Primates of Park Avenue


Primates of Park Avenue introduces itself as a memoir of a mother’s experience on the Upper East Side. The word “memoir” gave me the impression that it would be an honest narrative with a bit of exaggeration here and there because let’s face it, that is how books sell. Still, as someone who has spent much time on the Upper East Side I was stunned by just how much Wednesday Martin exaggerated. There was one very heart felt chapter about the terrible pain mothers face and their utmost desire for their kids well-being which touched me. She also had a few interesting tidbits about Anthropology research regarding other cultures, but her other anecdotes seemed like a collection of gossip that you may have read in the tabloids or chick-lit books about the rich and famous.

One of the main problems I encountered was that Martin really seems to want to appeal to the reader as if she is this lonely outsider on the Upper East Side surrounded by mean girls. She seems to have some contempt for the way these mean girls choose to live their life, having presenting herself as a humble mid-westerner who can’t help but compare this crazy city life to her normal upbringing. Yet Martin starts out living in an entire townhouse before she moves to the Upper East Side. It’s hard to sympathize with her “expensive cab rides” during her attempts to sell the townhouse when she could have just taken a bus uptown or the train like a normal New Yorker. You also get the impression that she must be used to being popular and this is the first time she has encountered people who are completely uninterested in her because she is too desperate to break into the inner circle at Pre-K. Frequently she brings up how normal it is in most places for kids to play with older relatives at family gatherings but still desperately tries to secure play dates with other families once school starts. I assure you family gatherings take place in Manhattan as well. I don’t understand why after having mentioned that her in-laws lived nearby, she couldn’t take her son to play with his cousins. Wednesday Martin seems to live as much in a bubble as her neighbors, seemingly unaware that the rest of the city dwellers don’t do things as they do.

Fact and Fiction

From the very moment Martin sets foot in her future apartment, she dives into fiction. Either that or she is a terrible researcher, having used only a few subjects to report on her findings of UES life. According to Martin, everyone vacations in the same places during breaks and they all know where. Well this is just not true. Aside from the old money families, there are many Europeans that live in the Upper East Side and have their kids in school there while they do business. Some families go to visit grandparents in Europe, others in Latin America and some even vacation where they want. Maldives, Bora Bora, Dubai…it does vary.

Once pre-school begins, Martin goes all Devil Wears Prada on us. She swears school drop off is a walking fashion show, with not a pony tail in sight and that if you go grocery shopping in the area the women are all decked out in hair and makeup just for a trip to the store. Maybe no one goes out shopping in pajamas but women wear normal clothes such as linen pants and even converses. Please go food shopping at ten am on Tuesday in the upper east side and you will easily the myth behind these claims.

“I quickly became desensitized to massive families. They were everywhere.” I think it is fairly odd that seeing a few families with several kids shocks her since she is from the midwest. I’ve often heard comments from traditional families in other states comment on how few kids people have here. Martin adds that the nursery school is 25,000 a year, which means that she was definitely in the circle of people that I’m familiar with. So the idea that she might have just been around a more exclusive group of people that lives differently from what I’ve witnessed is unlikely.

Which brings me to the next bit of fiction. There was an instance when her son came home announcing that he had a play date on a private plane. Apparently, he was the only kid in the class whose family did not own one and was invited out of pity. Oh boy. At the tuition she mentioned there is no way everyone in the class had a private plane. I would be surprised if more than one family did. Even in the 40,000 a year nursery schools every family does not own a private plane. Seriously.

The gender divide is frequently mentioned in Primates of Park Avenue. While there are a good amount of stay at home moms in the Upper East Side, it isn’t true that school drop-off is strictly mommy business. You encounter a lot of dads during drop-off and pick ups. I haven’t been to many benefits and parties so I don’t know if there are a few where men and women are kept in separate rooms the entire time but the ones I have been to weren’t like that unless it was a Mother’s day luncheon. It is possible that they exist though. While on the subject, Martin complained that because of the genders being kept apart there is just not enough flirtation. She whines that men in the UES don’t notice you and says she would welcome a woman flirting with her husband because it would make her life easier. I find that strange. I don’t think harmless flirting is wrong but what does she consider flirting? Is it really necessary to flirt during conversations to enjoy being around the opposite gender. Can’t you just talk without any innuendo? I don’t think men in the UES are “always looking beyond you” as if they’re looking for something better. I actually find them to be refreshingly respectful but somewhat nervous. Other women’s husbands seem to try to avoid eye contact as if they’re terrified direct contact will be mistaken for something else. And who can blame them? Some people consider friendly greetings from strangers sexual harassment, then complain that no one is neighborly in Manhattan.

A frequent criticism throughout Primates of Park Avenue is that in other places, older children babysit the younger ones so moms don’t need nannies y’all, “in a survey of 186 societies worldwide, mothers are not the principal caretakers of other children.” As nice as that sounds it is also irresponsible. With very little micro-management a lot ca go wrong. I’ve heard stories and read many accounts about younger kids being physically abused by older kids, even relatives. You may criticize a parent for hiring a complete stranger as a nanny but the reality is that there is always a risk, even if family is watching your kids. Older kids are still kids. Even if they are responsible and wholesome, an accident could take place. I’m not against it, because some kids are surprisingly mature, I’m just saying that it is foolish to bring it up as some kind of superior alternative.

“While rates of social anxiety disorder in China, Korea, Nigeria, and Taiwan are well under one percent, the US rate is nearly ten times greater,” cites Martin later on. While I have heard this quoted before reading her book, I just have to ask, do these stats ignore the suicide rates in China and Korea? Let me quote another rate for you, “South Korea has had the highest suicide rate in the industrialized world for eight consecutive years.” Maybe the rates are under one percent in these countries because that data just isn’t collected or they are not seeking help for it. After all there is a social stigma behind anxiety and depression.

One thing that may have been true is mothers in these schools planning for the birth of their kids at a certain time of the year. The logic is that they will not be as advanced as their peers if they have a summer birthday. I don’t have any proof but I have heard about it and don’t know many Gemini or Leo babies. Her anecdotes about women staying with philanderers because they are afraid of being cut off financially is also likely although not a problem that is exclusive to the rich. It does make me wonder though what kind of messed up prenups they signed that don’t include alimony and half of the assets? I think perhaps they also stay with them for the kids.

The chapter I mentioned that is very heart felt is closer to the end and just speaks volumes about the pain we all feel when tragedy hits close to home. Although I haven’t experienced what Martin did first hand, I wholeheartedly agree that whenever something tragic happens in our communities we feel the sting. “How could this happen?” is a frequent thought for us. As she says, “Motherhood is carved out of death’s territory as much as it is carved out of the territory of the living,” because everyone feels the grief of another mother. Whether you have children or not, the well being of the youngest children in your family is constantly present in your mind. You dread the thought of something awful happening to them and you would do anything to secure their health and happiness.