My son was a colicky baby, wailing for hours and up before dawn. To comfort him—and escape our cramped apartment—we would take long walks. Fortifying coffee in hand and baby in pouch, I’d scale Folsom Street and then spiral up to Bernal Heights, where we could find nature without leaving San Francisco. Once I saw an owl gripping a branch, looking back at us with agate eyes. We kept up the ritual after the fussy baby turned into a happier toddler, and we would walk side by side. Max was just 2 when he surveyed the view and said, “Our city.” Some people argue that SF is no place to raise a kid, but I’ve always felt differently.
When I was little, my parents and I shared our own cramped apartment in the Sunset—so close to the N-Judah that our windows rattled. My friends and I ruled the neighborhood on BMX bikes, scrounging for change to buy piroshki and dim sum. I loved my independence, and the city’s grit just added texture. Starting in fourth grade, I rode the bus across Golden Gate Park to school, and while I happened to see my first flasher there, it didn’t kill me. In seventh grade, I stumbled upon a free performance of The Taming of The Shrew in the rose garden and watched it by myself, enthralled. I was shaped by San Francisco and devastated when my parents decided to move to Oregon to buy a house and send me to public high school. While our quality of life was objectively higher, I couldn’t get used to the sprawl, the rain, or the homogeneity of a place where Chinese food was bright red and candy sweet.
I returned to San Francisco in my 20s, vowing to stay. When I met a man at a party who had also lived here until high school, it seemed like fate. My husband and I share the pride of natives and the urge to stake our turf. No matter how many times we drive through our old neighborhoods—North Beach, the Richmond, Pacific Heights—we point out apartments where we spent formative years. “That was the window I’d sneak out of,” my husband will boast. “That used bookstore hung my first review in the window when I was 9.” Our nostalgic shtick is driven by the need to assert our right to live in this city that we can’t really afford—not with a child.
Many of my friends had babies around the same time. We used to gather in each other’s living rooms, drinking wine and commiserating over our exhaustion and our lack of time and money. While these are the grievances of new parents everywhere, San Francisco presents particular challenges. Spacious rentals are exorbitant and elusive, but buying a home remains out of reach for most families without independent means or two corporate jobs. A parking spot can raise a property’s value by $100,000, a shocking figure to anyone who hasn’t listened to an entire Sesame Street CD while circling the block looking for a space. I mean, $15,000 is a fortune for preschool, but what choice do working parents have? Then you can pay more for private kindergarten or play the public school lottery and risk getting slotted into a low-performing school across town. Only San Francisco operates under this lottery system, where kids aren’t guaranteed a spot at their neighborhood schools, prompting the flight of anxious families to the East Bay, Marin, and beyond.
According to the latest census, while the population of San Francisco grew over the past 10 years, the number of the city’s children under 18 years old shrunk from 19 percent to 14 percent. We are now the U.S. city with the fewest kids. Dogs outnumber children. And 50 percent of families plan to leave before their kids turn 5. One by one, as my friends’ children near kindergarten, they leave San Francisco. Whether you have kids or not, there’s something unsettling about this. A childless city, where most of the kids you see are tourists, isn’t a real city. It’s a theme park. Children do more than make a mess at restaurants and interrupt quiet cafes with their chatter. They remind us of the future, the passing of time, and the fact that we’re not kids anymore. They make city life existentially different—I’d argue, better.
Max just turned 4, so we’re at that cutoff year. Although I still love it here, sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it when we can’t do many of the things we used to enjoy. Max is a rambunctious dining companion, limiting us to restaurants with counter service and floor drains. We let our SFMOMA membership lapse after his sweet coos prompted a man to remark, “I could do without the baby soundtrack.” Forget plays or readings. The current babysitting rate of $18 an hour brings the cost of a movie to well over $100, making mediocre films infuriating. While the city boasts museums geared for kids, many are absurdly expensive. Three tickets to the Academy of Sciences cost $80. A Curious George-themed birthday party at the Discovery Museum costs $980. They say that George himself will make a visit. I should hope so.
Thanks to Max, I get to revisit the best parts of my childhood, and I remember how alive and curious I felt. For his fourth birthday, he asked for a net, and we took him to test it at the tide pools at Moss Beach. While he was disappointed that he didn’t catch any shrimp for dinner, the hermit crabs, starfish, and finger-clutching anemones made up for it. On the way home, we stopped for shrimp over vermicelli at a Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall in the Sunset, where no one minded his enthusiastic table manners.
“I want to go back to the Mission,” he pleaded on a trip to Lake Tahoe last winter, convinced that the snow was dirty because the Snowcat that brought us to our lodge resembled a bulldozer, and bulldozers move dirt on Bob the Builder. I know how he feels. Like Max, I’m homesick when I leave. Coming back to the row houses resembling pastel paper cutouts and the fog blowing in over Twin Peaks, I feel restored.
When we first moved into our building, I was hugely pregnant, and a woman upstairs left home-baked treats outside our door. After Max was born, she knit him a hat with cat ears, and she and her husband offered errand-length childcare. A year later, another couple with a baby moved in across the hall, and we all became friends, gathering for impromptu potluck dinners. It’s communal in the best way. Now our upstairs neighbor is about to have a baby, and Max can’t stop talking about how excited he is.
“I’m going to be like Ando’s big brother,” he told me. “I’m going to show him our city.”
And we’re going to stay and make that possible.
Malena Watrous is a Stanford writing instructor and the author of last year’s If You Follow Me (Harper Perennial). She is currently at work on a second novel.