My husband and I recently crossed the Bay Bridge to attend, with our eight-month-old daughter, our first children’s birthday party. That is, our first kid party as parents, where the only other parents we knew were the hosts. As we made small talk, the uniform response to our living in San Francisco was, “Still?”
San Francisco has the lowest percentage of kids (under 18) than any other major U.S. city according to reports last year by The Huffington Post and San Francisco Chronicle. Of the city’s some 800,000 residents, only 13.4 percent are children. Break the demographics down another way, and 80 percent of SF homes are adult-only, and largely in the 20 to 50 age bracket.
This explains a lot, and gives credence to the feeling I’ve been getting, which is that San Franciscans aren’t used to babies.
It began with pregnancy. When I was pretty far along, a girl my age (30-something) offered her seat on a packed 38 Business Express so begrudgingly it negated the kindness of her action. A few weeks later, a middle-aged woman kindly informed me that seats at the front of the bus were reserved for people with disabilities.
In an effort to make the city more family-friendly, SFMTA plans to revise its stroller policy but for now the website maintains its current one, which is that each driver can decide whether to allow a folded, unoccupied stroller on board. By contrast, when considering how many places there are to lock up a fixie in the Mission, there’s little question as to the demographic the city caters to.
If my pregnancy was met with indifference or annoyance, my baby is not. San Franciscans frequently stop to smile or coo at my daughter, but I’m often surprised how people watch, amusedly, while I try to negotiate our stroller through a shop door, or stand in the dipped space in the curb, or keep driving as we wait in a crosswalk. It sometimes seems that the pregnant or child-laden are yet another oddity to be dealt with. Whenever I see another mom or nanny on the street, I feel a deep sense of camaraderie.
There are, of course, public and private schools filled with children. Of the 10 units in our building, five contain families. We live the way other San Franciscans do, which is sometimes from paycheck to paycheck, or in a space that’s too small, or old, or inconvenient.
My husband and I rent an arguably large and light-filled one-bedroom apartment in the Inner Richmond. Admittedly, we tried for eight of the nine months I was pregnant to find a bigger place, but with the rental market at an all-time high, competing against groups of individuals able to pour three or four incomes into rent, we decided (read: had to) hunker down.
This means that our daughter shares our bedroom. She sleeps in a bassinet on wheels, and a new TV console in the living room became her dresser. We invoked industrialized, Dickensian England – what did babies have then? Some survived! Didn’t our grandmothers put our parents to sleep in blanket-lined drawers? So what if we don’t have parking or laundry? We love it here and believe there are as many good reasons to stay as there are to leave.
The Inner Richmond is exceptionally family-friendly, if not expensive. Within a few blocks, our daughter could take piano or karate or ballet lessons. We live equidistant to Inspiration Point and the Conservatory of Flowers, and the Richmond library has a wonderful children’s section and playground. This is what we tell our parents and friends to assuage their worries about urban life.
They worry because shortly before my due date our living room ceiling leaked whenever it rained, and very recently, a painting company blew lead dust into our kitchen, which we unwittingly tracked all over the house. Lead dust, at the levels measured, is toxic for children. The city health inspector said, “No one should have to live like this.” And also: “If I had a kid, I wouldn’t live here.” She didn’t mean our building – she meant San Francisco.
When we decided to start a family, we thought that we could do everything we did before, only with a baby. Dinner parties, with a baby! Brunch at Puerto Alegre, with a baby! We’d seen, once, at the tiny Pizzetta 211, a little bald person (barely) sitting upright in the front window, perfectly calm while her parents shared a pizza and bottle of wine. This became our vision.
Fast-forward to the present, where we’re spending a lot of time in our aforementioned apartment, cooking. Couch parties, we call them, when we eat dinner and watch New Girl and nearly every show starring Gordon Ramsay. Going into it, we didn’t understand that children have early bedtimes for a reason, and we’d never quite noticed how many restaurants lack the real estate for stroller parking and changing tables.
When we do go out, we get wary looks. We know how much SFers enjoy their dining experiences – and so do we. We go now during the short windows when our daughter has been fed and changed and is alert and happy, and when there won’t be an hour wait for a table. Gone are the days of killing time with a drink at the bar.
In general, restaurants have been graciously accommodating about the largeness of the car seat in relation to the smallness of their space (shout outs to Nopalito, Pacific Café, and Outerlands). We still go to narrow Halu and crowd-packed Kingdom of Dumpling, but at off hours or just before closing. We eat quickly and are always prepared to leave, but believe that the exposure to restaurants will help our daughter learn to behave in them. And we still go to Pizzetta 211, but we bundle up and take one of the tables outside. The staff has rewarded our endurance of the fog with dessert on the house.
With the baby and all her gear, I’ll admit I feel visible in a way I’ve never felt before. Though I usually carry bottles, or breastfeed in the car or in the ladies lounge of department stores, and generally before I leave the house, it happens sometimes that I need to in public (under a cover, folks!). One of the first times was in the middle of the dining room at Rigolo. The restaurant has a gated play area in back, and its location in Laurel Village, a hotspot for status strollers and yoga pant-wearing mothers, made it a seemingly perfect choice for one of our first outings as a family.
The baby was asleep and I was looking forward to a quiet meal and a glass of wine with my husband, but as soon as we wheeled in, we heard someone comment, “Well, that’s a bit much,” in reference to our stroller, laden with diaper bag, purse, and car seat, which was swathed in this fleece thing we call “the sleeping bag.”
The moment my wine arrived, my daughter woke up crying. She wasn’t loud but two women nearby gave me the evil eye, and the longer they watched me fail to soothe my daughter, the more flustered I became. The pacifier wasn’t working and it was soon clear that I needed to put the baby on my breast, out in the open, between tightly packed tables. I turned beet red.
Most of my anxiety was self-wrought, but this was just after Time released its controversial cover on attachment parenting and the trending of public breastfeeding. And, under scrutiny, I was embarrassed about the wine. I felt the need to explain to anyone who would listen the science of alcohol and breast milk. If there were more babies in San Francisco, perhaps it wouldn’t have seemed so abnormal.
Parenting, in general, requires fortitude and great amounts of coffee. Our life in the city sometimes requires a little extra of both, as well as something more than a blanket-lined drawer in which to plop the baby those mornings we need to sprint out in our pajamas to beat the meter maids. As a result of the lead contamination, our windows were measured for new blinds, and though all the windows appear to be identical, their actual measurements were taken individually. “San Franciscans are a little out of square,” our building manager said. “We’re like our architecture.” And it’s true, I think, in the best sense. It’s why we live here, and why we wanted, after all, our daughter to be born here.