When my children were five and almost-two, we moved roughly 2 miles north. We sold our sweet little townhouse in a quiet courtyard in the city and moved to a big single-family home in the nearest suburb north. For the most part, we moved so that our five-year-old could go to a school with smaller class sizes and so that she and her non-sleeping baby sister could have their own bedrooms. Too, there was a part of me that had glimpsed at the process of looking for high schools in Chicago and wanted to avoid it at all costs. We moved for ourselves, thinking only of the life within the walls of our home and the school our kids might attend.
Until then, I’d been living a mostly isolated life as a parent. In our city courtyard, there was only one precious family with identically-aged children, but those children slept like angels — long naps and early bedtimes, short windows of free playtime compatible with my daughters’ chaos. In retrospect, it was an outright blessing and not at all a small thing to have found myself hugely compatible with their mother, someone who became one of my dearest friends and a great teacher to me on topics too great to write here. Still, in those toddler/preschool years, the company we could keep was not daily, and because of my younger daughter’s constant illness in her first two years, I’d not been able to make any other friends with other families. I spent my days largely without adult contact. It was incredibly, incredibly lonely.
When we moved north, then, I didn’t expect much of my life to change. The preschool where my youngest was finally healthy enough to attend was part of a day care center, a remnant from my days of working when my oldest was my only, and so I never knew the other parents well. No one stuck around to chat long — everyone was at the beginning or end of long days, and if I saw them, it was only on the rare occasion that I brought my youngest to preschool at the very beginning of the day or picked her up at the very end. For the most part, I saw the teachers, the barista at the coffeeshop, and my husband. When I moved, I expected that to stay mostly the same.
I was wrong.
No one told me about the great equalizer of the walkable, community public school. From every direction, we parents descended upon the playground at the beginning and end of the day. In a town with almost no school busses — almost everyone lived within a mile of their school — children arrived with adults in tow. I found myself, for the first time in two years, surrounded by people who knew what my life might be like. It was a revelation.
In the first few years of my time as an elementary school parent — a walk-to-school elementary school parent — I made friendships I would never have dreamed possible. My friend from the city courtyard often drove past us on her way to drive her children north to the private school they attended, and she commented frequently that she saw me and my daughters on our walk, and that we looked deeply, fully happy. She was right. The daily fresh air and the company of other adults turned out to be crucial to my mental health. I learned that I am a person who needs — in a fundamental, survival-focused way — a lot of community. As it became obvious to me that my days of commuting into the city for work were never going to repeat themselves, and that I would work from home and cafe and library as a consultant, the community of my neighborhood school became even more meaningful. It sustained me. It kept me whole.
And what was it, this new community? It was nothing special, and everything important. It was noticing — and laughing over — how gloriously terrible our children’s fashion choices were. It was sharing a bag of pretzels with two other parents as we watched our children do tricks on the monkey bars. It was complaining together about the teacher who told our children the story of the bag of deserted puppies on the side of the road. It was planning dinner, and sometimes shrugging and cobbling that dinner together in groups, meeting up at someone’s house with a handful of eggs and a bag of potatoes and some fresh dill and making the peasant stew she loved from her time in the Czech Republic. It was practicing my Spanish with my friends from Mexico, and having honest conversations with my friends who had never met a Jew before. It was howling over 80s movie trivia. It was enjoying the first warm day of spring and hoping the paleta guy wouldn’t show up so that our kids wouldn’t beg us for the drippy Mexican popsicles and bags of cotton candy he sells — and hoping, also, that he would.
It was being neighbors. It was my first full-fledged, available, community-centered group of friends as an adult. It was, for this lonely, isolated, mildly depressed mama with a constantly sick child, a salvation.
I still love my courtyard neighbor and her delicious children and enthusiastic husband, and they will be friends for life — but I’m glad we moved. In all these words, I’ve barely mentioned the house itself. It’s lovely, but it’s not really what makes this place home.