Happiness over ego

A few weeks ago, I read the news that San Francisco is — again — the most childless city in the U.S. This was the case before I had kids. Before a whole wave of people who — like me — moved to San Francisco in the dot-com bubble, grew up, and started to have kids. 

There was a collective sense that this generation of people would stay. Just like this was the generation of startups who had decided to stay in San Francisco versus settle down in Silicon Valley. 

That latter promise came so true that the center of gravity of the money had to move north from Sand Hill Road, something that seemed unimaginable previously in the history of Silicon Valley. But kids sticking around SF — by both the numbers and my own anecdotal experience — have proved another matter. 

Why we thought it would be different: Most of this group had money, for one thing, and cost of living and cost of private schools were a big factor that drove out families. 

And so 10 years ago, there was a mini-wave of this generation helping found schools, getting on the boards of some up-and-coming schools, even funding schools to ensure families like theirs could stay in SF and still have the best options for their kids. 

I had a lot of conversations with people in this generation about how they were going to be different. They were gonna dig in to help make San Francisco a family-friendly city. 

I was not one of those with money, nor was I involved in building a school. But I was in lock-step with that ethos. 

Afterall, it wasn’t just the ability to stay in the city, it was the choice. In the past, those with money liked the pastoral acres of a Woodside, but this generation were city dwellers. They didn’t necessarily believe that the best place for kids was a place where they could ride their bikes and roam all day without care. They were people who believed that cities — with the parks and arts and culture and density — were great places to raise kids. 

I remember the advice another mom, a then-wife of a founder-turned-VC, told me. “No one has any space here, so it’s just a different mindset to raising kids,” she said. “You don’t buy a lot of things, you just go out every day. The city, its parks, its museums are our playroom.”

I loved that. I still love that. I think it’s one reason why kids in San Francisco are different, more imaginative, more creative, and weirder than your average suburban kid. While they grow up in the sense of life in a city, they stay kids longer because their days are filled with things beyond the latest movie and video game release. 

As I was following several high-powered New York single moms for my book A Uterus Is a Feature not a Bug, each one remarked that living in New York made it easier to be a single mom. The city, in particular their neighborhood, their building, their densely packed neighbors, their parks were their collective co-parent. 

Man, did I feel this as a new mom, and soon after, a divorced mom. In a dense city, you can pop out to the corner store and the baby monitor may just reach. Everyone in the Mission, it seemed, knew our family and my kids. 

“Bunny pancakes and bacon right?”

I took that mom’s advice to heart, and for a long time, my kids didn’t have a lot of stuff, and certainly before the pandemic they never had laptops or video games. Instead we had memberships everywhere. Weekends were spent at the Walt Disney Family Museum, the Academy of Sciences, the Exploratorium or one of a zillion parks. We were never inside. We were never chilling at home. At a young age, my kids could easily navigate public transportation, knew how to behave in restaurants, and could sleep through any noise. 

We walked to school, about 10 minutes, passing all the merchants we knew, maybe stopping at a park to play while I grabbed pizza for dinner, the ultimate apex of the city-dwelling working mom dream. 

And then the pandemic hit. And then so much else. And now my kids go to school in Southern California, and we are part of that exit statistic. They do obsess about movies and the latest video game release. We don’t have adventures every weekend. It makes me feel a little sick at times, and I felt sick when I read that headline.

I’ve had to fight feelings of failure of leaving San Francisco as a mom, because my ego was really wrapped up in it. In being different. In being the family who stayed. 

But I had to ask myself: At what cost? 

Even before the pandemic, every school year would end in a heap of tears. Best friends were moving out of the city. Teachers were relocating to cheaper places to live or going to work at Facebook. (Literally the PE teacher left to do fitness at Facebook. Apparently it’s a similar job and substantially better pay.) Even if we had roots, so many others did not. 

While being the surviving family still in San Francisco might feel great for my female-exceptionalism ego, was it the best thing for my kids? 

After all, it wasn’t that “we couldn’t hack it” or we love suburbs or any of those reasons that we became part of this statistic. It was our own reasons. They wanted to live in a place where they can swim all year round. They wanted to opt-out of the high school admissions torture gauntlet. They wanted to live somewhere less transient. Eli wanted to live somewhere she could be her whole self, and bluntly-put, San Francisco had failed us there. 

This is the great thing about having kids. You’ll put their happiness over everything. Even your own ego.

Today’s questions from the community…