay riding up ahead, having an experience all is own: taking in the sights and smells of an unfamiliar car, listening to the rhythms and tones of voices that are less familiar than my or Caroline’s, thrilling on a sub-conscious level to being away from Mom and Dad.

Jay with Grammy: Hard to say who's got the bigger smile

Thinking about Jay with his Grammy reminded me of the role my own grandparents played in introducing me to independence.  Before I had real friends, or a girlfriend, or my own family, I had my grandparents, Joan and Art, who were just far enough removed from my parents to give me the space to begin to see myself.

They were the first people I talked with regularly on the phone, the first people I traveled by myself to visit, the first people I thought might understand me better than my parents did.  Eventually the room I needed to grow went beyond the experiences I could have with them, but for a while—maybe until I was 10 or 11—the world seemed expansive when we were together.

It made me proud of Jay that he’s ready to begin developing his own relationships, and happy that there are so many people on both sides of our family who are excited to form those relationships with him.  But at the same time there were moments this past week at the lake when I felt a touch of jealousy at how thick Jay’s become with his Grammy—jealous, even though I know it’s silly, that there are things he gets from her that he doesn’t get from me.

So it was, then, that after we’d returned from the car trip, and after Jay had been put to bed, my heart did a little dance when Jay woke up crying in the night and the first words out of his mouth were “I want Daddy.”


“A Great Storm Cometh”

We departed Fitler Square at 7pm tonight in a good mood: Jay was riding happily along on his tricyle, Wally was asleep in his carrier, and Caroline and I were buoyed by a successful afternoon in the park.  Jay had run and played and made friends with a boy named Gabriel while we’d chatted with our good friends Paul and Ceci.  And in the end when we said it was time to go home, Jay boarded his trike without objection.  As we walked home through the twilight, any reasonable observer would have said that our seventh-to-last night in Philadelphia was going to be reckoned a good one.

But storytellers who recount this evening will intone: The writing was on the wall. They’ll say in an ominous voice that The Toddler had awoken from his nap an hour earlier than usual, and add by way of background, “He wasn’t the kind of boy who does well when he hasn’t had enough sleep.”  They’ll point out the folly of staying at the park half-an-hour past dinner time. They’ll note that the Infant Wally had slept through his afternoon snack and was beginning to stir with hunger even as his mother considered him asleep.  And they’ll sigh when they describe the smiles on the two parents’ faces as they pulled up to their apartment: happy and content, the very picture of human tragedy.

The first hint of trouble came in the hallway. Caroline and I climbed the stairs to our apartment and unlocked the door, expecting that Jay was right behind us.  But when we turned he was nowhere to be seen.

Caroline called back, “Jay, are you coming?”

From the bottom of the stairs Jay whined, “I wanted to do the keys.”  He was silent right after that, and standing in the entrance to our apartment where we couldn’t see him, Caroline and I wondered if Jay was now climbing the stairs or if the silence was instead because he was preparing to cry and couldn’t breathe.  I said to Caroline: “How could he be about to cry? What could possibly be wrong?”

But it was an open-mouth cry, of the kind that will be recounted in family lore, decades later, when The Toddler is old and will be able to say he can’t remember the last time he shed a tear. 

The quiet persisted for five seconds, then ten.  The father and mother stepped back into the hallway.  There at the bottom of the stairs, rooted in place, was The Toddler with his mouth wide, his face a deepening shade of purple, and tears pooling in the corners of his eyes.  With a gasp he let it wail, deep and long and heart-broken, a cry to obliviate the words coming from his mouth—something about how all he’d wanted in the world was to be the one to unlock the door.

Caroline and I ignored the tantrum. We’ve done this successfully before.  It isn’t fun to listen to Jay scream but we knew he’d get through it.  Most of the time these things burn themselves out—eventually Jay comes into the apartment sniffling a little, but otherwise acting like nothing had happened.  Plus, the time he spent crumpled in a heap at the bottom of the stairs actually made it easier for us to set the table and heat up dinner (Indian leftovers).

Later people would say that the cry lasted for so long that there were children born who never knew a world without The Toddler’s wail. Finally, with dinner cooling on the table, the weary father climbed down the stairs and took the distraught Toddler in his arms.  As the father carried The Toddler through the living room, The Toddler’s wailing penetrated the soft spot in the head of the Infant Wally.  The Infant Wally had found an uneasy calm at the breast, but now he detached from his dinner and joined His Brother in a choral cry.

The Father carried The Toddler into the bathroom.  He pried the crying boy’s fingers apart and washed them.  When he was done he carried The Toddler into The Other Room and he soothed him.

