Books June 2005

Kiddie Class Struggle

One mom's breast-milk-curdling tour of lower education's higher end
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Because, like many American mothers with children at home, I am a juggling, multi-tasking, somewhat less than full-time freelance employee, the hours I spent reading Camille Peri and Kate Moses's Because I Said So, Judith Warner's Perfect Madness, and Miriam Peskowitz's The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars also involved a lot of weeping in parking lots. In the spirit of motherly sharing, let me rush to explain why. It began with the—I thought simple—wish that our daughter attend kindergarten. In the strange voodoo that is California, although houses in our neighborhood have shot up to $500,000, the corner school's demographics are 95 percent Hispanic; 76 percent of the students are learning English as a second language, and 92 percent qualify for a free lunch. Like most families just one year into the crowded magnet system, we've been waitlisted for schools with more English-speakers; any openings materializing locally will be assigned by lottery, the odds notoriously poor.

So, we figured, the simplest solution was to move. The shining beacons of L.A. public education are La Cañada and Calabasas, lovely bedroom neighborhoods where single-family homes run from $850,000 to $1.5 million (giving rise to my new favorite real-estate phrase: "$1.1 million and it's on septic!"). One Sunday I saw a La Cañada listing at the Ikea-like Impossibly Low Price! of $830,000. The house was small, but checking on the Internet revealed that it had a surprisingly big lot. Surely no one else had seen this, had done the research … As we pulled up in our ever-so-slightly-pockmarked 1998 Toyota, my hopes crumbled upon seeing a mob of sleek-sunglassed parents, all business, plus their children, piling like vermin out of gleaming black Mercedes and Lexus SUV Horror-Mobiles, tossing ever-escalating sealed bids—like jaunty paper airplanes—over the squat house's peeling windowsills.

"If it weren't for all these Asians!" I hissed, crumpling the Los Angeles Times real-estate section in my fist. I confess that even more flew out, to the tune of "Asians—they overfetishize education, drive up the real-estate market, and P.S., I hate their tile!" It concerned my husband that in our quest to secure our daughter a quality education, to forge her into a forward-looking citizen of the world, I—myself of Asian descent—was becoming a frothing, snarling racist. Wasn't there another way?

Fortunately, yes. In our darkest hour we turned to religion. Upon learning that tuition at parochial schools is half that at name L.A. private schools (where it runs from $14,000 to $26,000 a year), my husband and I—recalling that we have two kids to spring for—dropped our Left Coast Democratic leanings and immediately found God. Any God would do. We weren't picky. Here was a glossy Baptist flyer showing happy children: "Picture your child attending a school where every subject is taught from a Biblical perspective!" Here was a Catholic one, with a photo of the pope—for whom I experienced a stab of affection, thinking, "People put down the pope, but he has actually made some pretty good points. Can't remember what they are, but look at the tuition—$4,500!"

We eventually settled on the middlebrow Lutherans and their middlebrow Luther Hall, considered not top-tier but certainly decent, with no recent shootings. Which I like to think describes our middlebrow 1998 minivan family as well—"Not top-tier but certainly decent, with no recent shootings." Comparing Luther Hall's $6,500 a year with the $10,000 property tax on the La Cañada tear-down, I felt the pressure releasing. The kindergarten had openings; we were applying in time; and the only thing standing between us and an acceptance letter was a twenty-minute evaluation. Said evaluation was a sleepy one-on-one with a teacher, involving simple questions ("What's your favorite ice cream?"), the replicating of some block arrangements, pencil work ("Can you write your name?" Yes), and the copying of shapes of increasing difficulty, culminating in a grid I can only describe as "the British flag"—which, with almost pencil-breaking effort, my daughter actually did. When asked to name some animals, she opened with "Lion, tiger, hippopotamus …" I thought this showed style.

