Monday, October 6, 2014

This one's a nail-biter.

Since getting pregnant with my first child, I have heard people whisper about the process of getting kids into good nursery schools, kindergartens and elementary schools here in New York City. Like many things in the Big Apple, it's something extraordinarily complicated that we all do here... because we have to. It's one of those stressful things that people complain loudly about over coffee, at the gym, at nursery school drop-off and anywhere else parents of four year olds can be found, which means they aren't really complaining at all, but rather boasting. Where are you applying? Oh, you know. The usual suspects. How are you prepping? What about your (in hushed tones)... zone school? Oh, you're moving to the suburbs? Oh, you're in District 5? That sort of thing. It's a process about which many, many books have been written and many, many alcoholic beverages have been consumed. My hair is noticeably greyer. I am using up all my vacation time to haul ass from interview to tour to playdate, all really one opportunity after the next for people to judge me, my husband, our parenting, our lifestyle, our kid, our everything. Are we educated enough? Involved with the parent association enough but not too much? Is our version of diversity -- stay at home dad, special needs sibling, non-profit admin mom, residents of a gentrifying and mixed area, a union that combines two wildly different cultures, religions, classes, educational levels, etc. -- diverse enough? Is our kid smart enough? Cute enough? And of course, what do I wear to these things?

Someone advised us just to be ourselves, but the most conservative version of ourselves. So the hours before these interviews find us slicking down cowlicks, tucking in shirts, ironing blouses, dusting off the lone pair of heels that my daughters covet but which I am afraid will cause me to break my neck or ankle before I even have a chance to open my mouth. Like Agent Starling before me, with my good bag and my cheap shoes, I am sure I look like a rube. A well scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Is this what rich people dress like, talk like, act like? Smart people? Prep School X Parent-like people? What do I know, really? A parent pal of ours told us these schools need us more than we need them. Really? I want to believe that. I really do. But we do not look as diverse as I believe we are and I honestly wonder if these schools will see anything in us that truly sets us apart from the hundreds of applicants that can afford the tuition, have a connection or are in far greater need than we. But since we don't know, the least we can do is be over-prepared. We spend hours poring over school websites, interviewing friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are alumni or whose children attend these schools, deliberating the pros and cons of single-sex vs. co-ed schools, taking notes on the Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools entries and quizzing each other on what we think we'll be asked. In truth we have no idea what these schools want. I have been told time and time again that the process is so mysterious and cutthroat that no one really has any idea what any particular school is looking for, only that they are all so inundated with applicants that what they are looking for more than anything is a reason to move your application to the NO pile.

That is hardly reassuring.

This process has taken over our lives. It's maybe worse for us than for many other parents I know for two reasons: one, while the neighborhood we live in is gentrifying at a rapid pace, the schools are probably ten years behind. Our local elementary school ranks 89.9% below other NYC public schools and is therefore not an option for our children. Yes, I know there is a lot of privilege in that statement. I know not everyone has that choice and that pains me. It really does. In theory, I fully believe in the public school system. I was raised in it and I taught in it and I have one kid in it now. But while progressive politics and social justice are alive and well in conversation around my dining room table and I have dedicated my professional life to serving the most underserved residents of this city, I do not believe I will achieve any great change by putting my child in a school that performs that poorly. We live in the worst-ranked school district in New York City and as a one-income family, we can't afford to move. The other reason is that while we are attracted in some ways to private schools (because of reason #1), they cannot be a reality for us without significant financial aid. These schools are competitive enough even for those who can pay the full tuition (currently in the ballpark of $45,000 per year even for kindergarten), so for us they are almost out of reach. We have been encouraged to cast a very wide net so that the likelihood of being accepted somewhere with enough aid to make it affordable is within the realm of possible.

