Thoughts on Being a Mom from the NYC Subway

She squatted on the subway platform and I noticed what appeared to be a black and white animal between her legs. A dog? I wondered. Can you take a dog on the subway? Surely a service dog can go anywhere. I walked around the woman and a few seconds later she stood up. What I thought had been animal skin was actually leggings.

I wanted to ask someone about the train schedule, and the squatting, animal skin lady – who actually had been going through papers or a notebook – seemed a safe bet. During my ten-day visit with my daughter in New York City, I mustered the courage to speak to strangers on many occasions. The last time I was in the Big Apple was for my senior class trip. I can only remember talking to my friends about seeing Arthur Treacher, and possibly Bobby Rydell, at Sardi’s.

My daughter and I saw Newsies, the musical; had corned beef on rye at Katz’s Deli, and ate Italian at the Bowery Hotel restaurant. On my own I visited the Guggenheim and MoMa. And I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. If she wasn’t with me and I needed directions, I mostly turned to moms with kids. They’re almost always reliable sources. Or I asked a man or woman in professional attire. They seemed safe, too.

The woman introduced herself as Durell. Due to subway construction, trains into Manhattan weren’t runing between certain hours. Durell said she would ride with me to the stop where I needed to get off and then show me where to transfer. One more day in the city saved by a friendly New Yorker.

Why didn’t I have a map? I was always so focused on just swiping my MetroCard – something any New York kindergartner can adroitly handle – that by the time I thought to ask the station attendant for one, the train would already have pulled up. I’d vow to get one the next time but never did. Inside the train, stops are listed on a lighted sign that perpetually updates itself, so you can see if you’re on the right train in the first place and later when you arrive at your stop. In case you forget to check the sign, an announcement comes on to tell you where you are, repeating three or four times: “This is Canal Street,” or “This is Times Square.”

If I were to take the wrong train on my way home, like the B instead of the Q, I would need to transfer. The B doesn’t stop at my daughter’s  station.  Just to be sure, I’d dart in as soon as the doors opened and search for the lighted sign.  If I’d entered the wrong train, I would dart out again before the doors closed, heart pounding.

Sometimes the car was jammed with people sandwiched every which way.  To see the sign I would have had to climb over them. In that case, I’d ask anyone within reasonable proximity. “Does this train stop at 14th St. and Union Square?” (Hurry, please, tell me NOW!) Someone always gave me an answer, but I felt a bit like Little Red Riding Hood trying to get to Grandmother’s house. I only hoped I wouldn’t run into the big, bad wolf.

In contrast to her flashy leggings, Durell was pretty in an open-faced, honest way. She wore glasses and a jumper and seemed enthused about life. She shared that she had raised her kids in the city, partly in San Francisco and partly in New York. At first she lived in Manhattan, where parking is expensive and she gave up her car.

But then she moved to Brooklyn. “I wanted a garden,” she said. “I needed to feel the earth.” Now she lives in the lower half of a house with a front and back yard where she can dig to her heart’s content. But she doesn’t have a car.

I thought of my daughter’s plan to move from Brooklyn to Manhattan in January, and the burgundy car she rarely drives and parks on the street and has to move once a week for the street sweeper.

Shopping at Trader Joe’s is a big trade off when you have to schlep your bags home on the train. Not only that, the lines are insane. At rush hour they wind up and down several aisles. I never even got to Whole Foods. The fact that it’s located in the same building as DSW and Burlington Coat Factory was enough to scare me off.

So while in New York, I mostly shopped at a neighborhood market called the Met. One day as I was leaving my daughter’s apartment to buy a few things, she asked me to check which side of the street her car was parked on. The store was about to close when I got there, and as I was deciding on the brand of breakfast sausage I wanted, they turned off the lights. I thought I still had a few minutes.  Fortunately, it wasn’t like being in a big grocery store, and I easily found my way in the semi-darkness. Needless to say, the checkers were surprised to see me. When I got home, I forgot to tell my daughter about her car and later that night worried that it might be towed.

