We've all heard that it takes a village to raise a child, but New Yorkers living in multi-tenant apartment buildings may sometimes find that their neighbors would rather not be among the villagers.
"A couple downstairs has started letting their baby cry it out. Having no kids myself, I don’t know if this is a valid parenting strategy. What I do know is that it kept me up for an hour at 2 a.m. last night and has woken me up several times this week. Is it within my rights to talk to them about it?" wondered one Brooklynite in a letter to the New York Times column, The Ethicist.
Elsewhere, another neighbor approached a similar situation less gingerly: One commenter on the Facebook group Upper East Side Mommas recalled how after her son was born, a downstairs neighbor's complaints about the noise quickly became harassment; the situation escalated to the point that she had to have the NYPD speak with him.
We live in a densely-populated and clamorous city, and a certain degree of tolerance from our fellow residents seems like a reasonable expectation when bringing home a new member of the family. But sometimes, clearly, patience wears thin. So is there anything New Yorkers can do to ease the transition for both themselves and their neighbors?
Prepping yourself, and your neighbors, for the new arrival
When she found out she was pregnant with twin girls, Heather T., who lives in Bay Ridge, opted to thank the neighbors in advance with goodie bags. "We brought our neighbors above, below, and next door a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates, a box of ear plugs, and a card with a photo of the new wee ones explaining the 'situation,'" she says. "I also included my phone number in the card and asked them to text if they were bothered."
That thoughful advance warning was appreciated by most in the building, save for one downstairs neighbor, who Heather says is quick to bang on the ceiling with a broom when the children are making noise. Heather and her husband feel bad about the noise, but at this point, all they can do is shrug at the neighbor's intolerance.
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"You can only do so much to keep the noise down," Heather says, "We installed wall-to-wall carpet. I can't lose my head over it."
Make a soothing space a priority
We know well how stressful NYC life can be, but there are steps you can take before your baby arrives to create a more soothing environment at home. Mary Mahoney, co-founder of the Doula Project and a new mom herself, says that she thought about not only the first few months of parenthood, but the first year and beyond as she prepared.
"We decorated her room, put her crib together, and organized clothes according to size," she says. "Our baby is about a month old now, and the only things that have really been necessary are a co-sleeper/bassinet attached to the bed, a really efficient diaper station in same room where you spend most of your time, and having three to five outfits you just rotate--you really don't need many clothes if you can do laundry once a week or so."
Mahoney also recommends cleaning the spaces you'll be spending the most time in with baby-friendly cleaning products, and getting a rocking recliner and plenty of pillows to make yourself comfortable if you'll be nursing. Swaddles, along with a white noise machine and soothing music, can help with getting your baby to fall asleep at night. You may also want to make and freeze several meals ahead of time, as it's unlikely you'll have the time or desire to cook once your newborn arrives.
All this is meant to help create a (hopefully) relaxing space in which to cocoon with your newborn. The Huffington Post writes that infants can sense when their caretakers are stressed, and studies show that their heart rates can even pick up speed in tandem with those of their mothers. (There are, of course, babies who simply will cry a lot despite your best efforts at making a Zen home.)
Mahoney was lucky, she says, in that she lives in a building on a busy street and has neighbors who already have kids, so she didn't feel the need to warn people ahead of time about noise, as Heather did. "But in retrospect, I think it would be a good idea. It definitely can't hurt, especially if you have specific neighbors you are concerned about," she says. "We did tell our landlord and super but they didn't care—they even scheduled electricians to be in our apartment the first two weeks of our baby's life. That's NYC for you!"
Dealing with difficult neighbors
Last month, Mayra David wrote an essay for Brick about what her newborn's arrival taught her about NYC living. One major revelation? Her fellow co-op residents were a tremendous source of support. "As soon as we brought her home, neighbors we barely knew would congratulate us, mothers offered practical advice, packages of onesies and diapers appeared at our door, and we received many earnest offers of babysitting services. Our super dropped by to give us a book on forming good baby sleep habits... Having the building community be there for us is like having relatives around," she writes.
Unfortunately, not all new parents find that their children receive such a warm welcome by NYC neighbors—take Heather's "brooming" neighbor, and the parent who had to call the police on a downstairs tenant.
For parents dealing with such extremes, it may help to know that the law is on your side. Neighbors can complain to your landlord or building management all they like, but you can't be kicked out or pressured to leave on the basis of a noisy child: Realtor.com explains that this would qualify as familial discrimination, which violates the city's Fair Housing Act.
When it comes to dealing with neighbors who may be less than thrilled about your new addition to the family, but still capable of listening to reason, you might try just having an in-person chat with them and affirming their frustrations. "I would just have an honest conversation with them about new parenthood and let them know you respect their feelings about the noise," Mahoney says. "Simply acknowledging the noise level might go a long way."
Beyond acknowledging it, you could appease your neighbors by reassuring them that you've taken steps to minimize the disturbance, by, for instance, putting down carpeting as Heather did. (Brick recently ran a list of other soundproofing measures, too.)
On Apartment Therapy, an advice columnist suggests that a mom whose upstairs neighbors were complaining about her child's crying try bringing her son with her for a meeting. "If the neighbor is approaching you in a calm manner, you might introduce your son to him to promote empathy for your situation," the columnist writes. (We'd think it would be hard to stay angry after seeing the adorable infant or toddler who's making the racket.)
It seems that neighbors on both sides would do well to approach one another gently. Parents don't want their newborn screaming any more than their fellow apartment dwellers do, after all. In The Ethicist, the advice columnists all suggest that the frustrated letter-writer approach the parents with a small gift for the baby and see if some agreement can be reached--like moving the crib to a part of the apartment where the noise would affect them less, for instance.
"You could make a friend for life if you approach it [the right way]," they observe—and if parents respond agreeably, they may find that their neighbors become those helpful villagers after all.
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