Intercontinental august 009

Oh, the dilemmas: Buying vs. renting, city vs. suburb

Disclaimer: This post doesn’t try to hawk internet-style solutions or judgments, just my own unresolved dilemmas.

Real estate angst is a real thing.

I hear this all the time. Are you renting or buying? How much did you guys pay for your house? Hope I’m not being too forward seeing as I don’t know you, but what’s your rent?

It’s rough to house search, to fret about the one that got away, to check the phone for bank’s approval and bidding wars, kind of like high-stakes dating.

It’s become a cultural expectation that, as young people, we live it up in a city, make disastrous (read: “interesting”) dating and fashion decisions, attend events with free wine, take late-night cab rides we barely remember and stick up our noses a little when visiting home for the holidays – where life is even-keeled, shoes are flat and the sun is shining.

But, suddenly, boom, we become responsible and expected to abandon the once-beloved concrete in favor of home ownership in a manicured, quiet town an hour or two away.

Maybe it’s my Soviet, collectivist upbringing. Maybe it’s an obsession with big cities, particularly on the East Coast, where I always find myself – and then take “just a little break” in the West, stretching into years.

But somehow, I haven’t been bitten by the home ownership bug. It seems like the adult thing, the right thing to do, so I keep waiting.

And wondering about the two questions most Americans, at some point, face.

First, why does our culture prize isolation when building a family over the proverbial urban village? Is it about economics? Safety? Education? If cities are that bad, how do we make them livable for all, not just for a pocketful of the historically privileged few?

Image from

Second, how do young people buy a home, knowing the costs: a generation of hard labor to pay off enormous debt and repairs? Especially in the Bay Area, where ownership is becoming an unattainable – or a risky – dream for most of the local workforce? Why not, say, take 500 backpacking trips around the world, buy 20 self-driving cars and sponsor a bunch of cleft palate surgeries instead?

Renters have it easy. Give a one-month notice, sell that IKEA furniture, perhaps flash the middle finger at the rowdy neighbor’s door and be off with a suitcase and a pocketful of dreams. Before family, I’ve moved more times than I care to admit (per year) and owned my share of Billy bookcases. That’s all fine for like, Carrie Bradshaw, but not for a growing family. Or is it? Because I still wish I lived above a pizzeria,across from a rumbling subway station, with a sliver of a view of a tall building or a monument of some kind.

2012-11-23 16.19.18 HDR

My Navy coworker had a saying: “Just look at the egg and bacon breakfast. The chicken is involved. But the pig, my friend, is committed.” I feel sort of like that pig when thinking of buying a home.

This fear of commitment and white picket fences puts my family at a disadvantage. The landlord gets richer. Rent could double any time or take the place “off the market.” All that gardening and home improvement will some day be for naught.

It also lumps us in the “renter” category, which some mothers I’d met at new mom’s groups (and decided to not meet again) see as cause for socioeconomic alarm.

Recently, stories have been popping up about young families moving back to cities. While admirable – and enviable – it’s more likely in Seattle or Minneapolis than in San Francisco.

In the Bay Area, homes prices have skyrocketed by more than 10% in the last year in most counties, with costs in San Francisco and neighboring (read: commutable/workable) areas reaching one million or higher, on average.

One bedroom apartments in San Francisco go for an average of $3,500, the highest in the nation.

Apartment rents nationwide
Apartment rents nationwide

“Rents and housing prices are increasingly out of reach unless your paycheck is signed by Twitter or Google,” writes Heather Knight of San Francisco Chronicle.

Nor is San Francisco family friendly. Just 13.5 percent of its population is under 18, the lowest of any American city. Knight mentions a typical family grasping onto the shreds of loyalty to their metropolis, while their baby sleeps in a closet of their one-bedroom apartment. Eventually they bought a huge house with a backyard in the suburbs and left. Their housewarming party was called “James is coming out of the closet.”

I wholeheartedly, earnestly rejoice when friends buy homes, till their gardens and let their toddlers roam safely in the backyard. I love to visit them as often as possible, to appreciate and celebrate every new crop, molding and every piece of furniture that fits perfectly. I even peruse Better Homes and Gardens for inspiration, for their homes. Because the home of my dreams looks different. And perhaps I’m not the only one.

