On Raising My Baby in Chicago

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Baby Brown Bear was born in the city of Chicago. His first year of life was spent living in the city of Chicago, and it is here that I plan to raise him for an indeterminate amount of time. I feel like I express this regularly, even going so far as to loudly sing the city praises for all it has to offer my son, and yet I am often asked when I plan to move.

To be fair, I do talk about, and have seriously considered, moving to other cities. I love adventure, and traveling to other places ignites my wanderlust and makes me wonder what life would be like somewhere else. I find most of the places I visit to be very agreeable; there’s hardly anywhere I can’t see myself living even for just for a short amount of time. I’m not saying we won’t move. I’m just saying I’m not ready for it yet and the constant incredulity I receive about actually liking it here is becoming a little trite.

What makes it rather irksome is that it’s not people asking us when we’re going to uproot to a different metro area; it’s people asking us when we are moving to the suburbs. Or basically, asking us why we’d want to continue to raise Baby Bear in a big city, specifically this one.

“Chicago is so dangerous. When are you moving to the suburbs?”

To that, I have a few canned responses, but I usually try to convey lighthearted indifference while I brush off the question with a meek smile. Depending on my mood, though, the person asking might very well get an eye roll accompanied by a tired and sarcastic diatribe.

It is a fully American assumption that people who breed will want to immediately expand their square footage along with their family head count. Don’t get me wrong, I love big, quiet backyards, and appreciate the smell of freshly cut grass that isn’t tainted by the smell of bus exhaust. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and loved it. (I’m not being sarcastic now, either. I really did love it.) My schools were among the best in the state, the extracurriculars in which I participated were top notch, the community to which I was exposed was safe and caring. My suburb in particular was even pretty well diversified in terms of race, religion, and sexual orientation. I am proud of my hometown and my upbringing.

Yes, the suburbs would be a great place to raise Baby Bear. I don’t deny it. But I also don’t like that people assume it’s the only good option.

I suppose I can see how they would. Like many other issues, it’s sometimes hard to think that other ways of doing things might work better for different people. Everyone needs to weigh their own pros and cons for decisions like how and where to raise their children. When we feel positive about the decisions we make, it’s natural for us to think other people would benefit from those same choices. Voicing these opinions doesn’t make us bad neighbors or friends, but rather means we care. We want other people to be happy and feel positive, too.

The case for or against the city of Chicago is especially loaded. It’s not for nothing that some people think we should move.

Chiefly, our safety is a little more at risk here. There’s a lot of crime right now, constantly making headlines. In blanket, city-wide terms, it isn’t what I’d call the safest place. And while most of the violent crimes occur in neighborhoods that are not where we live or frequent, the occasional shooting does happen not too far away and, I’m not going to lie, it freaks me out. My heart breaks for the innocent lives taken each day and seizes in terror at the idea of anything similar happening to my family. But you know what? Bad things happen everywhere. I’m not using that as an excuse, and it certainly isn’t to justify the crime, but no ground is too sacred and no place is immune to destruction. It’s arguably what human beings are best at, and have been for centuries.

All that said, however, I’d argue that another of mankind’s most remarkable abilities is to bridge together to form supportive communities. For as many rotten apples as there may be, I think big cities show better than anywhere else how many millions of good ones there are too, ready and willing to help those around them. Yes, we have to be careful and make sure we’re aware of our surroundings, but I do believe that we’re largely surrounded by people with the capacity to love, protect, and aid. We cannot stop living life because we are afraid.

Another reason people question our decision to stay in the city with a baby is simply due to the lack of space that comes along with apartment living. Given that our previous apartment had around 600 square feet, you can imagine how palatial our current place feels with about 1,200. Plus, with two bedrooms, one may argue it’s downright luxurious. As I like to remind everyone who asks, literally billions of people around the world live in apartments, many of them smaller than ours, and sometimes with many more children!

Sure, babies do seem to acquire an enormous amount of things, many even before they are born. I registered for a lot of it, but I continue to be surprised at the stuff Baby Brown Bear seems to “need.” I’ll save my own registry opinions for another post, but suffice it to say you don’t really need all that much to get by.

Babies are pretty simple folk. As many toys as we have (and enjoy), Baby Brown Bear is mostly drawn to non-toys like dog bones, coolers, and pretty much anything else he’s not supposed to touch. With the help of some cute storage shelves from Target, we’re able to stuff a lot of his odds and ends into boxes and keep them hidden away when they’re not in use. We are also extremely fortunate to have a temporary storage unit in my parents’ basement. When he outgrows something, it goes straight to their house. Without this extra space, I’m not exactly sure what we’d do, but I’d imagine we’d try to loan things out, sell them, or donate them. As a rule, city dwellers just have to figure it out when it comes to space. I’d like to think it helps you prioritize your belongings simply because you can’t continue to accumulate without semi-regular purges.

When talking about issues with raising children in Chicago, I’d be remiss to not mention this one that continues to baffle me: the Chicago public school system. Unfortunately the constant controversy of the last few years has caused it to reach peak notoriety for its problems with leadership, unions, and funding (to mention a few). Like anywhere, how “good” a school is here changes neighborhood to neighborhood. And since the success of any school largely depends on the support it receives, it’s important for families who are passionate about quality education to become active participants in their schools.

