The idea that the big city is somehow less kid-friendly than the ‘burbs is one that comes up with increasing regularity in conversations with my friends– and it always puzzles me. After all, I was born and raised in Manhattan, as was my husband Phil, as were many of our friends, and we all seemed to turn out okay. I also lived for several years in the suburbs as an adult, and didn’t find the living so very easy. Yes, I can imagine that navigating the subway or the bus with a stroller is tough, but I know that life with an automobile, with lawn care and snow removal responsibilities, and without ubiquitous take-out and delivery is also a hassle.
I now think that the city versus suburbs debate probably misses the point. I’m reading Not-So-Nuclear Families, by Karen Hansen, for an article I’m writing for the Population Reference Bureau (See "Books Acquired" at right, for more about the book.) Hansen, who is a professor at Brandeis, argues that the widespread idea that most families are independent is a myth. Although the idea of a self-reliant, private, contained family is cherished in our society, her study finds that even today, parents raising children without help from a larger community of family, friends and hired helpers are rare.
For a time, she says, scholars believed that it was only less-wealthy families that relied on networks of outsiders to care for children. Then, they believed that only relatively more wealthy families knew people with the time and resources to help pitch in with child rearing. Now, it seems that families of all classes rely on networks of people to care for their children. It also seems that families without an adequate network suffer in their careers, at home, and from increased stress.
Hansen studies four families with working parents– affluent, middle class, working class — in depth, and even the most affluent families with live-in nannies rely on friends, brothers, grandparents, to fill in gaps either regularly or during emergencies. One family that she studies, the Duvall-Brennans, left the city for the better school districts of suburbia, but in doing so left their network of friends and neighbors that helped with babysitting behind. Hansen chronicles their struggle to provide seamless care for their two children, one 6, and one 3 1/2 years old, in the wake of their move. Their children spend up to 11 hours a day in school and child care.
The salient issue isn’t that this family moved from the city to the suburbs, it’s that they moved away from their "care network"–it would have been just as hard for a family enmeshed in suburban life to move into a more urban environment. So, it seems to me that the question of whether you can raise a child in the city depends on not just where your family and friends are, but where the people who are willing to help out with the kid are located–not all friends and family members are willing, or able to pitch in. (I’ll write more about reciprocity either in the story or here.) A nameless, faceless metropolis is probably no place to raise a child. But many of us city dwellers just don’t see the city in that way.
(By the way, parents recruit family members into their caregiving network by using the charming term "kin-scription". I love that.)