In her 26 years in New York, Wednesday Martin has lived in nearly every neighborhood, from Long Island City to Soho to the West Village. Nothing, she says, prepared her for the Upper East Side.
“It’s the most fascinating and alienating and completely separate world I’ve ever encountered,” Martin says. “This is a separate tribe in New York City.”
Her new book, “Primates of Park Avenue” (Simon & Schuster), is a chronicle of her time as a wife and mother on the Upper East Side and the culture shock that ensued. Martin, who will say only that she’s in her 40s, used her background in anthropology to understand the behavior on display: the segregation of men and women, the abuse of alcohol and drugs, the wild displays of competition, the conspicuous consumption and, above all, the deification of children.
“There is nowhere, to me, where intensive parenting is more acutely felt than the Upper East Side,” Martin says. “You’re supposed to be enriching your child on every measure you could think of: emotionally, socially, artistically, academically. It’s your job — and it falls on the women, because this tribe is very gender-scripted. The mommy culture there is a world within a world within a world.”
Coaches, therapistsIn 2004, Martin and her financier husband decided to move from the West Village to the Upper East Side. “I wanted a place where my kid could get a haircut and sit in a chair that looked like a firetruck and watch the Wiggles,” she says. “That wasn’t happening in the West Village at the time.”
They found a condo at 900 Park Ave., and the social pressures were immediate. As they moved in, Martin writes, “a debate was raging between residents over whether people with babies and toddlers should be required to take the service elevator, normally used for ferrying deliveries and garbage.”
Families up here had many children, not the average 2.5. “Having a lot of children is the new conspicuous consumption,” Martin says. “It’s how the Masters of the Universe show their wealth: provisioning their children the right way and getting them into the right classes.”
Martin’s oldest was a toddler at the time, and the pressure to enroll her child in the best nursery school was acute. On the Upper East Side, the right nursery school opens the track to the Ivy League. The average tuition for a toddler in 2004 ranged from $25,000 to $35,000 a year.
Martin’s little boy, she soon learned, was way behind. As she writes, “before nursery school, your toddler was supposed to take classes at Diller-Quaile School of Music,” which accepts 3-month-olds. “Before Diller-Quaile, you were supposed to do a certain baby group. Everything, it seemed, fed into everything else.”
Martin was further panicked to learn her child had been born in the wrong month; many women on the Upper East Side time their pregnancies and IVF treatments to school enrollment, so their child will begin school at the oldest age possible — a practice known as redshirting.
“You go to the Upper East Side, and everyone will be heavily pregnant in the same month, because the time to have a baby is October or November,” Martin says. “Those are the good birthdays.”
Still, Martin learned there were things she could do for her toddler. Since the way children play with others factors into nursery-school admission, many Upper East Side mommies hire play-date tutors. Aristotle Circle, for example, offered group play-date tutorials last year for $400 an hour, complete with a write-up of your child’s social deficits. They currently offer one-on-one sessions between toddler and therapist for $150 to $300.
“The headmasters or the administrators of the school watch while the children have a play date with other children from the applicant pool — sometimes up to eight of them,” Martin says. “It’s an audition. So the play-date tutors are for kids who don’t have enough experience with spontaneous play, because they’re so overscheduled.”
Martin’s child was accepted to their school of choice, but her relief was short-lived. She soon learned much else was expected of the Upper East Side mommy.
“Intensive mothering says that if you have all these resources and all this money, you can’t just say to your kid, ‘Go play in the back yard,’ ” Martin explains. “You have to find the best occupational therapist” — whether or not your child has disabilities.
“Especially if he’s a boy,” Martin says. “It’s to give him a leg up on his grapple motor skills and help him with his ‘sillies’ so he can sit still in school and do better on tests. Some people really need the occupational therapists. I’m not putting anybody down.”
Martin says she knows of mommies who hire food coaches for picky little eaters. “You need to hire somebody to teach your kid to ride a bike the safe, right way. Taking your kid to school is not enough. Helping with homework is not enough. There are homework tutorials for parents — we’re supposed to literally go to classes so you can learn how your child is learning math, so that you can be in a better mind-meld with your child.”
And then there are the extracurricular play dates, as crucial for the mommies as the children. “Parents try to raise their status and build relationships through their children,” Martin says.
“There’s a lot of social jockeying through play dates.”
To fit in on the Upper East Side, Martin discovered that she needed many fancy accouterments — including the Hermès Birkin bag.