Moving Violations

How my kids survived the transition to a new city.

Also in Slate, Rachael Larimore writes about what it’s like  for the friends who get left behind in a move.

Moving box. Click image to expand.
Children can survive a move to a new city

This summer, my husband and I didn’t just move our kids to a new house in another city, prying them away from their neighborhood, their friends, their school, and their great-grandmother. We moved them from house to house over and over again. When our real estate agent convinced us to vacate our house in Washington, D.C., before trying to sell it (no clutter, no old furniture, no playroom in the dining room), we weren’t ready to leave town. We looked into renting an apartment for the summer, but, luckily, various housesitting possibilities and visits with friends fell into place. Five of them, over two and a half months. Tack on a New England rental house in August, and you can see why we started calling ourselves the Wandering Jews.

None of this, I’m sure, would play well on the parenting advice channel. Minimize disruption and transition time, the experts say. Provide clarity and predictability, smooth the gears of change, reassure the kids that their lives still have order. Since we seemed oblivious to this obvious wisdom, it was left to friends and relatives to express awe (tinged with disapproval) about our odyssey. “I can’t believe you’ve made the move so hard,” one said, speaking, no doubt, for just about everyone else.

But maybe children don’t need stability all the time. Maybe they can tolerate buffeting and moving around, as long as you don’t turn into the Joad family, with all your possessions lashed to a rusted jalopy. Our kids started counting the number of beds they’d slept in this summer, and while I cringed at first, at some point I caught on: To them, some aspects of the upheaval were a bit of a lark. There was the sleek seltzer maker to sample in one house, the Calvin and Hobbes comics collection in another. This small discovery about house-hopping became my larger take on moving. Kids can handle it. Maybe not over and over again—I hope mine get to stay where we’ve now planted them. But moving, once or a few times, is not too much to ask.

This doesn’t diminish the fundamental poignancy of the experience: You are asking your children, arguably, to treat all their relationships and points of reference as fungible. The morning we broke the news of the move to Eli and Simon, Eli burst into tears—big fat visible drops. Each of my misguided efforts to comfort him provoked a fresh outburst. “You’ll go to a new school, you’ll see, you’ll like it” AGGGHHHH. “You’ll have a new soccer team!” AAAUUGGGHHH. I was offering replacements. He was attached to the originals. That’s, after all, what I wanted. I’d nurtured and encouraged the very sense of belonging that my husband and I were now ripping off like an old Band-Aid.

If you are the kind of parent who hates to see your child suffer, even for an instant, such moments are a torment. Yes, adversity is good for their small souls. But it’s rotten to feel like you’ve had a hand in inflicting it. After my initial bumbling, I tried to tread more lightly and follow the kids’ cues. We didn’t talk much about moving when we didn’t have to. We picked the new school that the kids themselves liked best. And we didn’t let the summer’s wandering descend into true disorder; the kids went to camp in June and July, and its competitive rituals and daily routine proved a salvation of distraction.

The big lesson of our move: It’s a bad idea to circle back to the home you’ve abandoned. We kept visiting the house we’d moved out of for the most mundane reasons—to pick up the mail, to water the grass. It seems obvious in retrospect, but this was hard on the kids. There was their beloved back yard, cruelly off-limits because of the newly-laid bright green sod. There was the tree they used to swing from, the swing gone, the branch it had hung from cut away. One June day, a visit reduced Eli to curling up in the fetal position, and my husband and I realized that it was time to leave our old neighborhood for good. Staying across town went from being an inconvenience to a godsend. Kids live in fairly small and bounded worlds. A mile’s breathing room was all we needed: a new local construction site to watch, a different park to explore.

The upside of the extended transition for my sons was that it separated the pain of leaving our house, of uprooting their small roots, from their arrival in a new place. By the time they got to say hello, the difficulty of saying goodbye was several weeks and houses in the past. When we pulled up to our new house in New Haven, Conn., in August, the kids were ready to be there. They nested by dumping out all their Legos on the floor and taking over a loft in the garage, perching their stuffed animals on the railing.

In New Haven, we benefited from stability of a sort: We have lived there before, and while the kids were too young when we left to remember the place clearly, they took to telling anyone who’d listen that they were born in New Haven. This really did seem to be a touchstone. Even better, of course, were the friends we’d stayed in touch with. Eli and Simon landed in the middle of blocks filled with kids, a handful of whom they knew well. And that’s what they seemed to want most: to feel familiar, to know, again, who is around them and where they are. In the end, I don’t think that means seeing people and places as building blocks that can be seamlessly exchanged and replaced. It means adding another layer, leaving the pieces of a kid’s old life just underneath the surface.

At the end of our first week in town, I took Eli and Simon to the grocery store we shopped at when they were small. I don’t think they remembered it, but they insisted they did. On the way home, Eli said, “I’m tired of people talking about us moving.” I asked why.

Eli: “It’s a little sad.”

Simon, with exasperation: “And a lot booorrrring.”

Eli: “I just want to be here.”

Simon: “Yeah. This is where we live. Doesn’t everyone know that by now?”