I remember the moment I knew our new neighborhood was not going to work. It was August, and my toddler and I walked to a playground. We passed a school with a playground, no kids. We passed many yards with signs of children, but no kids. It was morning and it was hot. We arrived in the park, hidden behind the cape houses, and began playing. There were no large trees to shade the play equipment. And, in the half hour that we played, there were no kids. I felt angry. I felt like an idiot.
My husband had the car for the day. We returned to our rental house and the yard I had been so excited about, yet all I could think about was how it was time to move.
I had moved houses almost every year of my life after college. I had lived in three large cities and one foreign country before we moved as a family to New York. I thought I had moving down. Moving with a child is the first hurdle, but orienting yourself and young children in a new home can be a huge challenge.
We moved from San Francisco to a suburb of Buffalo, choosing what looked like a kid-dense, walkable neighborhood. There were three playgrounds, a community center, a library, and a large grocery store within walking distance. The landlords assured us the neighborhood was full of young families. We had looked at apartments in the city but were swayed by the idea of renting a house, with a yard, which was more proximate to work.
All good except no one walked, save for exercise. Children did not seem to gather on playgrounds. It was Summer. Everyone seemed to be . . . gone. My modes of socializing with my toddler in California — going outdoors to playgrounds or walking to cafes or just simply walking — failed. It was also too hot to be outside for large parts of the day, unless you were at the beach or pool. Something I had forgotten after five years in the Bay Area. One could always go outside. There was no, ahem, Winter. I began to understand why people had playrooms.
Before we settled, I wanted to take more time during our rental year exploring the suburbs and city neighborhoods before choosing a long-term home. We gave up on this plan. We identified where we wanted to live as quickly as possible and moved again within six months — into Buffalo, into a denser neighborhood, where neighbors were out more and there was a popular playground nearby. Much to my benefit, mothers immediately told me about a group of moms with preschool children that met regularly in the evenings. I grilled these moms, I studied their habits, I took all of their advice.
Moving is always a risk. When we moved into our current home in Winter, I had no idea just how many young families lived around us. Maybe we got lucky. Still, it has taken me years to figure out our new hometown in terms of what to do with young kids. Like many smaller cities, Buffalo is a large community of small towns and suburbs beyond the city itself, all of which operate independently. In addition, the sort of knowledge you need to establish a new routine is not easily found online, which is true of almost all but the largest US metro areas. This was all compounded by the fact that we moved here not knowing anyone. Sounding familiar?
If you find yourself in a new city with kids, learn from my mistakes and save yourself loads of time. Your challenge is to find things to do and meet people as you do it. The age of your children will determine what you might be looking for.
- Exploit your natural networks — the people you work with and/or choose child care with are people you likely share habits with. The easiest way to meet parents with kids is through day cares and preschools. If you are not working, many communities also have cooperative preschools for young children.
- Seek out community centers and organizations like the YMCA that have built-in programs for kids or offer activity-based child care, even for infants. Visit nature centers. Try out churches.
- If you have older children, volunteering can be a great way to meet families that share your values.
- Find a newcomers club to meet people who also feel lost and ignorant. The clubs are often run by people who have been in your position and are looking to give back. Look for social groups on Facebook, especially ones for just you. (My favorite local group here is called the Buffalo Beer Goddesses, and it's women who meet to enjoy beer.) Check out gymnastics centers, trampoline "parks," and the pools and splash pads in Summer.
- Sign up for something: music class, yoga, or swimming lessons are all things you can do with babies and toddlers, and most of these activities offer free trials.
- Explore: plan day trips and adventures, try farmers markets. These are places to meet new people and gain insight into your new home's natural beauty and regional culture. As it turns out, Western New York is a hiking, skiing, and boating paradise. There are delightful seasonal and historical outings along the Erie Canal and in state parks like Fort Niagara.
- Go to the library. Look into memberships at the zoo or the science or art museum; as your child grows, these places are ones you can return to again and again, for different events and classes.
- Be bold: invite yourself to things. I consider myself a reserved person, but I have completely changed my tactics now that I have children to socialize. Ask parents, ask parents, ask parents. While we were in our rental, it turned out that there was a playgroup and busy playground near us, just a bit farther away, where parents could pay to join a play space at the community center. I only know because I kept asking parents.
- Try new things, try to reserve judgment. Even if you don't understand the natives at times, it is necessary to step outside your comfort zone. It's a good time to worry less about whether you like people or may be compatible and just network. Look for local websites that collect kid-friendly events for parents.
- Be patient. Finding the people you really want to be with and the things you really enjoy doing with your children — especially as they grow — takes some time. But I've found that time to be fully worth the work.
- Winter is a whole other ball game. But if I can do it in Buffalo, so can you.