When I think of four years from now, when it’s time for us to send Baby Bear to kindergarten, I feel very torn. On the one hand, I want to stay, become involved, and be a champion of progress within Chicago Public Schools. On the other hand, if the school isn’t supported, the teachers are worn too thin, or, God forbid, I fear for Baby Bear’s safety on his way to and from school, well then I’m not willing to sacrifice his education or safety to make a political point. And forget private school; I cannot afford to (nor would I want to if I could, based on principle alone) pay $20,000 or more a year from kindergarten on so that Baby Bear can get an education he could get at a public school in the suburbs. For now, when people ask about what we’ll do when it’s time for school, I tell them the truth: that it’s something I’m going to have to reassess when it’s time. Anything can happen in four years, anyway.

Needless to say, there are challenges that come along with raising a baby in a big city. I, however, believe there are still so many more reasons to do it.

It’s not cheap to live in the city–we could have a nice house in the burbs for what we pay for an apartment each month–but it does allow you to save in some ways. For one, I don’t have as much square footage to furnish. Renting also means I don’t have to worry about making several trips to Home Depot and draining my bank account on home repairs. For another, public transportation is a thing of beauty, a thing that provides endlessly fun people watching opportunities, and a thing that allows you to get by without a car. If you can’t find a train or bus to get you where you need to go, then you can hop in a cab or an Uber, rent a car or a bike, or just plain walk. While we do have a car, it’s mostly because we have a dog and a baby who make taking public transportation to the suburbs to see grandparents a little harder. Still, I probably only fill up my tank about once a month, and that’s not bad.

Papa Bear and I walked a lot before Baby Bear was born, but now that I have more time to do it, Baby Bear and I walk almost everywhere. It’s great for him, for me, and for the environment. Plus, being on foot allows us to become much more intimately acquainted with all the city has to offer. If we lived in the suburbs, we would drive everywhere. For some reason, it just feels more laborious to walk in the suburbs, even when the distance is short (and this is coming from someone who isn’t afraid of distance). There, going for a walk rarely serves any other purpose than just going for a walk. Which I really like to do, but as a multi-tasker, I love being able to sneak in a little exercise while I’m on my way to do things. Plus, walking to brunch means I can eat a shortstack and a skillet without feeling guilty about it!

Walking around also allows us to see all the people who make this city so vibrant and alive. No matter the time of day, we can walk outside to see people going about their lives. There’s a constant energy here that just doesn’t exist in the suburbs. It’s not like stores are open 24/7 and people are milling around my neighborhood at three in the morning, necessarily, but there’s just enough going on that you are constantly reminded of how many different kinds of people leading different kinds of lives there are. I recognize that might not be for everyone, but I thrive on it. I relish that Baby Bear hears at least five different languages every day. I love that he sees people of all races, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, and backgrounds. It’s my hope that seeing this multi-dimensional world from the start will allow his worldview to be that much broader; that he’ll take for granted how well people of all colors, religions, sexual orientations, etc., can function together.

Living among so many people is incredibly conducive to building relationships, too. Big cities allow us to connect with like-minded people, regardless of subject matter or interest. There is no shortage of people with whom to gather and form bonds, which means anyone can find some sense of community. The new mom group I joined after Baby Bear was born is an example of this, and it’s become an invaluable support network for me. I’m so grateful that I was able to find such a positive group of women, and it makes me sad for fellow new moms who don’t have access to something similar. I know these types of groups are not unique to cities, but they do seem harder to come across in the suburbs, even if it’s just because everything is much more spread out.

On the flip side, it’s sometimes nice how easy it is to remain anonymous in a city of this size. Our friends and family care about our well-being, of course, but I never have to worry about strangers knowing our business. When we want to be around people, we can be. When we don’t want to be, we don’t have to be. I have no reference for small-town living, but I do wonder how people deal with that aspect of it.

And if that’s not enough, there’s just so much to do in a city. I love that we’re never lacking in ideas for activities, many of which are free. On any given day, we have so much at our fingertips: museums, cultural centers, libraries, sporting events, world-class art and music, story times, gardens, parks, zoos, conservatories, running paths, playgrounds, beaches, pools, neighborhood shops, restaurants, bakeries, and mom and baby get-togethers. The list is practically endless, and this is all just within city limits. We could spend a lifetime exploring this city and it would hardly scratch the surface. Knowing that my kid might take for granted seeing a 65-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton blows my mind. I hope to instill in him a sense of appreciation for all of the opportunities he has, but I do love that such wondrous things are so readily available to him.

Adventure is always around the corner when you’re raising your baby in Chicago. Like anything else, there are pros and cons to living here, but what matters is that we each make our own informed choices.

For me, all the benefits outweigh the challenges. Being surrounded by the people, activities, culture, and energy make living here well worthwhile for our family. This might change as Baby Bear grows and has different needs, but for now we will be damned sure to enjoy every minute.

 

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