Apparently a change is as good as a rest, and after having my second baby with, let's say, an "active" 2-year-old already on my hands, I'd never been in more urgent need of some time out. My partner's job is based in London with their biggest market in the USA, and an outpost in Los Angeles. I said: "If you want some America time, why not do it while I'm on maternity leave – we can all go together?" A hurried baby passport application and a lot of Airbnb browsing later, we boarded a plane.
A big motivation for going was making myself look cooler on social media. I’m not entirely joking. Taking time off to have a baby is wonderful, but it can give you FOMO. While you're pinned to the sofa by a hungry newborn, friends and colleagues are out partying, going to fashion shows or dominating the corporate world. I wanted some Insta moments of my own, with palm trees in. Weather was another big factor. Remember the Beast from the East? Weeks of rain, snow and plummeting temperatures; four months stuck inside with two kids gave me a hardcore case of cabin fever.
My main fear about going was losing childcare; my son was at nursery a much-needed two days a week and his grandparents sometimes lent a hand so I could try and sleep or bond with the new baby. My state of mind pre-moving wasn’t great. I don't know if I had postnatal depression, but I definitely had postnatal not-the-same-as-I-was-before. I was stressed out and not coping well with two kids. Moving so far away was intimidating but as I saw it, I wasn’t happy where I was and besides, it didn’t have to be forever.
I wondered if parenting culture would differ between London and LA, but kids are kids wherever you go. Middle-class parenting in LA is hands-on, with parents and carers closely monitoring their offspring, much like they do here – if a little more intensely.
One difference is that Americans are more hygiene-conscious (Brits might say "germophobic"). At first I didn't understand the purpose of the box passed around between parents to collect "wet ones" after playtime with musical instruments or building blocks – items that had been in babies' mouths and therefore contaminated with saliva, which then had to be sterilised. Internally I laughed my head off at this, until I reflected on the 3,000+ viruses my son had contracted when he started nursery in London, and wondered whether they were on to something.
In London I don't have a car, and use public transport every day. Schlepping two preschoolers around on the Tube, whether using a buggy, sling or toddler scooter, is a tiring way to travel. In LA, however, behind the wheel of the hire car with kids in the back and classic rock on the radio, life does seem easier. It’s true that traffic’s bad, but I don't drive at rush hour, and the time my little boy opened his door on the freeway I was grateful for the queue, which allowed me to climb back and shut it.
US life is expensive, though. The free museums we take for granted in the UK leave you around $30 lighter for one adult and a kid. Music sessions in London are either free or a fiver, whereas in LA I pay $25 per session (although other mums have raised the possibility of just attending the free introductory session at multiple different classes). Grocery shopping is waaaay more expensive, although their supermarkets are quite enjoyable, and Rite Aid (like Superdrug on steroids) is the thing I’ll miss most.
Thankfully, plentiful sunshine comes out of the sky free of charge, allowing us to spend time outdoors, eat lunch in the yard or at the city’s numerous playgrounds and in Griffith Park. There’s an ice cream parlour in every neighbourhood, and a kids’ cone hardly costs more than a 99 Flake but is 1,000 times better, coming in a vast selection of flavours.
Breastfeeding is a funny one. In the UK it's pretty normal to see breastfeeding in family-friendly public places. In LA, I only really see people bottle feed, and on the rare occasion someone does breastfeed, it’s from the top rather than underneath their top – as if they're making a point of it. Apparently, although it’s legal to breastfeed in most states (and California is liberal), that right is not well protected everywhere, and culturally, it's less normalised to nurse in public, though no one commented on my doing it.
I don't know if I had postnatal depression, but I definitely had postnatal not-the-same-as-I-was-before.
California is great for little kids, although parents I meet express fears about their kids reaching high school age. The dark side includes the prominence of school shootings, with students regularly drilled for gun attacks. Racism and inequality seem more visible than in the UK, with neighbourhoods stratified by wealth and several parents recommending playgrounds based on the "type of children" who play there, not the equipment itself. Homelessness in LA is shocking, with people sleeping on freeway exit roads – a sight that always upsets me. Meanwhile I sometimes get chatting to very normal people only to realise they are millionaires, with jobs (or partners with jobs) as TV show runners or movie directors.
Despite spending five days a week with both kids, my stress levels have stabilised, even lowered. I still have to deal with tantrums, tears, toilet mishaps and very real tiredness, but my attention is focused on my son and daughter, and I’m enjoying their company far more. People are friendly and easy to talk to; a group of mothers invited me and the kids to join their after-school picnic in the park, a touchingly kind gesture. We made friends and went on a few playdates.
In a country where happiness is so important that the Founding Fathers enshrined the right to pursue it, I've experienced an upswing in my own. Opportunities to travel don't come up much once you've had children and the logistics can be off-putting but personally, I recommend it. It's given me a break, not from caring but from a lot of admin and my self-imposed schedule. It’s simplified life, provided breathing space and the chance to appreciate small things, rather than obsessing about the difficulties. And sunshine, ice cream and relaxed, friendly attitudes don't hurt either. Not to mention those 'grammable palm trees.