When I was growing up in South Florida, the best thing about the suburbs was leaving them the first chance I got. After a brief stop for college in an Ohio cornfield, I bee-lined it to New York City, determined to make it as a magazine writer.
I loved New York like Dorothy loved Kansas. It was my home, and there was no place like it. But almost 15 years later, in the aftermath of 9/11, I was racing westward in a rental car, out of the city and toward the rustic house on a deserted Nevada mountainside where the man I’d eventually marry lived. In a matter of days, I went from living in the heart of Brooklyn, where I was steps away from everything, to an isolated mountain where I was miles away from anything.
It took some getting used to.
Four years later, when we (finally!) traded our mountain retreat, with its crap-shoot utilities and trickle-down showers, for the house in Greater Orlando where we’d have our baby, I was far too smitten with the on-demand electricity and fierce water pressure to even notice I was back in suburbia. But once the sheer delight of not having to hook up my husband’s car battery to a generator just to turn the lights on dissipated, suburban life began to chap my city-girl sensibilities. Hey, some people warm to the charms of well-manicured lawns. Me? I’ll take the concrete jungle any day.
So it was wonderful to find a kindred spirit in former New-Yorker-turned-New-Jersey-suburbanite Tracy Beckerman, the writer behind all things Lost In Suburbia — the syndicated newspaper column, the incredibly popular blog and the hilariously relatable book. We talked city-girl to city-girl about learning to make peace with the suburbs.
Norine: Tracy, I completely related to your book Lost In Suburbia. I worked in magazines, rather than TV, but I share your love of New York City. I, too, once had an apartment so teeny-tiny, I had to climb over the bed to get to my desk. My wardrobe contained so much black, my mom used to say I was ready for a funeral at a moment’s notice. And while I never really stopped working after my son was born, living in Greater Orlando, I’m still pretty heartbroken that I’ve yet to find a decent bagel around here.
Tracy [laughing]: I’m sorry you can relate! But I think that’s why the book did well with a lot of working women who stopped to have kids. “Lost in suburbia” is a metaphor. I was lost geographically because we moved from the city to the suburbs. But I was also lost existentially because I moved from somebody who was defined by their career to somebody who didn’t have a career anymore. I had a hugely vested interest in how I looked and what my job title was and how much money I made. When I didn’t have those things anymore, I’d go to parties with other people who were still working, and they’d ask what I did, and when I’d say I’m a stay-at-home mom, the conversation would stop.
So here we are in a society where people are telling us the best thing we can do is stay home with our kids, and then when we say that we’re doing that, no one wants to talk to us. We thought we were doing the best thing we could for our families — and we thought we’d get such joy out of it. We didn’t realize our whole identities were going to be flushed down the toilet. It’s like we’re not valued anymore. I thought it was so ironic, and yet I had the same expectation of myself. I was “lost” in suburbia in terms of being lost in my identity. And I had to get to place where I felt really good about the choices I made to stay home with my kids. And I did get there.
Norine: So, how long till you got your groove back?
Tracy: I’d say about five years. I think your toughest time is when your kids are home. Once the kids started preschool, I had a couple of hours a week to myself. I could write, brush my teeth. I had a bit of room to try to get some balance and get back on track. In the beginning, when they’re really little, there is no balance. It’s all about the kids. You’re so grateful if you can go to the bathroom by yourself for 30 seconds.
Norine: I’d be grateful for that TODAY. My kid’s 8! He still insists on barging in to talk to me.
Tracy: Finally, the kids don’t barge in on me anymore. But the dog does. At least he takes a mouthful of toilet paper and leaves. They’d stay in and start pointing at things.
Norine: Although Lost In Suburbia is about so much more than being a mom, it is subtitled a “momoir.” And in many ways, I think it’s every mom’s story whether they live in the ‘burbs or not. There is just no way to prepare a first-time mom for the upside-down-ness that occurs after the baby arrives … and the complete identity shift that follows. You go from being your own individual self to being YOUR CHILD’S MOM. I am Fletcher’s Mom. That’s what I’m called at school. That’s my name.
Tracy: That change is something you can’t get your arms around until you’re in that place. My husband and I often talk about how going from not being parents to being parents is like going through the Twilight Zone. It was that vastly different. Never in million years did I expect I’d be a stay-at-home mom because my identity was so intricately tied to the work that I did. And yet, I was back at work three weeks, and I was miserable. I just felt like I was blowing it. I would call the nanny to check in, and she’d be like Oh, he did this today and it was so cute. She was having a better time than I was. Within three months after that, I quit my job. I didn’t want someone else raising my child. I wanted to be the one to raise him and have these experiences with him.
