Brendan and I moved to 114th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem as newlyweds on June 15, 2013, after three-and-a-half years together in Sydney. We moved to NYC because we needed to be somewhere that was close to family but that also gave us room to grow in our young marriage and to re-identify with our old country as new people.
The first 18 months were lonely, isolating, bewildering and illuminating. Brendan’s mom was sick with Stage 4 lung cancer. I worked remote for my Australian marketing job, from 5 pm to 2 am, and thus kept strange hours. Brendan struggled to fit back into a savage East Coast work culture after four-and-a-half years working in a country where beer carts were pushed around the office come 4 pm every Friday and people often never returned to their desks after boozy lunches. I was pregnant by August. We both struggled to make friends.
We did what we could to make the most of it. Comedy and jazz in the East Village. Trips to Portland, Maine, the Hamptons and the Jersey Shore. Visits with our old friends with whom we needed to reconnect.
Brendan’s mom passed away, I gave birth to Finn, we moved to Washington Heights, I got my first city job that I tried to quit on the second day, we pulled Finn from daycare and hired a nanny and Brendan switched jobs. And then by early 2015, it was all finally clicking into place. Any old friends that no longer belonged in our lives were dispatched. We were both making new friends and loving the young, social culture of our respective jobs. I figured out how to be both me and a mother. Finn grew into toddlerhood in a place of wonder. Buses! Firetrucks! Subway trains! Garbage trucks! The park became our playground and my sanity check with other parents.
I grew up coming to New York as a child and always hoped I would have a chance to live there. The chance came later in life than expected and evoked my full range of emotion. This city more than any other matched the way I love: temperamental, electric, expectant, difficult, alive. It treated me the way I treated it. It stoked my ambition and it pushed the boundaries of my mental and physical energy. In one hour, I could experience both profound annoyance when the A-train was delayed yet again and immense gratitude when someone would help me heave my stroller with child in it up the subway stairs. I marveled at how so many different people from different backgrounds and walks of life co-existed. Often they did not, but when you’re all on a fucked subway train, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Wall Street banker or the clerk at Walgreens—we’re all in that shit together.
While I loved, and will always love, New York, I knew it wasn’t forever. Just in the way you can adore someone and know that it isn’t the right fit, place or time for you.
Living forever in New York was never going to work because neither Brendan or I was willing to do what it takes to make it happen.
I have a funny theory that, for some of us, we hit a stage in life where we want what we had growing up after running away from it for years. In my case, I have lived in or near to a major city for half my life. For most of my relationship with Brendan, we have lived on a main street where we have been able to walk outside and get a coffee, a haircut, a newspaper or the groceries. But over the last few years, we’ve both talked about wanting for our kids what we had. A yard. Space in which to run around. Room for visiting friends and family to stay.
New York has all kinds of people who make life work. And we could have made it work, too. But long-term, we wanted more than a two-bedroom apartment for our four-person family. While our New York salaries have been beneficial, we never made enough money to buy a property even in our uptown neighborhood, and I wasn’t willing to commit to getting to a place where we did. I was already commuting two hours a day and not seeing my kids until close to 6 pm. The prospect of rising up the ladder and having to work longer hours and have a nighttime nanny take care of my kids and do domestic tasks so I could afford a life in New York just seemed foolish.
It took time, but I finally came to grips with the fact that while I would always want some sort of career, I also wanted time with my children and, eventually, to be the person home for them when they came home from school at 3 pm. We both wanted a place with a lower cost of living so that if one of us decided to move to a part-time or freelance schedule it wouldn’t drastically impact our finances. And we knew if we bought a house, we didn’t want to spend $500,000 for a one-bedroom. We wanted a real house.
For Brendan, the realization was simpler. One day, he said, “I think I’m ready to mow a lawn.”
So in a quick mix of circumstances that came down, we found ourselves over the course of a month deciding to move to Phoenix. Brendan got a new job and I kept mine and am now back to the remote work life for the third time in my career, with trips back to New York already planned. The kids are in a new daycare and we have a two-bedroom apartment. And, poof, just like that, we completely changed our lives.
