Our family lives in a rural village (yes, it’s officially a village) in west-central Wisconsin, and both my husband and I commute perhaps … irresponsible? … distances to each of the five jobs we are currently maintaining between the two of us. This is one of those trade-offs to which one becomes grudgingly accustomed: bucolic charm for wild inconvenience.
Or, in our case, affordable single-family housing for wild inconvenience. The county in which we decided, for better or worse, to put down stakes (short list of justifications: Cullen and I met when we were both pursuing our undergraduate degrees at an area university. It’s half-way between our parents’ homes. And, by the time we had our first child, it had become the locus of our careers and social lives. Shrug) is one of the wealthiest in the state. The little municipality where our house is located is among the last to remain immune to the development feeding frenzies of the past decade-and-a-half (again, for better or worse). So, even though it’s a pretty insular place where we are regarded as big-time socio-political outliers, we leapt. After all, Cullen grew up in an even smaller town, and he likes Neu! and Aki Kaurismäki films and stuff. One’s physical location is practically arbitrary in the global media age. Etcetera.
Except when you’re trying to be even the teensiest bit discerning about your kid’s preschool.
Finding a program we liked wasn’t challenging, actually. Nearly a year before Stuart was even eligible to enroll, we zeroed in on a progressive, nature-based preschool. The kids start each day with a hike through the wilderness preserve that abuts the school’s property; then they come back to the hobby farm to feed and water the goats, rabbits, chickens, and a peacock (!), collect eggs, and crawl around on the huge, old storm-felled tree that was left in place to serve as a natural play structure. Oh, hello idyllic childhood of
my Stuart’s dreams!
The main drawback? The school was about half-an-hour, by car, from our home; over an hour, round-trip, from home-to-preschool-to-my-primary-workplace; and an even more absurd drive-time commitment for my husband. Both of our employers (I work in public sector human services, and he works for a human services non-profit that contracts with the public sector) would probably be amenable to some kind of flex-time arrangement … but not the kind of flex-time arrangement that allows us to get paid for eight hours of work when we only do four. Something about taxpayers wanting their money’s worth or whatevs.
So we asked our childcare provider for options more local to us, and she raised two possibilities:
(1) A preschool affiliated with a church a couple of miles from our house, which claims to be non-denominational, but, if their website is any indication, seems … not. (Read: “proselytic like whoa“). Even though I went to a secular preschool that leased space from a church, and even though our caregiver, who does not belong to the church but has cared for other children who have attended the preschool, assured me that the Jesus-y influences on their curriculum are limited to “a blessing before snack time,” we had to pass. As a couple of culturally Catholic agnostics who were married in a Unitarian ceremony, when we noticed one of the school’s core values was “(capital-C) Creation,” it raised some red flags.
(2) A home-based, evening preschool in a traditional, classroom-style setting, located just a couple of blocks away from our daycare provider. Although it wasn’t the nature-immersion/experiential education environment I was hoping for, I was willing to give this a chance.
Then our caregiver said, “It’s probably nothing, but I’ve heard parents say that [the preschool director, who is also a daycare provider] is great for preschool, but terrible for daycare.”
“Well, for one, she makes the kids eat all their food at mealtime. My friend’s son threw up on her front step once because he was so over-full.”
Yeah. Even though this didn’t have a direct impact on the preschool experience, that was all the information I needed to know our “philosophies” wouldn’t mesh well.
I had to do a lot of soul-searching — soul-plowing would be more apt — to decide what my next move was going to be:
Allowing Stuart to explore and forge new social connections in a space designed for that purpose is important to me. Yeah, but is it important to him?
Many families can’t afford to, or choose not to, send their child to any preschool. It’s kind of grossly privileged that you’re splitting hairs about what preschool he attends. If it is within my capabilities to send him to a school that reinforces my ideals, don’t I have an obligation to my child to follow through?
Are you sure this isn’t about self-flagellating for the choices you’ve made? Like moving your sweet, amazing children to a community where your values aren’t mirrored? Like having to hop between three jobs just to pay the mortgage and put enough gas in the car to make it to your three jobs? I think we’re firmly entrenched in Catch-22 territory, here, Amanda. No, it’s not that at all! I mean, I don’t think it is … . Oh, shit.
Long story short, we taxed our time management skills to the utmost, cashed in some favors, and were blessed with a few deus ex machina-style offers of assistance from friends, family and near-strangers . We managed to get Stuart to the Exalted Preschool (uh, not the actual name). He’s been attending, two mornings a week, for the past five months.
And … he likes it and all. He likes the hikes. The egg collecting. The peacock. But I’ve found myself thinking, At what cost?
Then, a couple of weeks ago, Stuart and I had a little conversation that gave me a sense of peace with my decision (and Ahab-esque pursuit of my goal).
Stuart is really interested in defining inter-relationships right now. He enjoys connecting the dots. Who is Daddy’s mommy? Why is MaryAlice my sister, but Aunt JennyRose’s baby isn’t my brother? You can practically see the cogs turning.
At preschool, Stuart has two teachers: Ms. T, the preschool owner and administrator, and Ms. A, who I know to be Ms. T’s sister. Stuart, too, seemed to sense that they had more than a “collegial” relationship. So, one afternoon, he asked me, “Ms. A is Ms. T’s wife, right?”
And maybe I’m vesting this with more meaning than I ought to. Maybe he just doesn’t really grasp that adults can be siblings. Nonetheless, this innocent (and incorrect, at that!) speculation reminded me of why my selectivity — not just in terms of preschool, but with regard to all sorts of exposure to outside-the-home influences — didn’t ring hollow, and wasn’t just about trying to “buy” some contrived version of a perfect childhood.
Surrounding Stuart with attitudes that preserve his completely guileless conviction that two women can be married until he is intellectually mature enough to shoot down those in society who question this precept? That’s worth all kinds of torturous contortions on my part, I think.
And it’s only one example, of course. It is a stand-in for all of those values I want to not only impart to my kids, but feel compelled to ensure are upheld when I leave them in the care of others. Because, as much as I reject the idea of Working Mom-hood as a modality with compulsory characteristics (including “moms of young children shouldn’t want to work; they should only be working if they have to for financial security”), I also believe that this doesn’t absolve me of responsibility as their Primary Adult Influence (yes, yes, along with Dad).
In other words, when Stuart asserts that two women may be married, I need to know that my surrogate caregiver — whoever that is at a given moment — reinforces the party line. My “mama line.”
What about you? What are your deal-breakers-and-makers when it comes to selecting your young child’s educators and caregivers? Has there ever time when you have had to make a necessary-but-difficult compromise?