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Preschool And Privilege: When Early Education Hinges On Parental Flexibility

Part-time or half-day preschools pose a challenge for many working parents.
Marko Poplasen
Part-time or half-day preschools pose a challenge for many working parents.

My daughter starts full-time preschool next week, and we are all prepared. Her California grandma sent her a new backpack festooned with flowers and embroidered with her name. We bought sunflower-seed butter for her school lunches, because peanut butter is now banned so that no allergic child has to break out his EpiPen. And we also scrambled to find a week of afternoon child care, because even though this is a program with an extended day that lasts until 6, during the first week, school ends at noon.

The school's impulse isn't bad. Ostensibly this is so the kids can have a gradual acclimation to their new surroundings. But for a family with two working parents, like ours, this is a nightmare scenario. And what's especially frustrating is we sent our daughter here in the first place because it was the neighborhood school most friendly to working parents. The other nearby schools either had half-day schedules or were just two hours a day, three days a week.

I know about all the other schools and their schedules because just getting your kid into a preschool — there's no public option for 3-year-olds — is a time-consuming undertaking. We had to fill out applications a year in advance, when our girl was not yet 2. One of the applications asked, "What are your child's educational goals?" I remember looking over at my pre-verbal toddler while she climbed in and out of an empty diaper box. I thought, her educational goals are ... learning how to count? Figuring out how a potty works? Differential calculus? I was so annoyed by the absurdity of that question — and how phony any of my answers would be — I didn't even finish the application.

During this process, we learned that there was such a thing as preschool legacy. You see, my husband had gone to a popular preschool in the neighborhood, so we got a special tour and an interview there. I was prepared to hate the school. It was the most expensive of the bunch, and it had the most inconvenient hours. But as we toured, I realized it was a gorgeous, happy place, with a lovely rooftop playground and devoted teachers.

Liking the school made me feel guilty and irritated. I'm well aware that there are huge economic disparities in American children's access to education. But being confronted with my kid's privilege was bracing. I wasn't used to grappling so directly with the special access we get in so many parts of our lives. All kids should be able to go to places like this.

After we decided on the right school for us, we were informed that we must provide snacks for the whole class on a rotating basis. They sent a list of acceptable snacks, which included fresh fruits and vegetables, no-sugar cereal, and they name-checked Cheddar Bunnies — the upscale version of Goldfish crackers — specifically. When I got the list I had a mental image of myself running to the supermarket at 9 on a work night, because I had forgotten about snack week on top of all the other picayune details of my daughter's schedule of play dates and doctor's appointments and birthday parties.

Certainly an extra supermarket trip for Cheddar Bunnies is not a big deal in the scheme of things. But I know that this is only the beginning of more than a decade of increasing obligation: of pressure to join the PTA and to become the class parent and to bake cookies and to raise money, even at public schools.

Books like Brigid Schulte's Overwhelmedand Jennifer Senior'sAll Joy and No Funhave cataloged how much time the modern, working parent now spends on parenting. Mothers, in particular, bear the brunt of this time suck. Schulte notes that working moms now spend as much time taking care of their kids as stay-at-home moms did in the '60s: 11 hours a week, compared with seven hours a week for working dads.

Somehow, as the proportion of working mothers and single mothers has increased, the institutions their children attend behave more and more like there's a stay-at-home parent around to pick up the slack.

These hours ratcheted up over the past couple of decades. My parents, who both worked full time, can count on one hand the number of obligations they had at our public schools in the '80s and '90s, and nearly all those obligations were after business hours. Somehow, as the proportion of working mothers and single mothers has increased, the institutions their children attend behave more and more like there's a stay-at-home parent around to pick up the slack.

Here, I should note that I couldn't be luckier or more privileged — to the point where it feels pretty churlish to complain. I have a husband who shares child care equally, we're financially able to afford private preschool and our daughter got into a wonderful one that we're (mostly) thrilled with. After some negotiations, my parents are able to pick up my daughter from preschool during that first week of half-days. If, for whatever reason, my parents couldn't baby-sit, I would have found a way to work from home those afternoons without losing my job. The kid would have survived being parked in front of Peppa Pig for a few hours while I tried to work.

If I were a single parent, or a parent with an inflexible or low-paying job, or a parent without her own parents nearby, I'd be in big trouble. According to Childcare Aware of America, almost 30 percent of parents polled in 2014 experienced some kind of child care breakdown in the past three months. Those breakdowns are especially difficult for families already paying dearly for care: Full-time care for very young children can cost about half a year's salary for a family of three living at the poverty line.

I do think there's some cultural pushback against all this time and energy expended by working parents, and the workplaces that leave no room for families. But it's going to take a while to dismantle the framework that's been a couple of decades in the making. I would love to just drop my kid off at preschool at 8:30 on Day 1 and pick her up at 6, but the school won't let me. For now, I guess the only option is to be grateful that I can make it work for my own small family in this moment. Until we have another child, and all hell breaks loose.

Jessica Grose is the editor-in-chief of Lenny, an email newsletter from Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. She was formerly on staff at Slate and Jezebel and is the author of two novels, Sad Desk Salad and The Closest Marriage, which will be published in 2016.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Jessica Grose
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