Indeed, I was just going through my address book, phoning everyone with news of my daughter's genius ("She said her favorite ice cream was mango!"), when word came that Luther Hall felt my daughter had failed the test, that she was not developmentally ready for kindergarten and would actually have to be held back a year. This is the 2001: A Space Odyssey moment when lights and colors around you smear into tunnels. My gut turned to ice, and I vaulted into the minivan, bouncing crazily down the rainy boulevard like a wild-eyed mother tiger, through stoplights flaring orange, my knuckles turning white, to Luther Hall, to … well, apparently to go question by question through my daughter's awful pink Gesell readiness assessment. At the top was her age, 4.4; below was a sea of ADD-type phrases: "intermittent eye contact," "not focused," "attention seemed to wander." Next to "Conversation," "Blocks," and "Pencilwork" was an age-appropriate spray of 4.0s and 4.5s, "but by February," the administrator said, "we want to see more 4.5s moving into 5.0s." The British flag was a 6.0. But because she did not then want to try the much simpler diamond: a 4.0. The animal naming was timed—twenty seconds, forty, sixty. You're not supposed to peak at hippopotamus, or wait for praise. You're supposed to press on and on and on …

In the parking lot, in the rain, in my white Toyota minibarge of failure, I cried, because I now saw the error of my relaxed, irreverent ways. All those hysterical Los Angeles über-moms I used to mock (call them the Suzanne Vandenburg-Kiplings), with their shining yoga faces, Mozart in the womb, natural birth, Baby Einstein, scary brain-stimulating black-and-white baby mobiles, getting on extended waiting lists for super preschools, piano lessons at two … They were actually right! Any one of these tricks would have gotten us over the hump of 4.3s to probably more like 4.7s and 4.8s at age 4.4. If her mother had been paying any attention, I thought, my daughter would not be sitting alone come September with no kindergarten to go to, One Child Left Behind.

W hich is a long way of saying that I begin Peri and Moses's essay anthology Because I Said So in a foul mood. I actually crack its spine while at Under the Sea, the hideous neon Chuck E. Cheese—like indoor playground my daughters and I prefer to the vastly more educational Kidspace Children's Museum across town, whose tasteful décor is nicer than that of my house. Because, unlike at an open-air playground, the children can't actually escape, Under the Sea is my office away from home. (And you've seen the results.)

Co-founders of the popular Salon feature "Mothers Who Think," which itself grew into an eponymous best-selling anthology, Peri and Moses, in their chatty introduction, describe formulating early ideas while very much caught up in motherhood's jumble—on outings at the zoo, in the bleachers at soccer practice, and, yes, "while waiting at the pharmacy for amoxicillin prescriptions." But just as I'm settling in to my own jumble, hunching over the pizza counter, spine relaxing, the Mothers start Thinking—unfortunately, much too hard for me.

In the United States as we know it now, the one-size-fits-all how-tos still being recycled in the parenting literature are not only useless, they are laughable, even irresponsible, as the subjects of some of the stories in this book make clear. What's a black mother to do when people assume she's the hired nanny of her biracial child? What's a modern Muslim mother to do when her American mosque tries to banish her for having a child but no husband? What's a widow to do when her son asks why his father was killed by terrorists? What's a husband to do in the waiting room while his wife's eggs are being transferred to the uterus of the woman who may carry their child to term?

Mothers Who Think celebrated "the emphatic telling of mothers' truths," and in that spirit I declare my truth in 2005 to be that I am suffering from Women's Anthology Fatigue. The subtitle of Because I Said So is "33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race & Themselves," which alone exhausted me. I recalled reading Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild's anthology Global Woman, a sociologically important book, and thinking helplessly at one point, "But what can I do if a young Filipina fell in love and moved in with an abusive unemployed alcoholic—and yet somehow managed, between the weepings and beatings, to create four children? Yes, it's horrible that the only way to support her kids is to nanny for a hideous Manhattan socialite in a disturbing pattern of global Third World female exploitation, but …" All I can do, really, is to send up a spiritual thought balloon of my sincerest condolences. I would march on Washington, but hey, I can't even get my kid into kindergarten! Because the scope of my motherhood has shrunk to the size of a panic room, I've got nothing left for news outside it. (Which also explains why I go blank any time I hear a sentence that begins with that passionate feminist catchphrase "But in Denmark … !")