So a wide net it is. And that is why on a typical day, like today for example, we found ourselves at one of the most traditional prep schools in the country at 9 am, sitting in a stuffy room in an ivy covered brick building talking about my Harvard education and we spent our evening on the Upper West Side at an open house for one of the most progressive lab schools in the nation discussing the whole child and experiential learning. In between I checked my spreadsheet to see what is still outstanding for which schools, fielded calls from other schools setting up yet more open houses, tours, interviews and playdates, and added new dates and times to the growing list of scheduling conflicts that we need grandparents and friends to help us navigate. It's also why our four-and-a-half year old, the product of two people who could not have greater differences in their educational backgrounds but who agree wholeheartedly that testing at her age is a ridiculously inaccurate and inappropriate measuring stick of anything and nothing, will have taken the Stanford-Binet, the AABL and the OLSAT all before her fifth birthday. That is just not right. We have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that what we feed her the day before, how much sleep she gets the night before, how I braid her hair, what shoes she's wearing or whatever shiny thing distracts her could make or break a test score or a "playdate" with ridiculously inflated implications.

We sat outside the room while she took the first of these. I was so nervous I wanted to throw up. A noise machine made it impossible to hear anything through the walls except for a repetitive squeak. I froze. "Is that her?" I asked my husband, horrified. Squeak. Squeak squeak squeaksqueak. Maybe she's impersonating a mouse, I thought to myself. Maybe it's part of the test. They must be talking about animals. Squeaksqueaksqueaksqueak. Maybe it doesn't matter. The tester will see her brilliance through the squeaking, I told myself. But she didn't. The score came in the mail this week and she didn't make it. And I made it all about me. I felt judged. Rejected. Not good enough. I mourned, fretted, whined. What will my brilliant overachieving friends think? $350 and a vacation day down the drain, and that school is now off the list and I was baffled. I was so sure she would make it.

I didn't have a clue what went wrong until this weekend when we were out of town at the Boston Children's Museum on a rainy afternoon. MIT researchers were looking for kids her age to participate in a study and waved us over. She sat down happily, willing as ever to help someone in need. Then the questions began and I could see she wasn't feeling it. She wanted to be climbing and exploring, not looking at some computer screen. She looked away and then I heard squeaksqueaksqueaksqueak. My heart sank as I recalled what we'd heard through the wall that day a few weeks ago. There was nothing I could do. In two seconds, her part in the study was over. In the words of Miss Dolly Parton, it's enough to drive you crazy if you let it.

And I don't know how not to. I believe in my kid. I love both my kids with all my heart and all my soul. I love our life, our way of parenting and of being. Johnny and I are a wonderful team and I think we have a pretty terrific family. Of course there are things that keep me up at night but where Bee is going to school next year should not be one of those things. I have never been so worried about education for someone I truly believe will do well no matter where she goes. But she's gotta go somewhere and that somewhere has to want to pay for the bulk of it, or she's not going anywhere. In the words of me paraphrasing Miss Dolly Parton, It's enough to drive me out of NYC if I let it.

Here's the great part and the awful part: my kid is a lot like me. She is bright and inquisitive and she gets things done. She doesn't forget a thing. At times she's all business and very demandy-pants. She's also cuddly and affectionate. All like me. And she's reactive, like me. Dramatic, like me. And she needs reassurance, like me. A lot of it. When I see my daughter chewing on her sleeves or her hair, biting her nails or sucking on her fingers, I want to snatch her hands away from her mouth. I can't help myself. I want to cut all her hair, dress her in short sleeves and tie her hands behind her back. I want to take her by the shoulders and shake her and ask her WHY in the world she is SO GODDAMN STRESSED OUT. It is such a strong, visceral reaction that it actually hurts me inside. And then I realize I need to look in the mirror. Because this kid is an awful lot... like me. So instead of shaking her, I open my arms and I get down on my knees to look her in the eye, and I hug her tight. 

Let's do the math:
-I sucked my thumb until I was in elementary school.
-For years, I bit my nails. I even bit my toenails when I could reach them. I can't stand having long nails to this day because as soon as one snags, they're in my mouth.
-I picked and I still pick at my cuticles. It's particularly bad when I don't have time or money for a manicure. I abuse my cuticle cutter to the point where the manicurists yell at me for overpruning, but if I don't, I pick and peel and bite until my fingers bleed.
-I chewed gum compulsively in middle school, spent all my change on Charms blowpops in high school and chain smoked from my mid-teens until my late twenties.
-And still today, I eat to make myself feel better. I can't always distinguish between physical hunger and emotional hunger so I tend to err on the side of a full belly for any and every ailment no matter how real or imaginary.

