I’ve not always embraced life in the suburbs. When I was a teenager growing up in a fairly homogenous neighborhood full of strip malls and oversized parking lots, I couldn’t wait to leave. I made it to 19 and then headed to the bright lights of Los Angeles. A whole new world opened up. From there it was London. I went from growing up in a place where I couldn’t even walk to the local supermarket, to a place where I didn’t once drive a car for well over a decade.
Then I had children and everything changed. Walking took on a whole new dimension. I wasn’t just walking to and from the tube, I was walking to the doctor, the ballet class, the shops, the nursery, the park and the library. My wrist would get extremely tired as I struggled to hold an umbrella while navigating a heavy stroller with one hand in the driving rain. I found that my world shrunk, mostly out of necessity – there was only so far I could get with two small kids on public transportation or on foot.
In July I came back to the same suburb I was born in. Initially this felt as alien to me as the blinding sunshine and warm weather. I was disorientated and a little sad that I no longer walked anywhere, but then I settled in and started to enjoy the convenience. Only five minutes away from my childhood home (by car, of course) is a brand-new YMCA. It’s an impressive white building that has a Californian/Spanish feel to it. To say it is huge is to do it an injustice. It’s actually gigantic. The only thing that dwarfs it is the surrounding canyons. I enroll the Chatterbox in swimming classes at the YMCA, because she’s probably not been near a pool since a holiday two years ago.
I walk into the facility and go straight to the indoor swimming pool. It has a glass ceiling and floor-to-ceiling windows. The massive room is filled with light, even on one of the few cloudy days of the year. I can see the Californian canyons beyond. It feels amazingly tranquil, despite the fact that YMCA staff call out the names of children enrolled in different swimming classes.
The Chatterbox, I discover, is too old for her group. Her age works to her advantage, though. For days she had been telling me that she was scared of getting in the water. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to peel her off me and that she would cry hysterically. This fate befalls the mother of a three-year-old, who can only watch from the sidelines in growing despair. My child, thankfully, jumps right in and starts playing with plastic toys and blowing bubbles.
‘I liked the water,’ the Chatterbox tells me excitedly afterwards. ‘It was fun.’ I listen with one ear while the rest of me takes in the immaculate dressing rooms.
I get a flashback: I am in London, waiting for the Chatterbox’s ballet class at my local YMCA. The bathrooms are dirty and uncomfortable, with a very small dressing room off the toilets. Most people opt to change their children in one large open-plan room. Food has been crushed into the floor, kids scream and yell. In one corner there are dirty toys for babies and toddlers that look like they have been donated by an east European orphanage. I resist the urge of keeping the Raging Bull from putting something filthy in her mouth. On the days when it’s cold and raining and there is no ventilation, the room smells like dirty feet, sweat, old food and mold.
But at this YMCA in suburban San Diego I am surrounded by quiet; there is the feel of springy, new carpet underfoot and no distinguishable smell. I could lie down and take a little nap. It’s a cold day and I walk briskly to the car after changing the Chatterbox into dry clothes. I don’t have to worry about waiting for a bus and lugging wet towels with me on a winter’s day. It’s this kind of thing that has put me off enrolling the Chatterbox in swimming classes in London. I just couldn’t bear the thought of having to get there – and yet there was always a waiting list. The only way to enroll your child was to wait in a line at 6am on the day of registration. Otherwise forget it.
The suburbs get a bad rap, in literature, film and television. They are a source of ridicule, pegged as the playground of bored housewives and delinquent children. But I’ve had kids and, guess what, I can imagine a worse fate. More than that, I feel like I could get used to it.