The mothers on Manhattan’s chic Upper East Side are highly educated, extremely wealthy, and very competitive. They throw themselves and all of their energy and resources into full-time child rearing, turning their kids into the unwitting pawns in a game where success is measured in precocious achievements, jam-packed schedules, and elite private-school pedigrees. Hannah Allen has recently moved to the neighborhood with her New York City–bred investment banker husband and their two-year-old daughter, Violet. She’s immediately inundated by an outpouring of advice from her not-so-well-intentioned new friends and her overbearing, socially conscious mother-in-law, who coach her on matters ranging from where to buy the must-have $300 baby dress to how to get into the only pre-pre-preschool that counts. Despite her better instincts and common sense, Hannah soon finds herself caught up in the competitive whirl of high-stakes mothering.
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Jill Kargman is the author of The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund and Momzillas, and the coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers Wolves in Chic Clothing and The Right Address. She lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with her family.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I am staring at the crystalline frozen tundra of ice–licked Alaska. Surrounded by an endless snowy desert, a little Eskimo girl pounds her way through the rushing, snowflake–laden wind as cheerful music plays.
“Put on your kami–kluk to stay warm and dry...”
No, I didn’t board a flight to Juneau. I’m watching Sesame Street with my daughter, Violet. It’s one of Grover’s world–friendly segments where global cultures are profiled through the dewy, pure lens of a child’s eyes. We visit a Chinese boy who is a top acrobat and can spin fourteen plates on his face and a little Indonesian girl who can balance six bowls on the top of her head. While dancing.
Today Grover has transported us to the forty–ninth state—and our local lass is suiting up to face the Arctic chill, with the help of her mother, who sews fur pelts together to fashion a tikiyook, or coat, to repel the subzero temps. She rushes out into the crisp fresh air to meet other children, also clad in PETA’s worst nightmare, and skips off into the fluffy white mounds, laughing sweetly.
It all looks so wholesome, so simple, so uncomplicated. No fancy schools to get into, no apartments to compare. It looked pleasant there, out in the bleak but weirdly alluring slate of glistening frost punctuated only by playful tykes toting their homemade lunches to school in swinging buckets.
But then the bilious pit in my stomach reasserted itself, and I couldn’t help but think this awful, impure thought: I bet one of the moms is looking over the other kids’ kami–kluks to see if the stitching is better. Or if the book sack one mom made is as creatively patterned as another. I am certain one family’s igloo is grander, another’s dogsled more impressive.
I was watching this on my television, in my apartment, not set in a downy white backdrop, but rather in the lion’s den of competitive mommies: New York City’s Upper East Side. In California, where my husband, Josh, and I lived before the relocation plunge a month ago, the one orange Bugaboo stroller on our block was so strange and uncommon a sight, people thought aliens had delivered it via flying saucer. In New York, the Rolls Royce of strollers is as common as yellow cabs—and the streets are just as jammed with them, but instead of reeking of an overpowering air–freshener–and–curry combo, they smelled of Kiehl’s–scrubbed babies.
It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even want to walk up Madison Avenue; while my kid looks like Baby Old Navy exploded, I routinely bump into neighbors with children so perfectly preened in smocked dresses, rickrack–collared linen blouses, shiny Mary Janes with lace socks, and enormous bows in their styled hair. My mother–in–law gives us baby clothes that are marked Dry Clean Only. Unless they’re linen, in which case yours truly gets to crack out the ironing board. I just want to hide. Boy, am I living in a crazy place. Maybe I should call Air Alaska.
It all started when Josh got a call from Parker Elliott, his best friend from Harvard Business School. He knew Josh was sick of his job in San Francisco, dreading working the East Coast hours on the West Coast and getting up well before the ass–crack o’dawn. The bank that employed Parker was willing to make Josh an offer he couldn’t turn down, so suddenly our laid–back California world was history. I was getting my PhD in art history at Berkeley right before Violet was born, but bagged after the Master’s because a) of the impending stork arrival and b) I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do with a PhD. So when the call came for Josh, I was a perfectly transportable, abundantly educated, stay–at–home mom.
I grew up in rainy Seattle so the storm–whipped weather “back east” never cowed me like most California residents; in fact, even though I’m a born–and–bred West Coaster, I actually always felt more at home with the northeastern vibe—crisp autumns lazing indoors and avoiding the sun due to my ultra–pale, all–too–easily–burnable complexion. When I met Josh and we started dating, he told me straightaway that he wanted to move back to his native New York to raise a family one day. I was game; I just didn’t know that day would come so soon. I’d liked our shimmering, carefree San Francisco bubble, far from his socialite mom, cozy in our solitude between our close group of friends, our favorite haunts, and mellow routines. I always loved Manhattan when I visited every fall, but it was all a glistening October collage of Broadway shows, plush hotel rooms, designer sushi, and kissing in burgundy–leafed Central Park.
The transformation from romantic tourist to entrenched inhabitant was bumpier than I had anticipated. The offer and subsequent arrangements happened so quickly; it seemed that within days I was loading up boxes, boarding a plane, and moving into corporate housing, all before I could even get used to the thought of it.
The night we arrived, Josh ordered a Chinese feast, and after we tucked Violet into her Pack ‘n’ Play, we chowed take–out cartonloads of chow fun and General Tso’s chicken, by the flickering light of nonaromatherapy candles.
“Hannah?” he said, smiling over his chopsticks.
He came over and hugged me and I blinked to release a lone tear, which he wiped away softly.
Suddenly here we were: away from our friends, my family, my coast—and planted in a new world of the elite, his mom and fancy prep school pals included. My tear flow increased.
“As if I don’t already have enough salt from this meal,” I laughed as he kissed me, wiping my cheeks.
“I’m already the fattest girl in this city and the MSG intake ain’t helping.”
“Shut up. You're beautiful.”
I looked at him gratefully and sighed.
“We’re going to be fine here,” he consoled, stroking my hair. “Better than fine. You will love New York, Han, I swear.”
Joshie has always wanted me to adore his hometown as much as he did, and he’s done everything he can to infuse me with his passion for it—from Woody Allen screenings in our den to museum binges when we visited, to excited samplings of his favorite foods (the perfect bagel, the best hot dog), and showing me the most sublime walks, to pointing out the most diverse, most intellectual, most kaleidoscopic array of eclectic, sometimes freakish citizens. He was a real die–hard, love–the–gray, eat–up–the–noise, relish–the–smell–of–streetcart–food New Yorker. Ever since I’d known him, Josh went back home every few months for his fixes, like a junkie filling up on the buzz and heat and lifeblood of the twelve–mile island he thought of as the center of the universe. He was so ecstatic to finally be back, and I was thrilled for him. But gone were the days of him rolling home at four thirty p.m., taking evening walks as a fam, and eating early dinners in our favorite holes in the wall. He had warned me that in this new job he couldn’t cut corners and would be pretty much swamped, handcuffed to the office at least for a while. And I’d be navigating the rough waters on my own. Waters teeming with sharks. Kelly–bag–toting, Chanel–suit–wearing, Bugaboo–pushing sharks.
“Bee is calling you on the cell tomorrow to meet up,” Josh said, trying to lift my spirits. “Parker said she wants to take you to some children’s clothes show or something. She’ll introduce you to all her friends.”
“Okay,” I said, exhaling and nodding. I wanted to be supportive to Josh. He had been so down at his old job and I had hated seeing him miserable. This was a chance at a fresh start for him, and I needed to match his enthusiasm. But just hearing the name Bee made me nervous.
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