It's gloomy to feel so negative about global sisterhood, because there are individual essays in Because I Said So that I really enjoy. Margaret Talbot's "Material Girls"—relating her guilty pleasure in, and her apt deconstruction of, American Girl dolls—is hilarious. In "On Giving Hope," Daniel Pearl's widow, Mariane, writes with fierce optimism of her dreams for their son, born after Pearl's murder. Jean Hanff Korelitz's "Why I Can Never Go Back to the French Laundry" terrifically captures the sensation of maternal guilt: as Korelitz settles down to an exquisite dinner and then realizes that she has not in fact actually met the children's baby-sitter, "I had the strangest sensation of an egg breaking over my head, but the egg was full of acid, and the acid swept instantly through my skin and rampaged through my bloodstream." Mary Morris's "Chaos Theory" describes a neatnik mother's gradual acceptance of a messy house. I particularly love this humanizing detail: Morris's teenage daughter, while showering, pulls out strands of her unruly mane and sticks them to the wall so they won't clog the drain.

Kate Moses's "Mother of the World" weaves together losing a baby to miscarriage, losing friends to cancer, and traveling to Egypt to find Fayum portraits of a centuries-dead young mother and child. It's quite moving to read at forty-three, while at the same delicate balancing point between fertility and cronedom that Moses describes. I also experience catharsis—healing, even—upon seeing fine prose used in a maternal tale of real poignance. (While reading Naomi Wolf's Misconceptions, on the other hand, I had only sour thoughts: "Never mind the cesareans—you had two healthy babies!" I imagine her response: "But in Africa … !")

Because I am in a crabbed state of mind, however, the essay that sticks with me is Andrea Gray's "Survivor." Gray writes about losing her business, her home, and her husband, and living on food stamps. Her one source of pride is that by cutting corners and making deals, she was able to keep her kids in their exclusive Marin school.

And all I can think is "What is she complaining about? She got them in!"

Good news on the kindergarten front! The cavalry's here. My friend Leah is outraged at our rejection—and by a school she has never even heard of! "Lutherans?" she rails. "Since when are they exclusive? How dare they? Don't they know who you are? You're a celebrity mom!"

"I'm a public-radio celebrity," I remind her, "which in L.A. is like being the genteel poor." I'm ashamed to admit that while tearfully arguing my daughter's case—"But look at this British-flag thing; it's a 6.0!"—I indeed tried, between sobs, to utter a few sentences in "public-radio voice" to gain a little stature; but the dour administrator just looked at me blankly.

"Nonsense—everyone knows you!" Leah sings out. "And believe me, private-school admission is not about the kids but the parents." She places a call to her friend Jacqueline—a "huge fan" who teaches French at The Learning Project, a very first-rate, very educationally progressive L.A. private school. "Mais non!" Jacqueline cries, upon hearing of our tragedie—we must send our kids to TLP. (Editorial note: The identities of all schools and administrators mentioned in this article have been disguised, if poorly.)

By day's end Jacqueline has called back with news of a somewhat mixed nature that yet offers some hope if approached opportunistically. The admissions coordinator, Dee, is a "huge fan," but the all-powerful headmistress, a lady named Mrs. Feninger, while not exactly a non-fan, has never heard of me. The good news is that Mrs. Feninger has recently developed a mania for fundraising, because of a new computer center. An excitable description ensues ("Très Pixar! …"), the Franco-technological import of which is hard to follow—all I can tell you is that I have a vague, slightly vibrating feeling about the new computer center. Dee has convinced Mrs. Feninger that a public-radio celeb—albeit one she has never heard of—will be a crack fundraiser. Formidable, Jacqueline suggests to me, would be if I put together a gift basket of signed books with a letter introducing myself and my husband and our own mania for fundraising, which we are burning to share.