Norine: Oh, I had the same kind of nanny envy you talk about. I was still working, but as a freelance writer, I worked at home. So, while I was upstairs in my office, I would get to watch my nanny swim in my pool and play in my backyard and take my kid off to Disney World for the afternoon. I felt like I was missing out on all the fun.
Tracy: But then you start being home with your kid and you start to think, Maybe it’s not so much fun. So that’s part of it.
Norine: We get squeezed. We feel like we’re not doing our best at work because we want to be at home. And at home, that’s not all that we thought it would be, so we want to go back to work. It’s the constant push-pull of modern motherhood.
Tracy: It always amuses me when I hear about Mommy Wars — Stay-At-Home-Moms versus Working Moms. If it works for you to be home with your kid and you’re able to do that while your husband works, great. You should do that, and you’ll be a great mom while you do that. If you’re not able to do that or you’re not happy being at home full-time, you should definitely work. A happy mom is a great mom, and if you’re happy when you’re at work, then the time you spend with your kids is going to be so much better. I’m an advocate for do what works for you. My judgment of people really has more to do with when moms stay home to “be with the kids,” and then they hire a nanny and go shopping at the mall. That’s not really the point. If you’re going to stay home with the kids, stay home with the kids. Don’t spend the whole day playing tennis and shopping.
Norine: You made peace with the suburbs.
Tracy: I moved to New Jersey. I was too follically-challenged to have big hair. I didn’t want to walk around wearing a track suit that said Juicy on my butt. And I couldn’t drive a minivan. It just wasn’t me. I needed a way to be ME here, with my short hair and my trendy black clothes and my funky car, and have that be acceptable to people. I did accept certain suburban things. I waited in the car pool line, and we did play dates. There are certain things you can’t avoid when you’re a parent. But I don’t think you have to sell out your individuality either. I don’t want to look like everyone else. And the funny thing is that now, I’m a funky suburbanite. But when I’m in the city with the real cool city people, I don’t fit in anymore. I look like I’m from the suburbs.
Norine: But you’re no longer “lost.” You’ve created your space on your terms and you still write very funny stories about being just a bit of a fish out of water. What have you found to like about suburbia?
Tracy: The quiet and the space. When we lived in the city, it was always really loud and hard to have a lot of space. That’s the whole reason we left in the first place. My son was about 18 months old; I wasn’t working anymore, so we only had one income. And on only one, not-very-big income, we couldn’t afford more than the one-bedroom apartment we had, and we were just bursting at the seams. Little kids come with so much stuff. We had three different kinds of strollers and a bouncy seat and an exer-saucer and a jumper and a high chair. It looked like an explosion at Toys R Us. And we knew we weren’t done either with the one kid. We knew there were more coming. When we got to the suburbs, my biggest joy was going to Costco and buying the 36 rolls of toilet paper and 24 cans of soup.
But now, I’m going through a career shift all over again. My son is in his freshman year of college. My daughter is looking at colleges, and she’ll be gone in a year and a half. I’ve spent the last 18 years identifying as this stay-at-home mom. I built my life around that and built my work life around that. And that will cease to be in a year and a half. So I have to reinvent myself all over again. I’m out of the realm of moms with young children. I’m not talking about diapers and meals to make for young kids and how to get them to eat their vegetables. I’m dealing with issues like paying for college and sniffing my kid’s breath when he comes home after midnight to make sure he hasn’t been doing anything he shouldn’t have been doing and driving while he’s doing it.
You don’t stop being a mother, but your responsibilities just change over night, again. And if you’ve spent all this time with this job, this role, and you don’t have it any more, you’re like, Well now what? We may not even stay in the suburbs. My husband is talking about moving back to the city. I’m like, Just yank the rug out from under me, Honey. So, as abruptly as it started, it ends again. I don’t have to be at home any more. I can go to an office. We can move. It’s exciting and daunting at the same time.
Norine: Isn’t that where the most exciting writing comes from?
Tracy: Yes, but it’s also scary because I have a niche, and I have an audience built around that niche too. I have to move from an audience of young mothers to transitional women like myself. But my Lost In Suburbia blog and newspaper column has never just been about being a mom. It’s always been about my life in the suburbs, being married, being a mom, having a dog and appliances that explode, watching woodchucks mating in my backyard, being stopped by a cop while I’m driving in my bathrobe. So as my kids got older and didn’t want me to write about them anymore, there was still lots of other stuff to write about. For that reason, I don’t think it’ll be as traumatic a transition for me. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to not writing about my kids. It was actually more traumatic when my dog died, and I didn’t have him to write about anymore.