I’m not mourning my old life; I’m merely coming face-to-face with what might have been if I hadn’t experienced an unintended pregnancy.
All eyes in the enormous, bustling foyer of New York’s Museum of Modern Art are burning the back of my head with judgmental stares. My defiantly exhausted 2-year-old son is mightily shrieking and flailing in protest as I try desperately to put his coat, hat, and gloves on him before we head back out into the bitter January wind. I feel hopelessly out of place, apparently the only breeder for miles—at least the only one stupid enough to bring her preschool offspring to an art museum. My husband is off waiting in the long coat-check line. Next to me, my old college roommate stands helpless: dumbfounded by the sheer volume and duration of the noise emanating from my tourism-weary toddler.
We had rushed through the museum because, despite my insistent, continual suggestion to lie back and nap in his stroller, my son instead chose to whine, run in erratic zig-zags among the crowds, attempt to touch paintings, and repeatedly demand mommy milks. Visiting MoMA was something I’d wanted to do on my myriad trips to New York, an intention always thwarted for one reason or another—running out of time; it being Monday; traveling with friends disinterested in modern art—now that I had finally made it here, my enjoyment was being thwarted by parenthood.
Last time I came to New York, my husband and I were still dating. He and I stayed at my college roommate’s apartment in Queens, and together, we all visited the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty, sat in the nosebleeds at the Monty Python Broadway show Spamalot, went out for shepherd’s pie and pints at an Irish pub, filled our bags at the H&M, and toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Heaven was salsa dancing the night away in a steamy, low-lit Cuban bar in Queens with the love of my life, my best friend, and a couple of mojitos.
Today, my old roommate’s evenings were still restaurants, movies, galleries, and concerts, while mine had become diaper changes, tantrums, breastfeeding, and passing out on the couch by 9pm. She’d replaced school with work; I’d replaced school with a baby.
Seeing my roommate reminds me what my life used to be like. In college we’d orchestrated dozens of girls’ nights, seen each other through a parade of bad boyfriends, lived in three different apartments (one of which caught fire in the middle of the night), watched countless Lifetime movies, and drank more than our share of rosé wines. Now, on this dreary January trip to New York, I realize how much our life paths had diverged.
I’m not mourning my old life; I’m merely coming face-to-face with what might have been if I hadn’t experienced an unintended pregnancy. It wasn’t that I wished I were still single too, but it’s easy to glamorize what other people have, especially when what you have likes to make so much noise.
It took seven hours to drive our little family to New York from Richmond, Virginia. Thankfully, my husband did most of the driving. Whenever I’d visited the city before, I took the overnight “Chinese Bus,” a transportation method renowned for its cheap fares, cramped seats, locker-room smells, and peculiar passengers. I’d rather not travel at all than take a small child on that bus (unless sedatives are involved). Now that we were parents, our days of couch surfing were over. I would never expect my single friends to accommodate a couple as well as a small child whose favorite hobbies include middle-of-the-night screaming and knick-knack destruction.
After we all got settled into our modest Central Park West hotel—the cheapest I could find in Manhattan—my college roommate called to say she was on her way over to welcome us to the city. We came down to the hotel lobby just as she was blowing in, wearing her same old grey wool pea coat and enormous striped grey scarf. She gushed in awe at my son’s size; the last time she saw him he was only two months old. When she moved to New York after college our closeness became the victim of distance and life.
After misty-eyed embraces, we head back up to the hotel room to catch up. She had come straight from her job at Magnolia Bakery, a prominent New York establishment famous for its cupcakes. And she had not come empty-handed. The intoxicating scent of sweet decadence wafted out of small white paper bags. Soon, we are all covered in frosting. There are red velvet and carrot cupcakes, and an enormous frosted sugar cookie she says her coworkers conjectured might cause instantaneous diabetes. She’d also brought us a Time Out New York: Kids magazine.
We had come to New York for my grad school interview. The trip being a test of sorts—to see if the school thinks I have what it takes to be a big-time journalist, and to see if I think I can hack it as a big-city mom. I bought a brilliant-red long wool pea coat at the L.L. Bean outlet store just for the occasion—my only other coat being a Barney-the-Dinosaur-purple ski jacket that obscured any trace of a feminine figure, leaving me merely dorky and frumpy: unmistakably “mom.” I wanted my roommate to think I was still stylish, to appear metropolitan and classy on the streets of Manhattan, to look like I fit in with the natives. But the wool coat was one size too small and its collar rubbed rough on my neck.
We tried our best to pick up where we’d left off and headed out for Thai food at a cozy restaurant down the street. Unfortunately, it is dinnertime for adults. As every parent knows, your best bet for an enjoyable dining experience with toddlers is to go out around 4:30pm so the service is faster and there are fewer people to annoy. My son is immediately restless. He was intrigued by being in this new place, and curious why we’d driven so long only to sit more. Despite our best efforts to distract him, he offers an unending, emphatic chorus of “Go GO!”
I had mostly stopped breastfeeding my son in public two months ago when he turned 2. We had reached the “only at home and typically just at nap time and bed time” point in the weaning process. Travel proved new, busy, and possibly overwhelming for my son, as small children tend to thrive on consistency. Nursing was comforting, so he wanted to do it much more than usual. Everywhere we stopped, he asked for “mommy milks.” Whenever he asked, I quickly obliged. But knowing this was averting tantrums didn’t negate how exhausting it was to breastfeed a toddler while constantly in public.
Our trip eventually gets better. My son has a blast at the children’s museum and wigs out at the F.A.O. Schwarz and M&M stores. After the toy store, we stop in an upscale diner near Times Square. The host greets us with a mighty stink-eye upon spying our pint-sized companion, but my son quietly puts together the Thomas the Tank Engine puzzle we just bought. When he finally falls asleep, it’s in my roommate’s arms while riding the subway.
On our final night, my husband goes out to a bar in Brooklyn to meet up with his best friend from high school while my roommate and I converse the night away, discussing her boyfriend troubles, my parenting predicaments, and our shared passion for whole foods and feminist issues. My son snores softly next to us on the hotel bed.
Navigating new motherhood had wholly swallowed my life, and though she couldn’t relate to that experience, I was happy that my roommate and I could still connect as friends, that she loved me no matter how frumpy my coat. But I’m still adjusting to the idea that my travels—and my life—may not be Broadway shows and mojitos again for a while.
Olivia Campbell is a freelance journalist whose articles and essays on science, culture, and parenting have appeared in Pacific Standard Magazine,The Daily Beast, Brain, Child Magazine, and Mothering Magazine.