While there are roadblocks yet to cross—not the least being that The Learning Project is $14,000 a year (Leah waves her hands dismissively: "Financial aid! Repeat after me: 'I am a celebrity mom!'")—we have won a slot in the last Learning Project "play encounter." Yes, the whole wobbly enterprise is making me feel a little like Sean Young in a Catwoman suit, rattling the gates of Warner Bros. ("Here's a video we shot of me in Donna Karan and an Easter bonnet, pretending to emcee your annual Spring Fling auction!") But, we all agree, there's nothing you mustn't stoop to for your children.

Upon moving from France to America, Judith Warner writes in Perfect Madness, she experienced culture shock. France was a parent's "paradise," rich with mother/family benefits, while America … (Cue Axl Rose screaming, "Welcome to the Jungle!") America was full of relatively privileged mothers suffering a "choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret."

So what has brought us to what one mom calls "this, this, this … this mess"? "It's not the 'fault' of the media," Warner says (quelling any doubts that her real subtitle should be "But in France … !").

Or the Christian Right. Or George W. Bush. Or Phyllis Schlafly. Or Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Or Mrs. Doubtfire. It's us—this generation of mothers. And it's the way our culture has groomed and greeted us. Mixing promise with politics, feminism with "family values," science and sound bites and religion and, above all, fear into a combustible combination that is nothing less than perfect madness.

Warner dubs today's Problem That Has No Name "The Mommy Mystique," a gauzy tissue of beliefs that tell us "we are the luckiest women in the world—the freest, with the most choices, the broadest horizons, the best luck, and the most wealth." Further,

It says we have the knowledge and know-how to make "informed decisions" that will guarantee the successful course of our children's lives. It tells us that if we choose badly our children will fall prey to countless dangers—from insecure attachment to drugs to kidnapping to a third-rate college. And if this happens, if our children stray from the path toward happiness and success, we will have no one but ourselves to blame. Because to point fingers out at society, to look beyond ourselves, is to shirk "personal responsibility." To admit that we cannot do everything ourselves, that indeed we need help—and help on a large, systematic scale—is tantamount to admitting personal failure.
Comforted by the Mommy Mystique, we are convinced that every decision we make, every detail we control, is incredibly important.

Just as I'm giddily trimming celadon-colored Japanese ribbon for my Mrs. Feninger gift basket, this sentence gives me pause.

Warner says that our generation of post—Baby Boomers, born from 1958 to the early 1970s, is ripe for Mommy Mystique—dom. Our evolution, in an eerily accurate nutshell?

In the 1980s, you couldn't invite a friend over for dinner without her opening the oven door and doing a quick calorie count before she mentally committed herself to eating.
In the 1990s, she brought her own dinner—because she was, inevitably, allergic to whatever you served.
We have long been a generation of control freaks.
For decades now, we have had a tendency to act as though contagion—the contagion of out-of-controlness—lay behind every corner. Behind every pot lid, every menu, every play date.

Warner is not the first to note that feminism's ascension on college campuses paralleled the rise of anorexia nervosa. But her connection between hyper food freaks and hyper mom freaks fascinates me. As weight-consciousness is an obsession with numbers, I think of the school APIs (Academic Performance Indexes) I'm always punching up on the Internet and comparing. There are other means by which to measure academic performance, and other descriptors for the likely educational experience, and if all else fails and you have the time (yeah, right), you can break down and actually go visit a school under consideration. But for the record, the La Cañada school has a Harvard-class-of-2021 API: 953 out of a possible 1,000. Our local Van Nuys school scores a McDonald's-fryer-bound 673. When a Berkeley friend called and complained about her daughter's third-grade teacher, I logged on, called back angrily, and exclaimed, "Count your blessings, baby! Your school's API is a UCLA-on-scholarship-ready 810!"

