“My sister has five children,” I told an Israeli friend who lives in my apartment building.
“House or apartment?,” he asked.
“House,” I replied.
“Oh, that’s not the same then. It’s a totally different game. She can send them outside to the yard and go read a magazine. You’re not on top of each other like you are in an apartment. In an apartment there’s no escape.”
Now listen—I know that my friend is delusional. Life with five children is incredibly demanding, house or no house. I don’t think my sister has gotten to sit down for more than five minutes in 16 years. But there’s some truth to what he says.
Over Sukkot I took a mini-vacation from my cramped urban apartment to a close friend’s big house in a tree-filled Boston suburb. It was a break from work, nanny-shares, cooking and—I hesitate to admit—my 5-year-old, who spent hours on end playing fireman in the basement playroom with his 3-year-old friend.
When I checked in periodically to maintain my peace of mind, everyone teased me for being overprotective. But they don’t get apartment parenting.
You see, our “playroom” is our living room (which is also our dining room). When I’m at home my son and I are rarely farther than ten feet away from each other. It’s lovely—I get to observe all sorts of enchanting creative play that I’d otherwise miss—but it’s also really demanding, and a little stifling for us both.
If he gets bored or lonely, I’m summoned. If he gets frustrated or impatient, I hear about it immediately. If he speaks or acts inappropriately, I have no choice but to speak up. But if I sit down in front of him and try to quietly read my New Yorker or use my laptop, heaven help me.
When he had some physical space (and, admittedly, a playmate older than 1), he found a way to keep himself entertained and solve his own problems. Sure he probably (definitely) said and did some things that would make me wince, but I wasn’t there, and no bodies or feelings were hurt.
When I was young, I had the space to be a kid. I knew that there were some behaviors—and language—that were for that space only. I learned an important lesson for adult life—that you need to adjust your behavior according to the circumstance. Work-Lili handles herself differently from Mom-Lili who handles herself differently from Daughter-Lili. My apartment kids—raised with me breathing down their necks—don’t get that opportunity.
Acting on what I’ve learned, I’m trying to create a dedicated play space in the children’s room, where they can be “away”—even if that just means down the hall. But somehow everyone –and all the best toys—keeps gravitating back to that crowded living room. For an apartment-child born and bred, proximity is love.