So in the meantime, here’s to those who either can’t afford a home in the Bay Area, who fear commitment or are city obsessed. Maybe, for us, a top-floor balcony with an urban garden, the clanging traffic and radiator, and a city park within walking distance would be a welcome relief. Maybe there are cities out there, where playgrounds aren’t ridden with either hypodermic needles or requisite Botox – playgrounds just right for the pitter-patter of tiny feet and heels, alike.

Post-maternity work support network

Starting working again after maternity leave is sort of like traveling to a foreign country on a red-eye flight. Everyone speaks a strange language and moves with a goal-oriented speed, while all you want is a piece of furniture/historic landmark to crawl under and fall asleep for a couple of weeks.

I was happy to rejoin the workforce after taking time off to care for my baby. But back home, a couple of things went haywire on the very first week, like being locked out of the house (twice), accidentally giving my child a giant ball of cheese for lunch, drowning an iPhone in the toilet, being unable to cook due to a busted oven, getting a parking ticket and food poisoning from yet another takeout meal. The new schedule, the logistics and the struggle to leave the little one in someone else’s care for up to 12 hours a day — were overwhelming.

At around the same time, I enrolled in an online course called Mindful Return, a program that helps new moms navigate back to work after maternity leave. Run by a working mother of two, Lori Mihalich-Levin, the course gave me the tools to deal with the change.

On a daily basis for a month, women across the country discussed the transition in a structured, supportive online community. We talked about developing a relationship with daycare providers, using leave as an opportunity for leadership, building a stronger work team, scheduling, coping with stress and cooking ahead (don’t be a hater when it comes to slow-cooker and pre-cut vegetables).

A new session is starting in May – and I recommend it to those who are just planning to go back to work or have recently returned, especially if confronted with things like this.


Nine signs you are raising a Russian baby

There are many confused multicultural babies in the U.S., with more than one fifth of Americans speaking a language other than English at home. And that number keeps growing, census says.

Meanwhile, native English speakers often push for bilingual nannies, daycares and classes. Studies show it’s associated with better reading, writing and analytical skills.

As a Russian expat, I never gave it much thought until my daughter was born and I didn’t talk to her for the first week of her life, not knowing what language to use. English, my adopted language, would seem like a reasonable choice, yet Russian suddenly felt like the most authentic and intuitive thing. Except what does one say to Russian babies?

Plus, baby’s dad is a red-blooded American from the Midwest. Before meeting me, his only Russian connection was a fondness of Red Dawn, the movie. He also worked at a radical radio station in college, whose staff would parade around campus on May Day, chanting “Ain’t no party like the communist party, cause the communist party don’t stop.”

We decided to raise the baby with both cultures equally, sharing with her the most cherished aspects of our own heritages. It’s trial and error, but the motherland is anything but simple.

The Wall Rug


A wall rug is not about optical illusions in photos (Your kid is a wall-crawler? What?) or camouflage (i.e. Russian invisibility sweater). A wall rug makes an excellent insulator. For insomnia, studying its labyrinthine designs is as soothing as counting sheep. Continue reading Nine signs you are raising a Russian baby


Dum du-dum dum…Date Night

A date night for new parents requires precious currency: money, time and energy. And a lot of logistics.

Factor in the prep and travel time – while trying not to wonder whether your child, potentially cold, hungry and/or neglected by a vodka-guzzling babysitter, is weeping into a teddy bear drenched in her drool and inconsolable tears.

Fact is, sometimes parents would rather sleep, watch Scandal reruns or take “What breed of a dog are you?” quizzes on Facebook by the glow of the baby monitor and the comforting sound of silence.

Date night is a phrase loaded with unrealistic expectations to celebrate with reckless abandon and stay up all night long. While celebrating. Maybe even in Vegas.

Hey you guys, go and enjoy yourselves, go out and get CRAAAAZY, just go all ape-$@% out there, you hear?! It’s a RARE opportunity!!!!