Just driving over to The Learning Project for our "play encounter," I'm already feeling queasy. Gnawing at me is Judith Warner's assertion that I am probably crazy. Have I indeed been traveling through this entire kindergarten journey/"mess" in a state of perfect madness? That would make me vastly less confident about the "choices" I've made to get us here. In the past week my Grrrrl Power—like battle cry of "I am a celebrity mom!" has devolved to the far less glamorous "I am a celebrity mom who needs financial aid." Leah has pointed out that since at one elite L.A. middle school they actually—ironically enough—teach my essay-writing style, I may eventually be able to barter the teaching of writing for a break in my kids' private-school tuition.

I always planned to teach again, but I never thought I'd be instructing only eighth-graders of the greatest wealth, attending schools I could never afford. The vision of endlessly spiraling privilege is positively Escher-like.

Another problem is TLP's location. If such a metaphor had been tried in Global Woman, I would have dinged the writer for lachrymosity—but yes, to get to yon Isle of White, we pass taquerias, a check-cashing joint, a group of weary-looking Hispanic women standing at the bus stop. Then we come upon the TLP security gate, which swings open onto a painted castle compound in the middle of which is a leafy glade abuzz with English, math, Mozart, and, weirdly enough, Spanish! "And global citizenship," our guide enthuses. "The kids voted and decided they wanted to send money to Asia this year for the tsunami!" (I lean over to my husband and murmur, "Throw a stone over the wall and you've got a tsunami! A tsunami of Latinos! Forty to a class!")

The tour goes on, describing TLP's psychologist-developed kindergarten math games, linguistic puzzles, off-the-chart test scores, almost-guaranteed admission into top secondary schools. And then, of course, there it is: the new computer center. A hive of white children pecking, learning faster faster faster. And I find myself hysterically thinking, "This is where the hatchlings live, the hatchlings who will become the corporate lawyers of tomorrow!" And then I think, "Who are these $14,000-a-year-for-kindergarten parents? Why do their kids need to be Baby Einsteins in an era when our president is a guy who says 'nu-cu-lar'?"

She's a tempting image, that über-mom, my very own dreamscape Suzanne Vandenburg-Kipling. Blonde ponytail, dark sunglasses, yoga pants, roaring by in her black SUV, hurtling toward junior's violin lesson, Whole Foods chai in her cupholder, chairwoman of her school's celebrity tsunami-relief auction—partly to build her kids' self-esteem, partly so they can accrue Yale-friendly extracurricular credit. Compare her with the older, squarer, fatter lady at our neighborhood church, who said recently, "We teach the children we're part of the global community … sometimes against our will." That morning she'd led a group to the boulevard in front of the church to pick up trash.

Miriam Peskowitz describes the demographic categorization of American mothers in her book The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars. She notes that Euro RSCG, the world's fifth largest advertising agency and popularizer of the term "metrosexual," has broken down American mothers into the following "hot" advertising categories: Domestic Divas (employ nannies to raise flawless kids and housekeepers to keep the home gorgeous), Boomerang Moms (worked when kids were small, left work when kids were teens, à la Karen Hughes and Maria Shriver), Yummy Mummies (staying fabulous at the gym—Catherine Zeta-Jones), Mini-Me Moms (kids are fashion accessories—Madonna, Anna Wintour, Kathie Lee Gifford). The final category, the Rage Brigade, is the least interesting marketing niche, because "rage women don't have expendable income or lots of time and desire to shop."

The Mommy Wars of which Peskowitz writes break things down much more simply, pitting working moms against stay-at-homes. But Peskowitz argues that this is a false division. According to data she cites, only 37 percent of working mothers actually work full time; most of us are on a "carousel" of full-time to part-time to no work that we're continually stepping on and off. We have more in common than not, but—bombarded by Mommy Wars media stories—we don't see it that way. Peskowitz describes a mom she met on a Manhattan playground. Depressed about the transition from seventy-hour weeks to full-time momhood, the mother was complaining—vaguely—about the Mommy Wars, even while staunchly defending the brokerage firm that had just let her go. She argued like a good dead soldier that there couldn't be part-time jobs on Wall Street.