None of that last paragraph is to say that any of it has been easy. As one can imagine, our friends and family were shocked. This move has been the hardest yet for me because of the kids. Taking them across the country from their grandparents, aunts and uncles and their school friends has been devastating, for them and for me. Finn had such a wonderful community at his preschool over the last year and a wide circle of neighborhood friends (the kid is definitely more popular than his parents) whose parents I loved. I have been regularly texting his teachers and parents of his friends to stay in touch, as much for them and for Finn as for me. This is where the first 18 years of my life come into play. I never moved as a kid, and to see it through the experience of a child, while very young, breaks my heart.
And that’s what’s so hard about a place like New York. It and the people suck you in. It’s a vacuum pulling you into its ambition, its pride, its mess, its wonder, its fucked up, crazy, dysfunctional, all-encompassing, soul-exploding love.
New York has its grip on me because it’s where Brendan and I transitioned to from our time as expats, where our marriage truly started, where both of our children were born, where our careers went to another level, where we created this colorful, patterned, mismatched tapestry of a life that brought in the old and the new. Not only did we have our old friends and family and the new ones we met, but also two separate couples that we knew in Sydney who moved back to the East Coast. And because it’s New York, over the years we had visits from other Sydney friends who came to tour America. It felt like we were in the place to be and getting the best of all of our worlds, past, present and future.
So many moments I’ll never forget. Parked in front of the nursing home across from our favorite coffee shop in Harlem when Brendan got the call that his mom had passed away at his childhood home. The Rite Aid on 116th street where Brendan was propositioned when I sent him at 4am because Finn wasn’t getting my breastmilk. The M4 bus ride home from Columbia Hospital with sunglasses on to hide the tears after seeing my second baby on the ultrasound screen unmoving with no heartbeat. Pushing each of my living babies in their carriages through Fort Tryon Park.
What a place to have been. What a time we had there. How fortunate we were, even in our and the city’s worst moments, to have had the time we did there. A thousand frustrations and a thousand more happy moments.
Smorgasburg, the New York Transit Museum, Central Park, birthday parties in Finn’s beloved Bennett Park, Riverside Park, the drive north on the FDR at night, the glimpes into people’s apartment buildings, the slice of their life, Christmas lights in some windows all year-long, including ours, how our super called Finn “Boss,” the High Line, High Bridge, play dates on the Upper West Side, preschool potlucks, drunken date nights and outings with friends, boozy brunches, getting to see Bruce, Chapelle and Janet, the ferry to Staten Island, working in one of the World Trade Centers, Christmas eves at Uncle Nick’s Greek in Hell’s Kitchen, the store displays at Christmas, Dyker Heights, buying our tree on a street corner, museums, watching Brendan play kickball, Fresco’s pizza shop, the Apollo, buskers, sledding down the hill in Fort Tryon, ice cream cones from the truck on a warm summer’s day, trips with daycare friends to Bear Mountain and the train display at the Botanical Garden, walking the Brooklyn Bridge, Top of the Rock, two wonderful maternity leaves, museums, public art, Finn’s soccer practices, ball in the court yard, haircuts at the Dominican barber shop, Finn watching basketball players, neighborhood Halloween parades, Levain cookies, bus rides with my babies, the walk to preschool with the George Washington Bridge looming large and proud over the Hudson.
The last four-and-a-half years a movie reel on loop in my mind.
In Phoenix, we have all the things we couldn’t get in New York. We have cousins (Brendan’s younger sister lives here with her toddler son and two stepsons), nice weather most of the year, way cheaper rent and childcare, a slower pace and more space. I have been here three times before so I knew of Phoenix’s charms. In time, I know it will feel like home. We are in a short-term rental and plan to buy a house as quickly as possible. When we find our neighborhood, we will sign Finn up for activities and spend time to find the right preschool for next year. We will get into the outdoors and prioritize more time as a family than we could in New York. We will adapt to being up before the sun and embracing ending our work days by 4 pm.
This is the right move, even if right now I am saying it out loud a little to convince myself because my heart is still back in New York. But that’s the thing about life, right? Just like you can love more than one person, have more than one calling, you can have more than one home. You leave a little of yourself everywhere you go and take part of that place with you.
Goodbye, New York, and all the people there and in the surrounds, for now, from the other side, with all my love, always.