Continue reading Dum du-dum dum…Date Night

Mama found a job

Recently, I wrote about my post-baby job search and babyproofing a new mom’s interview game.

Within a week and a half of writing the post and changing my approach, I got one job offer, one almost job offer (declined preemptively) and two interview invitations to some pretty cool firms. The point is, these ideas do work.

While getting acclimated at the new job and figuring out that ineffable work-life balance (and curtailing Chipotle takeout dinners), I’ve been taking a short break from The Flying Yenta.

Please stay tuned for more posts, soon forthcoming.


Williams, Stewart and storytelling in journalism and public relations

Two developments in the world of journalism last week got me thinking about storytelling.

Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, was suspended for falsely claiming his helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the Iraq war. The credibility of the journalist, who’d won multiple awards and increased the network’s viewership, is now at stake.

And Jon Stewart announced that after 17 years of hosting The Daily Show – where despite disavowing the show’s seriousness, he was hailed as a voice of the generation – he plans to step down.

Continue reading Williams, Stewart and storytelling in journalism and public relations

Five Suggestions for Babyproofing the Job Interview

(A version of this essay appeared in The Washington Post March 19, 2015)

What would you rather pick, a trip to the dentist or a job interview?

I used to be a fan of the interview – and usually did well. You get to dress up, woo strangers into being impressed and talk about yourself.

All that changed after I’d switched careers, had a baby and made the decision to spend the first year at home, taking care of her.

But then, my job search revealed that a root canal might be easier after all.

Moms in my circles, particularly those who didn’t work in a corporate environment, often returned to those same jobs, with flexible hours,  particularly in the health, childcare and primary education industries. A few others have their own businesses, with the flexibility to be an earner and a mom.

I anticipated that my qualifications, with the added bonus of that adorable, curly-haired little girl who talks in Russian gibberish – would also be easy. Continue reading Five Suggestions for Babyproofing the Job Interview

Walter Skor, 1953

The “Off” Days — And Nine Bits of Advice

Who doesn’t ever have a bad day? New parents sometimes do, despite this common belief that motherhood is all about sitting at a park in a state of impenetrable jubilation and tickling or nursing (or both) a giggling infant all day long.

Lots has been written about the challenges new mothers face — related to isolation, hormonal changes, transformed relationships, career adjustments, insomnia, body image, those once-swanky outfits that would look comical now, even if they could miraculously stretch and fit. There is a reason these first months and years are often described as “second puberty.” The bad days don’t affect the loving bond a mother develops with her little one and her joy in motherhood. They do matter when it comes to her bond with herself.

Toothpaste for DInner
Toothpaste for DInner

Continue reading The “Off” Days — And Nine Bits of Advice

From It's Like They Know Us

Surviving New Parenthood in the Digital Age

For new parents, there’s the good and the bad, and then there’s the Internet.

Online resources are a draw especially for that subset who’d spent their lives living in big bad baby-free cities or ran from anything child-related prior to having one. (Or who, like myself, once mistakenly bought a dog outfit for a newborn).


But with discussion forums and blogs, social networks and newsletters, are new parents an overcommunicated bunch? Continue reading Surviving New Parenthood in the Digital Age

Beyond the Haves and Have Nots: The Family Sharing Economy

Did you know that Americans give birth to three percent of world’s kids but buy 40 percent of all the world’s toys?

Photo by Ashley Smith

That’s a lot of toys. Throw in a big home for storage and the mostly overseas labor that goes into manufacturing and shipping, right before the stuff is committed to rot in landfills.

Luckily, the twenty-first century is turning to our ancestors who’d once raised children in proverbial villages and shared. We no longer want to just own, but willingly exchange goods and services.

Spurred by technology and the post-recession economic woes, the peer-to-peer, or sharing economy, has become a household term.

For instance, Airbnb, an online marketplace that since 2008 has enabled regular folk to rent out their homes, now boasts more than a million listings worldwide. The recently embattled Uber has been offering app-based ridesharing services since 2009. And yours truly once borrowed a designer ball gown to meet the POTUS, from Rent the Runway. For cheap. (Yeah, I sent it back).


Continue reading Beyond the Haves and Have Nots: The Family Sharing Economy