A few weeks ago Little E and I stopped at a playground in the pedestrian mall of a nearby downtown. I had just picked her up from daycare and was already out of step with the other moms by virtue of my shoes --high and pointy, not low and sensible. Feeling out of place --and shunned by Little E who asked me to please sit quietly while she played by herself-- I sat watched as the woman on the bench next to me ranted to her friend.
"Two years and nine months," she shouted, gesturing emphatically. "Two years and nine months. If they tell me that the class will be two years and nine months in January, there better not be anyone in that class who's turning two years and nine months in February. I see what the neighbors kids are doing in their preschool. They're drawing faces and hair. FACES. HAIR. We're just coloring. JUST COLORING."
Were I not afforded a dual perspective on the "mommy wars" by my current part-time arrangement, I might wrongly chalk her hysteria up to too much time on her hands. But I know that this ultra-competitiveness, this hyper-awareness extends to the parents at Little E's daycare, as well.
Just the week before, I attended the open house in her Pre-K class at daycare, where the parents peppered the teachers with questions carefully worded to reference both the extensive academic work they did at home and their child's prowess. (He's really mastered his capital letters, but how can we help him to neaten up his lower-case --when we do our writing practice...which we do every night? When should we start doing math problems? I mean she can write all of her numbers, but she can't quite add them yet.) These are three-and-a-half year olds who spend up to 50 hours a week in daycare...and who apparently have a pressing need to keep up with their correspondence and balance their checkbooks.
Then there was Big E's first grade open house, where all of the parents sat, bent onto chairs a foot high, nodding approvingly as the teacher delivered a spiel that highlighted the word "work" above all others: "working snack", "nightly homework," "work them hard," "work, work, work." Nary a "learn," "think," or heaven forbid, "enjoy" to be heard. When one man asked whether his daughter had started receiving her special services yet, hands shot up around the room. (Special? What kind of special services are available? How can I find out whether we qualify for special services? How often can you get these special services? What of I have a particular special service in mind for my child?)
I won't get into Big E's soccer games, where my husband, the volunteer coach, gently explains the rules and encourages good sportsmanship to children whose parents shout instruction like they're on the sideline at the World Cup. I won't go on about how every week those parents fold up their lawn chairs at the end of the game and walk off without a word, as my husband picks up balls and cones like the hired help. I certainly won't mention the lady who called my house last Saturday during dinner to air her grievances about his volunteer coaching.
The competitiveness, the entitlement, the un-funness of it all, I'd like to think it's regional, that I could pull out a map and find the town where three year-olds color without the pressure of adding hair, where first-graders' homework consists of the occasional diorama, where parents pull up to soccer practice and drop their kids off --or at least say "thank you" after scrutinizing the coach's technique for an hour. I reminisce fondly about the rural town where I grew up (think Ross Perot signs and poor dental hygiene, not pastoral settings and organic produce), but my mother assures me that it's just as bad there. I consider other parts of the country, but the chorus remains: that's the way it is everywhere.
I dream of moving far away. Maybe we could find our happy, laid-back existence amongst the lingonberries and flat pack furniture in Sweden. Maybe we could move to Paris and dress the children in little coats and hats and send them out to experience the city with a benevolent nun. Most likely, though, what I'm seeking is Shangri-La.
(Full disclosure: I recently signed Little E up for weekly phonics lessons to the tune of $110 a month. It is ridiculous, I know, and flies completely in the face of everything I believe. I'm hedging my bets. When I hear her singing "Monkeys making muffins, mmm, mmm, mmm..." it makes me feel a little bit better about her flat-out refusal to draw a face --don't even get me started on hair.)