My fourteen-year-old son and his friends travel the streets of the city like Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger and co. — not ripping off people’s wallets and purses, but just hanging out in an excitable, ragged crowd, thrilled to be together and thrilled to be wandering, and certainly in no hurry to come home. When I told a friend about my son’s new freedom, she replied, “That’s why we live in the city, right? So our kids can have that urban, independent experience.”
But the truth is that when I initially imagined raising children in the city, I somehow always thought about being perpetually with them — a sort of Zelig-like maternal figure lurking inappropriately in the background of every scene. Yes, of course, the city is a great place to live with your family; even before you give birth, you picture easygoing Sundays in which you all stroll through sunlit museum galleries together, both parents pointing out Seurat and Chuck Close paintings to the enthusiastic children. “See all the dots!” you cry, and your children nod excitedly and try to count them. Or else you imagine your family at a picnic in the park; you’ve brought along a bottle of wine for the adults, and a thermos of chocolate soy milk for the children, who in your imagination remain perpetually frozen at four years of age.
At four they are yours. You can raise them in the city and feel thrilled with the cultural stimuli that’s continually hurled at them like high-end asteroids. And all the while you can monitor their actions and activities and steer them in various directions. Four belongs to you. Fourteen, of course, belongs to them, and to the subways, and St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, and the basketball courts, and the street corners where they congregate, haggling with vendors over belts with skull’s-head buckles. Fourteen can head out into the city and go places where you, in your fortyish, lumpen state, are no longer welcome.
The desire to have a child springs from many sources, but frequently mentioned by parents is the fantasy of creating a world that contains elements that were lacking in their own childhoods. I grew up in a suburb where the turnpike was dotted with fast-food franchises and carpet stores. For a long time there was only one Chinese restaurant in town — a dreary green room where the silver dishes had lids, and inside you would most likely find chop suey or almond ding. On Friday nights my friends and I went to an event at the junior high school (back when it was called “junior high school”) known as “rec,” short for “recreation.” This featured a frenzy of Nok-Hockey-playing, some sugary orange drink in little containers, and not much else. One night, a bored girl came to rec drunk on Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill, and was taken out by ambulance as we all stood around and watched in dumb surprise.
Yet as we grew older, we found more places to go; there were new fast-food franchises springing up all the time — though we still steered clear of the carpet stores. Suddenly, an arthouse cinema appeared in an old public school; I watched “Persona” while sitting in a tiny chair. There were parks and bars and paneled basements, always paneled basements. This was the late 1970s, and our parents had very little idea of how or where we spent our weekend days and nights. My friends and I didn’t live inside the world of “The Last Picture Show” — a sleepy hamlet of dustballs and black-and-white despair — but neither did we live in the city.
In my mind I have given my children the city as a gift, and yet it’s a gift that comes with caveats and restrictions, dictated by their mother’s particular strain of anxiety. The city is theirs, if only I will let them take it. When I consider the ongoing march toward generational improvement, I wonder where my kids will want to raise their own children. Maybe they won’t even want to have children — or maybe, instead, the presence of the city in their childhoods will have given them nowhere to go in their imaginations except, perhaps, another planet, which they and their spouses and children will colonize, Ray Bradbury-style. I am not sure, when they look back at these years, exactly what they will recall and how they will feel. But I suspect that what most children take away from their childhood is not so much the landscape in which they lived as the freedom they were allowed within it.
©2009 Meg Wolitzer, author of The Ten Year Nap: A Novel
Meg Wolitzer is the author of seven previous novels, including The Position and The Wife. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize. She lives in New York City.