By nature I am a very neurotic, high strung, Type A person. Years of therapy, exercise and now meditation have helped me find the pause I so desperately needed my whole life. But it's still challenging to slow down long enough to remember to breathe and let go on any regular day. When I am under the kind of pressure I feel as we go through this process, I am basically a boiling pot all the time, edgy and uneasy and very, very uncomfortable. This weekend while we were all together doing nothing but unstructured family play and fun, I watched her chew and bite, I heard her squeak and groan. And worst of all was last night. When I tucked her in and kissed her goodnight, she asked for extra kisses because she felt unloved. Unloved? I may not have a lot of money. I may not have a lot of time. But what I do have is unending love, admiration and wonder for two very special little girls who mean the whole world to me. The fact that she questioned it even for a second was like a punch in the stomach. My heart broke and my mind went in a million different directions, all of which led to the same destination: PARENTING FAIL. What you do is not enough. You ARE not enough.

Don't get me wrong. 99% of the time this kid is crowing about how brave and strong she is. She's rarely shy. She's a calculated risk-taker. She separates easily. But there's a part of her that at times is raw and sensitive and neither of us knows quite what to do with it. When I try to imagine my daughters hurting themselves in the ways I once hurt myself, tears come to my eyes and I think about the sad and scared child I was decades ago. I wish I could go back to my younger self and just take a moment with her to hold her, smooth her unruly hair, kiss her furrowed forehead and tell her that everything would be all right.

I may not be able to go back and hold the little girl I once was, but I can slow down enough to spend some extra time with the little girl I have right now who needs her mama. The trouble is, I don't know how to help her. I love this girl like crazy, but I have a blind spot when it comes to healthy self-soothing. I don't know how to teach her this very important skill because I never learned a healthy version of it myself. In my mind I alternate between tough love -- the part of me that wants to tell her to cut it out and don't let me see your fingers in your mouth again, missy, or else -- and rescue -- the part of me that wants to fix everything, shield her from everything, and go to war on her behalf so she has absolutely everything. I know neither approach is the right one. I know that life is frustrating and she has to find ways to cope on her own. I have to try to teach her life skills that I never learned properly myself. What I do when I don't know what to do is talk. I tell her about how things are hard and life is hard. I tell her that I love her and I see her and hear her. I try very hard to say yes more than I say no and I don't shy away from saying I don't know. I explain why when I can. And all of these conversations happen with her in my arms, on my lap, or curled up in my bed. And yet, she tells me she feels unloved? Oy. The good news is that we only have a few more months to go. By February, much of this will be over and by May the rest should be figured out. No matter what, she will be starting somewhere next September and by then my hope is that she will have forgotten all about this. Until the next big thing. 

It's very difficult for me to end a blog post without having come to a conclusion or resolution. I like to tie things up in pretty bows, cross items off to do lists. I like to feel like I have conquered issues and moved on. Part of me feels like I'll come up with something if I just keep typing long enough. But I don't think I will; this one is especially messy. I really believe that parenting is a long process of separation, beginning the moment the child comes into the world, culminating in them building their own life and their own family apart from their parents. I get that. But theory and execution are very different for me, and I don't know how to navigate it gracefully. So I close with a request. Please tell me about your experiences. Are there self-soothing coping strategies that work for you, your child, your family? What do you do when you see your child struggle?


  1. I know this isn't what you want to hear, but I would consider getting the fuck out of NYC.

    Move to some smaller city -- Boston, Providence, Portland Maine.

    The insane school stuff, which obviously doesn't exist elsewhere, is indicative of a single, very unpleasant fact: unless you have insane amounts of money, life in New York is going to destroy you.

  2. Loved reading this as we are doing the same thing preparing for high school. Will they see my daughters for the talented women they are? So much of judging them is judging me and I am not comfortable with my gray hair and extra fifty pounds. Good luck to all of us that we find the perfect fit for our girls.

  3. It's your city... Your child. Stay and question and challenge. Be true to who you are; then in the end you will have no regret. Bea must be very secure to ask for what she needs. Virtual hug included.


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