Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Mexican moms teach their children to greet adults with a peck on the cheek and few Norwegian women see obstetricians (there, midwives rule). Or so, Cup of Jo’s Motherhood Around the World series  teaches us. Reading about American expat moms’ experiences abroad got me thinking about how parenting in my own neighborhood might look to outsiders. Surely, folks from other places might find some of our habits peculiar.  Indeed, when I pause to consider them, some of the things I’ve seen—and done—surprise me too.

Of course, what follows is a mix of generalizations, over-simplifications and triviality.  But what isn’t?

Welcome to the Fan

fan art

I reside in an urban neighborhood of townhouses and row houses in Richmond, Virginia. I suspect that the area, known as the Fan because of the way its streets radiate out from a downtown park, rivals Williamsburg (Brooklyn) and The Mission (San Francisco) in street murals, MFAs, single-origin coffee beans and tattoos per capita.

On School Lunches

zora smirk

When I was a child in the 80s and 90s, I packed my own lunch.  It included things like Cheetos, celery with peanut butter and deli-meat sandwiches.  My, things have changed.  Cheetos are no longer considered food because of the long list of manmade ingredients littering its packaging.  Peanut butter is a no-no, what with the frequency and ferocity of related allergies.  And deli meat.  Well, it’s really not meat at all, is it? Its processing, I’m told, raises the risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, poor posture and incivility.

If children pack their own lunches these days, it’s an expression of autonomy and empowerment.  More commonly, parents do or oversee the packing to ensure the contents comply with the very detailed instructions sent home from school.  The lunches include foods like okra, quinoa and lentils, the less processed, the better.  One school director told me, “We won’t judge what you eat at home, but we ask you to bring your child to school with the healthiest lunch you can afford so that all of the children can see each other eating well.  In fact, some of our parents maintain a blog offering healthy lunch suggestions.”  Oh, really? No pressure.

On Toddler Art Preservation

zora drawing

I don’t know if it’s the proximity to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and VCUArts, a top-ranked public arts school, but Fan parents are serious about preserving their children’s creative expressions.  Forget the refrigerator magnets.  In these parts you’re as likely to find scribbles and finger paintings hanging in monochromatic, custom frames or stored chronologically in archival quality boxes and binders.  And don’t get me started on the stylishly curated vignettes featuring play-doh sculpture and “upcycled” expression—that is, junk our kids collected on the streets.

On Shoe-Shopping Rituals

Although being a city-dwelling, vintage-store-shopping naturalista is a point of pride with many neighborhood moms, there’s one thing that will push Fan parents into the wilds of the Far West End—kids’ shoe shopping at Saxon.  Even the hippest hipster parent will face the perils of I-64 West and the horrors of suburban sprawl to buy baby’s first pair of Toms or Keens at Short Pump Town Center. (Or maybe it’s just me.)

I’ve lived — and shopped for (grownup) shoes — in cities big and small (Chicago, London, Boston, Clemson, Gainesville and Akron) and never have I seen the art of shoe fittings done with the seriousness that it’s done at Saxon.  On a recent trip, no less than three staff members assessed Zora’s fit in a little pair of Mary Janes (shown in the last photo).  They carried out their work with the gravity of cardiothoracic surgeons.  The compassion and care they showed in hushed debates over the merits of various cork inserts, supports and insoles was something.  Beyond the shoes, I left with an education in the subtle contours of my daughter’s two-year-old feet.  Too bad she’ll outgrow the new kicks in a matter of weeks.

On Coffee Culture

zora latte

Fan parents are highly caffeinated.  I’ve packed my little one into the Baby Jogger and hustled over to Starbucks before light on many a Saturday morning in desperate need of a grande white mocha to take the edge off of a too-early wakeup call from my only child.  I always request a tiny, lidded cup half-filled with water for Zora.  She calls it a latte.

The surprising thing is that I’m not alone.  Other parents are already there, some accompanied by multiple pajama-clad children.  (At least Z and I got dressed first, I smirk.) I can’t be certain, but I suspect that the throngs of chipper weekend runners who plow down the middle of our streets at ungodly hours are to blame for Fan kids waking up so darn early on the weekends.  The fittest racers shout encouragement to the stragglers and loudly narrate the approach of oncoming cars whose drivers didn’t get the memo that runners have these blocks on lock in the wee hours.

But Starbucks just provides the first cup for many.  Our hearts are really with the local shops and before the day is done, we will have visited Lamplighter or another fave, as our toddlers pause to consider every weed, leaf and insect along the coffee circuit.  We’ll even swing by Rostovs for coffee beans and brewing accessories that we’ll need for the hours when no shops are open to provide a much-needed espresso shot.  Of the many contraptions parenthood has brought into my life, a milk frother was the least expected.

On Pocket Park Parenting in the iPhone Age

zora sand

When linear street grids meet at odds in the Fan, little triangle parks emerge to fill the intersections and parents’ need for a place to rest while kids roam free.  Full of sand and much-loved toys, Lombardy Park, surrounded by a short brick wall and wrought iron gates is a favorite of the toddler set.  Dress for a mess is the code of the park where parents sit on shaded benches and perform their rites of time passage:

  • Texting furtively while feigning full interest in their kids’ latest sandbox exploits.
  • Remarking on the cuteness of others people’s children as a way of breaking the ice instead of stating the obvious—I’m exhausted, how ‘bout you?
  • Taking iPhone photos of children at play instead of actually, you know, playing with them.

If a newcomer landed on your street, what might surprise him or her about the way you and your neighbors parent?

(Photos by Steven Casanova, except for the Starbucks iPhone shot, for which I take full responsibility.)