“So,” I said to Durell, “how do city parents manage with children? I mean, how do they do the laundry and shopping and playtime and all?”

“You can’t think too much about it,” she said. “You just do it.”

The subway car was jammed, every seat taken.  And as the train jolted out of the station, Durell steadied her stance, feet slightly apart. I gripped the floor-to-ceiling pole beside to me, the same type of pole the teenage breakdancers had swung around during the “subway show” I had seen a few days earlier.

In the clatter, I heard Durell say something that sounded like I’m a high  school teacher. Or maybe I just thought that was what she said. She was carrying some sort of textbook.

But no, she’s an obstetrical nurse studying to be a CNM – certified nurse midwife – and she was on her way to class. And she’s a doula, someone trained to help mothers during childbirth or at home after the birth. I loved that idea. A New York doula.

“Just call me Doula Durell,” she said.

“The moms are lucky to have you,” I told her.

“And I need the moms,” she returned. Her own kids are older now, 18 and 20. One lives out of state.

A few subway stops later a mom got on pushing a double-decker stroller. “Stand back from the closing doors, please,” said a recorded message. The doors slammed shut and immediately the mom handed her lower-level baby a bottle. The child, maybe ten months old and all bundled in a jacket and blanket, immediately directed the nipple into his mouth.

Durell and I chatted for the rest of our ride. But before we got off, I saw the baby let the bottle roll out of his hands. My eyes instinctively searched the area, looking to see if it had fallen on what must be the filthiest floor in the universe. But no, the bottle had rolled down inside the stroller and was resting near the baby’s feet.

Last Saturday my daughter and I dropped off about two weeks’ worth of her dirty laundry at a nearby laundromat. They charge by the pound for wash, dry and fold service, and I watched as she forked over $27 in advance. “It’s worth it,” she said.

And then we took off down the street. “Wait till you see where I’m taking you!” she said. Zig-zagging through the neighborhood, we ended up in a place called Parkslope, an area of Brooklyn known for its trendy ambience and local food co-op, among other things.

Orange construction-paper jack-o-lanterns peeked at passersby through the tall windows of brownstones lining either side of the street, and wrought iron enclosed mini-gardens, some still sprouting flowers, graced the sidewalks, .

We ate Thai food and then went into a bookstore where a fat tabby lay stretched out on a table. My daughter had been there before and meandered back to the children’s section. She wanted to show me a book called Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, by Mo Willems. It’s the whimsical tale of little Trixie, who lives with her mommy and daddy in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. Trixie and her daddy go off to the laundromat and somehow lose Trixie’s little stuffed bunny. The illustrations are superimposed on actual neighborhood photos. Very cool.Cat in bookstore

But the book’s coolness factor was not outweighed by the work factor. I kept thinking about slumping off to that laundromat each week or every few days, losing socks in the dryer, and spending untold hours waiting for towels to dry. And I remembered the tonnage of laundry my daughter and I would have to cart home later in the day.

When I had my first baby I didn’t have a dryer, but hung everything on the clothesline – down to the smallest baby sock. We lived in Colorado and the dry air sucked the wetness out of everything. In the winter, my birds-eye diapers froze, and when I brought them inside, they stood on end like misshapen ghosts. I never had to run kids to soccer practice or Girl Scouts on a subway, or make late night runs for bread and milk without a car.

“City kids relate to Knuffle Bunny,” my daughter said. “The stories reflect how they live and the places they know.”

New York City kids know the laundromat and the subway and the Brooklyn Bridge. They know grocery stores with no parking and cute-as-pie bookshops and people who play music in the subway stations. They know Central Park and concert halls and hotdog venders.

So, how do you be a mom in the big city? I guess it’s like being a mom anyplace else. You can’t think about it too much. You just do it. FFG


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