Eventually Jay was calm enough that he was willing to be put in his seat. Wally was content on the bed now that Jay was finally quiet.  We gave Jay a bowl of Indian food, his own spoon, and a cup of water.  Jay promptly dumped his Indian food into his water and began to stir it.  Usually this would get a reaction out of me, but by this point I was just glad that he was quiet.  Caroline and I started to eat our dinners.  It wasn’t exactly a pleasant meal but I figured at least we were going to get through it.

But in the same way that a ship remains afloat right after its hull is breached, or an animal staggers on despite a mortal wound, the parents did not see the ruin that was poised to engulf them as they ate their food.

The sky broke came when a piece of naan meant for The Toddler’s mouth fell from his fork onto the floor. The earlier turmoil, contained but never extinguished, now burst forth with a greater ferocity than ever before.  The site of the coveted bread laid to waste on the dirty floor was more than The Toddler’s small mind could bear.  The Toddler screamed and cried.  He pointed his chin to the unjust heavens, and the noise jolted the Infant Wally who wailed, too, and would have raised his arms to the skies in anguish but that he was swaddled in a blanket. 

Caroline and I had really only wanted to eat our chicken tikka before it conjealed, but Jay’s renewed tantrum made it clear that we weren’t going to be able to salvage the evening.

“So this is how it is,” the mother and father sighed, falling into a shared and reflexive resignation. “Who are we to impose our wills against the great forces of the universe?”

The mother unbuckled The Toddler from his seat and carried him off to a premature bedtime with grains of basmati rice still stuck in his hair.  The wailing receded down the hallway and the father retrieved the distraught Infant Wally from the bed and rocked him and bounced him and whispered in his ear: “The boy you heard is not your real brother, and he has been taken to a place where his cries can no longer hurt you.”

Eventually the Infant Wally heard this message and was quiet. At the same time The Toddler found a peace in his crib that had eluded him in his seat.

Caroline and I returned to our plates.  Quietly (so we wouldn’t wake the Infant Wally) we laughed at the absurdity of it all.




The Parent Interview #2: Where Wall Street meets motherhood

Sarah P. was 29-years-old in 2010 when she gave birth to her son Max.  After he was born she did something that no one else at her firm had done since she’d been there: She took maternity leave.  Sarah is a trader at a hedge fund in Boston, and a successful woman in a field that is only slightly less male-dominated than Major League Baseball.  When she and her husband Marc decided to have a child, she knew she’d be blazing her own trail as she tried to figure out how to balance work and maternity.

In the following interview Sarah talks about her early efforts to hide her “baby bump” and her newfound ability to pump milk and answer emails at the same time.  She also discusses her blog, To the Max, shares a few things she learned from her mom about how to raise a child, and reflects on the uncommon busy-ness and unlikely rewards of the last fifteen-months.

[N.b. You can read an introduction to The Parent Interview series here.]

1. Tell me a little bit about where you were in life when you had Max—where you were living, what you and Marc were doing, what life felt like at that time.

Marc and I had just moved to Brookline when we found out that we were going to be parents. It wasn’t a coincidence. We knew that our one-bedroom condo in downtown Boston wouldn’t work for three. Of the two of us, I was particularly sad to leave the city, and had to remind myself that we really were only a few subway stops away.

Our new neighborhood was widely acclaimed to be an excellent choice for kids – plenty of parks, trees, good schools, sidewalks wide enough for strollers, access to public transportation and town centers by foot, and other 30-somethings with young kids. It felt like a lot of change now that we were cooking more and going out less, spending more time commuting, and generally acting less spontaneously. But that was before Max (and the real change) came!

2. You’ve got a job with a lot of responsibility in a field that’s male-dominated. What’s it been like working while pregnant, taking maternity leave, and being a mom in that environment?

This was something that made me stronger, for sure. No one in my office had had a baby while I’d been there, so there were no clear signposts to follow. I stressed a lot about when to have a baby, how to avoid “showing” for as long as possible, how to avoid alcohol at company events without being conspicuous about it, and then, figuring how much maternity leave was appropriate, as it was mostly up to me. Would taking twelve weeks seem like I didn’t care about my job? I worried that I might be jeopardizing my long-term trajectory within the firm, as you lose a lot of knowledge by taking any time off.

On top of that, there’s the guilt that comes with making others pick up the slack, and then the pressure to catch up on lost time, which is especially hard when you’re a new mom. Maternity leave, as it turns out, isn’t a vacation. I remember someone asking what exactly I did during my leave. I didn’t say breastfeeding every two hours, showering once every three days, and eating like a bird!

Motherhood and job stress have gone much better than I had anticipated. Luckily, I have a lot of help, and know that Max is well cared for during the day. His nanny texts me photos of him throughout the day so I don’t miss him (as much). The transition from maternity leave was hardest – I often wondered how many “firsts” I was missing out on. But time wore on, and I got roped into the excitement of the market, and even started to feel like my old self again. Now, I run home at the first opportunity and try to cram as much in as possible in the two hours we have together before bedtime. We definitely make it work.

