On my birthday last month, I watched with narcissistic glee as the obligatory well wishes piled up on my Facebook wall. I’m not a big Facebook user–I prefer the news sense and black humor of the people I follow on Twitter–but my birthday is the one day of the year I check the Social Network first. It’s not the same as a surprise party or thoughtful gift, but at the very least it makes me feel like someone thought about me for a second, even if “Happy birthday man!” is the most they’ve said to me in 15 years.
Most of my birthday posts this year had the same drive by quality, but of the handful of friends who added a little extra (mostly wise-assery, but still appreciated), my friend Kevin added the comment that struck me the most. “I hope you write something poignant about aging slowly in the big city.” I didn’t ask him what exactly he meant by “aging slowly,” but until then I hadn’t thought much about getting older. I’m 34, and after I passed the milestones of 16 and 21, I stopped thinking much about how old I was at all. In fact, I’ve actually had to stop and calculate my age a couple times in the past few years when someone asked me.
Before I had kids, my life was divided into phases according to school: grade school, high school, college, then the post-college hedonism of the same college lifestyle, but with money. I thought of myself according to my peer group, people largely within one or two years of my own age, and for the most part this group still consisted of people I actually knew from school. But once I had kids my perspective changed (and I don’t mean that world-changing, nothing else matters now perspective that all new parents attain). Instead my life was defined by my children’s ages and levels of schooling. I was father of a newborn, then a toddler, then a preschooler, etc. As my life revolved more and more around them, my peer group began to consist of parents with children of the same age. Sometimes these other parents happened to be of similar age, but Debbie and I both married and had children rather early for our particular group of yuppies, so more often than not these other parents were at least 5-10 years older. I shifted into a different cohort but the distinction mattered less, because as any parent with internet access will tell you, at that point it was all about the children. Instead of measuring my life by the years passed since high school graduation, for instance, I now measure it by how many months until Sadie is potty trained, or how many years before I can leave Carter at home by himself while I go to the 7-Eleven for milk.
Once you get past the scary/exciting/sleepless newborn phase and your kid starts to resemble a replica of yourself, being a parent becomes a constant reassessment of the past, as you try to repeat and revise your own childhood. To answer Kevin’s challenge to write about aging in the big city, then, means that for the past six years at least it’s been about contrasting that metropolis with my upbringing back in a small town, and since I didn’t move to Chicago until I was 23, experiencing aspects of city life for the first time alongside my children. Modern urban parenting practices like scheduling play dates instead of letting the kids outside to run with the neighbors, going to a city park instead of the school playground, or teaching Carter how to ride a bike on the sidewalk instead of a driveway or the street create a certain mirror-world quality between their childhood and mine, experiences that are pretty much the same but just a little bit off. But the sheer amount of cultural activities on offer in Chicago that weren’t available to me in Poseyville often have me playing the part of a kid too: exploring the Shedd Aquarium and Museum of Science and Industry, staring down at the streets below from the Sears Tower, or watching every major professional sport just a walk or a short train ride away. For me, aging in the big city with kids is like having childhood 2.0: bigger, faster, and with more features, plus a mortgage and a lot more of me shouting, “Don’t you dare pull down your sister’s pants when she has a poopy diaper!”
Last week I got a frantic text message from Debbie saying, “We missed the application date to schedule the CPS testing for Carter.” She was talking about the test to apply for the gifted program in Chicago Public Schools. The kids’ schooling hasn’t been one of those happily updated analogs to my childhood. I went to public school when I was a kid, everybody did. It was the only school in town, and it didn’t involve a bewildering array of programs and magnet schools and Byzantine application processes. I just went to school. Debbie and I are determined to stay in the city but don’t have the means to send our kids to private school, so that means we’ve thrown in our lot with CPS. Fortunately our neighborhood has a fantastic public elementary, open to all comers, with a gleaming new building and the kind of test scores that would make your average city parent salivate. But they also offer gifted classes, and wanting the best for Carter (not to mention the pride of having an officially sanctioned “gifted” kid), naturally we wanted to see if he could make it.
Carter missed the cut last year for the gifted kindergarten class, but his teacher this year insisted that he has what it takes and told us we should apply again. Instead, we blew it. In our defense the application date was a month earlier this year, but that’s really not an excuse. We should have put the date on our calendar at the beginning of the semester. He’ll still be going to the same school with largely the same curriculum and he can try again next year, so it’s not the end of the world. I’m not 100% sold on the idea of putting him in separate classes and being told he’s smarter than the other kids anyway, but there’s really no way to avoid feeling like an irresponsible asshole about it. We screwed up, and now I feel like I cost him an opportunity because I wasn’t paying attention.
I have another friend who is expecting his first child, and I fear he’s driving himself crazy trying to anticipate every possible hurdle before the baby is even born. I told him to let himself off the hook because I know from experience that he’ll screw up in ways he can’t even imagine. This is the part where aging slowly in the big city is no different than in a small town or the suburbs. It’s about reassessing your own life, but with that comes acknowledging your faults and accepting regret. Aging is about understanding that you still have a lot to learn.