Should I raise my children in Chicago, despite the sub-zero climate? By Kim Brooks for Babble.com’s “Bad Parent” column.Kim Brooks
It’s snowing in Chicago for the fourth time this month. It’s December. I’m frightened. Or maybe frightened is not a strong enough word. Terrified is better. I do not have seasonal affective disorder. I am not prone to slipping on the ice. I have a garage spot for my car and a good, sturdy, down parka, the kind that makes me look about as shapely as a penguin but keeps me warm in sub-arctic temperatures. Actually, if I factor in hot toddies, crackling fires, cozy armchairs and the like, I don’t even mind winter that much, under normal circumstances. But these are not normal circumstances. In addition to a parka and a garage space, I also have a fifteen-month-old who’s just learned to walk, and I’m suddenly struck by the quandary of what, exactly, I’m going to do with him four months out of the year.
Sure, last winter was no picnic, dragging his removable car-seat across snow banks, suctioning snot on an hourly basis, going, at times, through an entire day without stepping outside because I didn’t want to deal with the trouble of trying to breastfeed through four layers of clothing. The difference between then and now is that then he was an infant, and really couldn’t have cared less what the wind chill was.
Now, he’s a toddler, and when it’s too rotten out for parks or walks or even playtime in the yard, boy does he care. The fact that he has reactive airway disease and the dry, cold air irritates his bronchi means nothing to him. The fact that we’re both on our third respiratory virus of the season is irrelevant. As I write this, he stands against our balcony door, nose to glass, pounding his chubby hands against the frame. When I tell him, “no bang,” he laughs and continues. When I repeat myself more forcefully, his lip begins to quiver and I can hear the meltdown on the horizon, the encroaching howl that will communicate in no uncertain terms his state of mind – “I don’t want to go to the bleeping mall. I don’t want to go to the aquarium. I don’t want to go to playgroup for the fourth time this week. I WANT TO GO OUTSIDE! NOW!”
I’m beginning to wonder if this may turn out to be the longest winter of my life. When I think about all those sunbelt moms, bouncing about year round with their Baby Bjorns and easy-to-snap-on onesies and baby Banana Boat block, I want to growl.
It doesn’t help that I grew up in such a place. Richmond, VA is not exactly Malibu, but winter there is short and wimpy, a month or two of dreary, rainy days as opposed to four full months of shearing winds and blizzards. True, it didn’t have one thousandth of the culture or excitement of Chicago, the stuff I’m sure Roscoe will appreciate when he can, you know, read and talk and look at a piece of art without eating it. But what it did have was a climate where going for a long walk or bike ride, playing in the dirt, or jumping on the old, dilapidated trampoline in our backyard, was almost always an option. When I think about my own childhood I think of heat, of summer air so thick I could practically swim through it, of wet leaves in winter and mosquitoes in April. A mild climate, I now realize, was an integral part of my parents’ laissez faire parenting style, but it was never a factor my husband and I took seriously when deciding where to settle. Hey, we’re adults, we thought. We can handle it. And now I know just how spot on we were with that sentiment.
In all my recently acquired maternal wisdom, I’ve come to accept that raising a toddler in what, at the moment, I can only describe as “a shitty climate,” poses three unique and equally daunting difficulties. First, there’s the problem of perspective. I’ve only lived in Chicago for three years, but already I’ve come to understand that the main way most grown-ups make it through is by knowing it will end. The summers here, after all, can be as magnificent as the winters are miserable. There’s absolutely nothing as glorious as that first temperate day when the streets are awash in sunlight. People come out of their homes, their offices, and look around as if in a daze, smiling dopily at one another and at their old forgotten friend, the sun. Restaurants open their patios. Joggers and bikers take to the streets. Windsurfers don their wetsuits and set sail across the lake. It’s a wondrous event, and we Chicagoans always know it’s coming, even if it’s two, three, four months away. But for a fifteen-month-old, four months might as well be four years. Or four hundred years. It might as well be never. That’s problem one.
Problem number two can be summed up in one word: clothes. While I’ve come to cherish my big, frumpy parka, my double-layered gloves, my scarf that is so thick I sometimes forget where my neck is, Roscoe doesn’t see it quite this way. Like many toddlers I know, rain or shine, January or June, he’d be quite content to hop about naked, and when I thwart this preference by taking out his dreaded snowsuit, winter coat, and all that goes with it, he does not hesitate to express his displeasure. Put another way, our mudroom has become a wrestling ring. That’s problem two.
And as for problem three – well, it goes by the name of Visa. I know there are plenty of kid-friendly winter activities that don’t involve spending money, that don’t involve roaming the isles of Target or Trader Joe’s or some god-forsaken shopping mall for the third time that week. “Mommy,” his big eyes seem to say, “I don’t care how cold it is.” All they require is a little bit of up and ‘at ’em attitude, something I often find myself lacking when it’s five below, dark, and snowing. And so, what can I say? The security guard who opens the Target two miles from my house at eight a.m. knows me by name.
Eventually, of course, shopping must come to an end. The closets are stocked with diapers and light bulbs. There are simply no errands left to run. Roscoe is pounding on the window again. “Mommy,” his big eyes seem to say. “I don’t care how cold it is; I want to feel the air on my face – that fresh, brisk, negative-ten degree air.” I wrestle him into his layers of outerwear until he is no more than a column of water-resistant insulation with eyes. I open the front door and out he toddles. This is his first time playing in the snow. He is a pillar of blue against a wall of white. He looks at me, mystified, entranced. He falls over. He dips his mittened hand into the snow and holds up the white crystals, observing them as though they contain the same mystery and marvel as a galaxy, as a swath of stars. And for at least a few minutes, I see winter as he does, not something to be rushed through or survived, but a thing in and of itself, nothing more or less, and there is nowhere else I want to live.