Here is the problem, Peskowitz contends, with the now infamous Lisa Belkin New York Times Magazine article "The Opt-Out Revolution" (which one letter writer described as "a feel-good piece for the Muffy set"). High-achieving women always describe opting out as a "choice," whereas their high-intensity workplaces are typically the ones that give little choice—it's seventy hours a week or nothing.

But what about the daddies? Where are they in all this putative warring, all this worrying? Is insane parental fretting just a chick thing? Hardly. At one point during the tour at TLP the administrators—partly as an ice-breaker, partly to demonstrate a favorite learning exercise at TLP—actually broke us parents out into pairs to discuss our aspirations for our children's kindergarten. My husband's partner was the wife of a famous movie actor (a well-known starship captain), whereas I paired off with a surgeon in scrubs. As we babbled on, and our responses were logged onto a whiteboard, making us the ultimate focus group, it became clear that in order to calm the parental beast that lives within, a school has to look friendly and its classes have to be small, its toys new, its art pretty, its children happy, and, above all, its lawns green.

A lawyer, in a suit, said he wanted his son "never to be bored" at school. "He's a bright kid who needs constant stimulation in order to remain engaged—I want him to be excited to go to school!" And at $14,000 a year for kindergarten, I know he will be. In order to provide that kind of value, the friendly staff will literally have to scrape our children's bows across their violin strings. In a soothing, self-esteem-enhancing motion. While the children are being visually stimulated. And their pelts brushed like ponies'. Before all star in a play. About global citizenship. In exotic faraway places. Well beyond the castle gates and all those global citizens in the surrounding neighborhood.

In capturing the hopes and fears of this privileged, self-obsessed generation of parents, Judith Warner tellingly writes,

Our baby boomer elders often call us selfish, but in doing so they miss a larger point: that what our obsessive looking-inward hides is at base a kind of despair. A lack of faith that change can come to the outside world … The desperate, grasping, and controlling way so many women go about the job of motherhood, turning energy that used to demand social change inward into control-freakishness, is our hallmark as a generation. We have taken it upon ourselves as super mothers to be everything to our children that society refuses to be: not just loving nurturers but educators, entertainers, guardians of environmental purity, protectors of a stable and prosperous future.

Thus does weltschmerz improbably drive a generation of overweening parents.

When I was young, my family traveled a lot and lacked money, so my education was dotted with many crappy schools. And looking back, I realize that bad schools were where I had some of the peak educational experiences of my life. The boredom of a bad teacher can be character-building: while your attention is wandering, you may discover who you truly are. These days, for such extraordinary prices and clearly extraordinary value (a guarantee that privileged children will never become bored), we may be breeding a generation of trembling terriers, totally unprepared to fail a test, to move to a new city, to get their own apartments.

Reassured by past crappiness, I decide to unbolt the door to my panic room. I give up on guaranteeing my children admission to Harvard by the age of five. It's a relief, actually. I just couldn't have lived under the zodiac sign Mother Tiger any longer. My breast milk was curdling; my fangs were losing their edge. Here, then, are my cheerful new mantras: "We're saving $14,000 a year!" "It's just kindergarten!" "What with the 95 percent Latino population, it's like my daughter's having her year abroad right here in town!" If I can't be a Global Woman, I can at least, for one year, be Local, if not actually Loca. Maybe my scraggly 673 API corner elementary school needs someone to teach essay writing, or just to pick up basura.

I drive up for a look. There's a little bungalow, with a green awning that says COLLEGE BEGINS IN KINDERGARTEN. There's a hopeful cartoon wolf with a mortarboard. Who won't … stop … thinking about tomorrow. Really? Okay, off we go.

Sandra Tsing Loh is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. Her commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media's Marketplace.
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