Monday, July 12, 2010

Playing Tourist in the Parent 'Hood

My nephews, ages 2 and 4/almost 5, were in town over the weekend (along with my brother and sister-in-law). Their visit proved an eye-opener in more ways than one.

For starters, my husband and I got to play tourist too, and in Chicago, that means one thing--Navy friggin' Pier. Oh, how we natives love to deride the Pier as the eighth circle of hell where all things hip and trendy go to die. I mean, it has a food court, for god's sake. But you know, if your goal isn't so much to be cool and pretentious as it is to have fun, the Pier totally delivers.

We rented one of those quadcycles, which looks like a cross between a bicycle and the Flinstones' car. Or an un-motorized golf cart with pedals. Pick your analogy. With the four of us adults pedaling our thighs off and the kids in front just soaking up the view, we struck out on the lakefront bike path, heading past North Avenue Beach, up to Fullerton. This is like taking a Big Wheel onto the expressway. In rush hour. Normally, when Dave and I are out for a ride, we hate the quadcycles. They're lumbering, people don't know how to steer them, and basically they get in our way. The dorks pedaling them are also always having too much fun, and cycling isn't supposed to be fun. Just ask the dudes dressed like Lance Armstrong, constantly shouting "on your left" as they attempt to turn a recreational path into the Tour de France.

But the quadcycle is so goofy in its construction and operation, you can't help but laugh at your own absurdity. The fact that it moves at a much slower pace all but forces you to stop and take notice of the beauty of the lakefront on a perfect summer day. The people-watching was particularly grand. Zipping along at our regular clip, we might have missed the old man in the Speedo performing a bizarre stretching routine along the side of the path for the benefit of the multitudes. With God as my witness, I will never mock the quadcycle again.

The other thing about hanging with the boys was that not only were given the chance to look at our city in a different light, we saw everything from a new perspective. Routine objects and activities became cause for excitment. Do you know how awesome elevators are to a 2-year-old? And not just riding them, but pushing the "up" and "down" buttons. How about a revolving door? Magic. The CTA, bane of my existence, became a veritable Disneyland. "I've never ridden a train that went anywhere before," exclaimed Connor (the 4/almost 5-year-old). We actually skipped our stop--which typically only happens to drunk, passed-out Cubs fans--just to make the trip longer for the boys.

I had been worried that our condo would prove a total bust, being completely devoid of toys. That's because I was viewing it with jaded, adult eyes. Little did I know that our accordian-style doors would be a total revelation to Logan. Look, they fold when they open! Our living room lamp, which you turn on by tapping its base, provided non-stop entertainment. Just letting Connor turn the key to our front door, well, you'd think we'd told him we'd won the lottery and made him our sole heir. We also had popsicles and Cheerios, which pretty much qualified as a four-star feast and cemented our status as best aunt and uncle ever.

But perhaps most illuminating was not the kids' reaction to their surroundings, but their surroundings' reaction to them. And by that I mean that people are so much nicer to children--especially little boys in "my name is Trouble" t-shirts--than adults. I'm guilty of this behavior myself. Where grown-ups get the stone-faced stare, I smile at babies, make funny faces for kids on the train, hold doors open for people with strollers. The thing is, I'd never been on the receiving end of this warmth and kindness before.

People chatted me up in elevators, often mistaking me for a mother instead of an aunt. "How old is he?" one woman asked, pointing to Logan. "My grandson will be 2 in a couple of months." The owner of Scooter's Frozen Custard, which we go to probably once a week, has never made eye contact with us before. But with Connor and Logan in tow, she came out from behind the counter and talked our ear off. It was like having an audience with the Pope. At a restaurant, we commiserated with another parent whose child, likewise, would not stay in her seat. She worried that kids on the loose--it was an outdoor patio--would bother the other diners. Not us, mind you, who she considered comrades and co-conspirators, but the "singletons," aka, people without kids. In other words, on any other night under more typical circumstances, me and Dave.

I saw some statistic a couple of weeks ago that said 18% of women my age don't have kids. That seems like a large number, but flip the statistic around: 82% do. I suspect if you further parsed the results and included only married women in my bracket, the percentage of mothers would top 90%. Either way, I represent such a tiny fraction of the female population as to nearly qualify as an endangered species. I'll admit, it can feel mighty lonely at times out here in non-mom-land. I lack the tie that binds, not just to other women but to other adults. The shared experience that gives complete strangers common ground. Once, I was at a birthday party for a friend's husband. We didn't know many of the other guests, so it was a relief when someone turned to me for conversation. "How do you know K?," he asked. "Do your kids go to school together?" "No, we don't have kids," I replied. He turned away.

For the few brief days that the boys were in town, I felt like someone finally taught me the secret handshake, finally gave me the access code to their exclusive club. Instead of standing there, nose pressed up against the glass, I was on the other side, mixing and mingling with the "in" crowd. All those moms and dads who otherwise consider me some sort of enemy, the person to be feared at restaurants and concerts and shopping malls and anywhere else they think a screaming child is likely to draw my ire rather than my sympathy.

I gotta say, even though I was just visiting parenthood, it felt nice. To be included. As much as Americans celebrate our freedom and individuality and our "don't tread on me" spirit, we're also very much a nation of joiners. We like to identify ourselves with groups. How else to explain Lady Gaga's 10 million Facebook fans, or better yet, the gazillions of people who tune into the Super Bowl when they don't even like football. It's only human to not want to feel left out or left behind. To be marginalized.

I've never been the sort of person who does something simply because everyone else is doing it. In fact, often quite the opposite. I guess I just never fully appreciated what it would mean to swim against the tide when it comes to having kids.

I'm the quadcycle. To know me is to love me, but most people won't bother to take me out for a spin.


Blogger Paula said...

Patty, it's refreshing to read a post from someone who doesn't have kids that refuses to trash those who do. The whole Mommy Wars thing really gets my goat.

5:34 AM


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