3. The New York Times parenting blog Motherlode recently ran a discussion about women being “torn” between their careers and their children.  Is that something you’ve felt?

I never felt torn about whether to have kids. The stickier considerations centered on timing, logistics, and money. I worried that having kids on the early side would stymie any gains I’d made up to this point (and thereby sort of negate all the hours of grunt work that I’d put in). I also worried (again, pre-Max), that I’d get caught up in the “supermom” trap, in which women find themselves adding to their already busy schedules rather than reworking them, and then becoming unhappy in the process.

Now that I am a mom the choices are more obvious (and easy). I am fortunate enough to be able to smooth over some of the rough edges by spending and outsourcing, like getting groceries delivered instead of rushing around after work. I’ve pared back my hours at the office and tried to shift what I can to the late evening, after Max has gone to bed. Unfortunately, I turn down all but the most important after-work engagements (also, in part, because Marc travels a lot and I don’t want Max to go from babysitter to babysitter).

This is tough, though, because these are good occasions for networking and learning more of the nuances of the business. At the end of the day, I think what matters most in my profession are simply the contributions that I make during market hours. Excelling at work (and bringing home “the bacon”) mean that I have something (else) to look forward to, while providing for Max at the same time. Something I can feel good about.

4. Any funny “pumping” stories from work?

Oh vey. Let me start by saying that I work on a trading floor, where even the long bathroom break can raise an eyebrow. So when I came back to work and started pumping four times a day for 20-30 minutes apiece, for the next nine months, it was pretty obvious.

The funniest part was probably telling my colleagues what I needed to do. I sent an email to those nearest to me saying that I would need to be off the desk for certain periods of time, and that they could reach me by phone, text, or email, and that I could respond in a timely manner (I didn’t tell them that I had “hands-free” pumping technology – that seemed like too much info). I got a few all-in-good-fun retorts but that was it. It was surprisingly easy.

5. Recently you undertook a “Happiness Project” which has included, among other things, a blog about raising Max.  Tell us about that.

My blog makes me so happy – I only wish I had more time for it. I started it because I wanted to find a way to share some of the funny and poignant Max moments with our broader base of family and friends. I also wanted to document as much of his early years as possible. I’d lost a lot of my own childhood keepsakes in a fire that burned down our house when I was younger – yet another reason to love the age of the Internet.

As silly as it seems, I also wanted a project, something new and exciting, and a departure from my own first-year-parent inertia. My only qualms were in opening myself up to the world, committing to posting when I have very little time, and finding the right voice.

Up to this point it has been somewhat small in scale – no earth-shattering insights or unique advice, but it doesn’t have to be perfect from Day One. I think motherhood is also a project (albeit on a much grander scale), and because so many parents must be experiencing some of the same things I am, it seems fitting to try to connect, to laugh about the failures, and take pride in the successes.

6. When you think about your parenting style, are there ways in which you try deliberately to parent the way your mom raised you? Or ways in which you try deliberately to parent differently from her?

It’s a good question, and although Marc and I have had various discussions about structure, discipline, and parenting, I don’t have a ready answer. Parenting Max, especially at this juncture, seems more like putting out one small fire after another. Take care of basic necessities – keep him clean, fed, and clothed, then try to have fun, sing and be silly, and minimize risk.

When I think about my mom’s parenting style I picture how life existed in my teens, but it also applies to much earlier in my childhood. She treated me (and my brothers, but to different degrees) like a friend, almost a confidante, and gave me a lot of independence (and responsibility). It was clear that she trusted me, and if I had wanted to test that I would have to risk disappointing her.

It “worked” differently for me and each of my three brothers. I think I will always try to incorporate her happy-go-lucky, feelings first, discipline later (or never) style. But you can also show love by pushing your kids, and some kids may need this more than others. I guess I’ll have to see what Max needs, in part. I’m keeping an open mind.

7. How has motherhood compared with the way you imagined it going in?

I certainly didn’t expect it to be this time-consuming and exhausting. I’m not sure what I was thinking! I don’t think I realized that in order to go to yoga class I’d be giving up my only hour to see Max. Or that if I scheduled consecutive after-work events, I could literally go days without seeing him. Or that the girl who loved to shop (every weekend!) would give it up in favor of trips to the park and library.

I also didn’t imagine how my life with Marc would change – how we’d rarely be able to eat dinner at the same time, or that we’d be forever “switching off” in order to give the other one some free time. This seems like it would amount to a lot of negatives, but that’s not the case at all. I’ve never been so fulfilled, so happy being mindless and busy, nor so gratified to get a hug, a kiss, a smile, or a peek-a-boo. It’s easy to quantify the number of hours sleep that you’re missing out on and the number of times (in a day) that you put the toys away – it’s harder to explain why none of that matters. I continue to be surprised.