Sunday, August 1, 2010

Yes, I Love My Kids. Why Do You Ask?

For better or for worse, my kids have been in day care since they were three months old, and a few weeks from now, my son will complete his five-year preschool journey and toddle off to kindergarten. It seems as good a time as any to weigh in on the whole concept of day care. Now before you get all in a tizzy, ready to defend your position like it’s an old barn with zombies trying to crawl in the windows, I’m really not interested in pumping out a diatribe about the mommy wars. What I am interested in is the $640 million in negotiable bearer bonds that you have stored in your vault. And the computer controls the vault.

Whoa. Sorry about that. Wasn’t Die Hard an awesome movie?

What I meant is that I am interested in poking a little fun at both camps, and rest assured, I plan to skewer both equally. I picture a stay-at-home parent (Tennis, Amphetamines, and Wine Drinking = Yummy, or TAWDRY, for short) might be reading this and thinking “boy, maybe if he worked a little harder at his paying job and less on frivolous pursuits like this silly blog, he could make more money and then his wife could stay home with those little angels.” On the flip side, a working parent (Career Oriented Love Denier, or COLD, for short) might be thinking, “I am super busy. I drink expensive coffee and make inappropriate jokes with my co-workers. Those kids are in day care so you can work, not blog. Loser.” I’m kind of picturing Tom Cruise’s witch of a fiancee from Jerry Maguire here.

As for me, I was a stay-at-home kid until I was about four, and I’ve turned out to be a total basket case, so there you go. Put them in day care. Don’t put them in day care. Your call. We didn’t have much choice in the matter, given that my wife and I both have an astounding amount of law school debt, and, strangely, the monthly invoice always reads:

Amount Due:
Payoff Date: NEVER

So, about four months before our first child was due, we began searching for the right place to enroll our son, Cat’s in the Cradle playing softly in the background. We quickly learned that starting your day care search four months before the birth of the child is really much too late. You should start looking long before that, ideally before you and your spouse even meet, if not earlier. We quickly settled on our first choice, but there was a long waiting list to get in. There was a happy ending though -- we finally enrolled our son when he turned 23. Honestly, it seemed about that long -- we waited 2½ years to get into that place.

While we COLDs waited to get off the waiting list, we had quite a whirlwind tour of two other facilities. He spent ten days at one place where I learned that the staff did not know you’re not supposed to feed a baby from the same bottle of milk all day. (Score one for you stay-at-homers. I still get the chills thinking about that place, which, fortunately, went out of business not long after). We moved him to another school, where he spent two totally uneventful years. Except for the day that the aunt of one of the students assaulted the teacher in class, in front of the children, and then we didn’t find out about it until three weeks later when the main witness’ brother told me. I mean, OTHER than that, it was totally uneventful. Yeesh.

Fortunately, we’ve had a great experience at the third place, where we’ve been since 2007. In my son’s class, there’s been very little staff or student turnover, and so these kids are a tight group, bonded like … [Hmm, I made the “bonded like they were a group of survivors after a zombie apocalypse” joke in a previous column, so I need to come up with something different] … bonded like… like… ooh, I got one… bonded like customers at the post office having to deal with a crazy woman who loudly insisted on paying for her envelope from the middle of the line while demanding that President Obama assign more workers to this particular branch. This happened to me the other day.

At this point, not only can I easily identify each kid, I can tell you the names of their naptime stuffed animals and which ones have peanut allergies. And when you have that kind of stability, you start to catch the rhythms of the place, the personalities of the kids, the stench of parental guilt, and so on. Certain things, though, remain mysteries, like Stonehenge or why there’s a setting higher than 2 on any toaster ever made. For example, that mom who always looks like she's getting ready to head over to the pool with a bottle of pinot. For all I know, she’s an orthopedic surgeon and that’s what she wears under her scrubs. Then again, on the occasions I’ve dropped my own kids off wearing shorts and a t-shirt, I wonder if other parents think the same thing about me.

Yes, I know that no one will love them the way that we love them. Quite frankly, I don’t care if they even love them at all (and I’m not at all implying the teachers don’t love the kids -- I think the teachers do become very attached to the kids), as long as they are safe. If the kids are safe, then learning and fun are inevitable byproducts, and the teachers could moonlight as hitmen for Tony Soprano for all I care. I know that was a roundabout way of making my point, my point being that I just wanted to make the Sopranos joke.

And yet, I cannot help but wonder what life would have been like if one of us had stayed home with the kids. Lately, my impressions have been influenced by NBC’s family drama Parenthood (it would be cliché to say I’d watch Lauren Graham read a dictionary, whereas the truth is I would watch her eat a dictionary), in which one of the female characters is the hard-driving litigator and her husband stays home with their daughter. He’s surrounded by other saucy TAWDRYs who eye him like Brett Favre eyes media attention. There are worse ways to pass the time.

If I had been the TAWDRY, I would have liked to see the reaction of my relatives back in the old country. Cue Crimson Jihad voice. She works? He stays home? This is not a man. I will destroy one gallon of hummus every hour until he goes back to work! I also wonder if the kids’ personalities would be any different if they had spent more time in a less dynamic environment, or whether that’s something that’s hardwired from birth. I’m guessing hardwired, because my mom kept me until I was about four and I’m louder than just about anyone you’ve ever met.

I have to give my mom credit (oh, my God, she’s going to be hanging this over my head for the rest of my natural life) because, as you may recall, they did not have the Internet, DVDs, Mommy-and-Me groups, or Barnes & Noble (when I tell my son that we couldn’t pause live television when we were kids, he looks at me like he’s swallowed a large bug). Oh, and did I mention that English was her second language? And she was 23 when I was born, an age I was spending most of my time playing Playstation and drinking beer? Then again, there were an awful lot of empty Robitussin bottles in our house. No wonder my bedtime was 4:30 p.m.

Having taken care of both kids all day with no assistance on a few occasions, I can only assume that to keep the whole thing from devolving into some Lord of the Flies-like existence, TAWDRYs need some sort of battle plan. I interviewed a local TAWDRY, who agreed to speak with me on the condition of anonymity. This was the schedule posted on her refrigerator.

Monday: Tour of Children’s Museum, lunch at Chick-Fil-A.

Tuesday: Storytime at Barnes & Noble, lunch at Chick-Fil-A.

Wednesday: Total Wine & Beer, lunch? Sh*t, I forgot the kids’ lunch!

Thursday: Open student loan invoice, weep, lunch at Total Wine & Beer.

Friday: Direct passive-aggressive anger at COLD spouse; bottle of wine for dinner.

It’s always important to have a plan.

So my son’s time in day care is drawing to a close. He’ll spend a few hours a week there in aftercare, but for him and his classmates, kindergarten beckons. The kids know that something’s up, even if they don’t fully grasp the idea that they’ll be going their separate ways soon. Their classroom has taken on this apocalyptic last-days-of-Rome aura. A few kids have already left, off to spend their summers elsewhere. I hear increased reports of misbehavior from other parents. Last week, my son flipped over a police car and set it on fire. OK, that part didn’t happen.

All in all, I wouldn’t trade the experience he’s had for anything. I love watching him on the playground, hearing about all the different skills he’s mastered, watching him interact with his buddies, and hearing the schoolyard gossip at the end of the day.

So join me as I raise a box of fruit punch to my little man and his classmates, hoping that a great adventure is waiting for them beyond the cozy walls of preschool.

And for those stay-at-home kids that will be heading to school for the first time and joining my son in kindergarten, watch him like a hawk. Or you might end up with two broken Silly Bandz, and he’ll have all your pudding.

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