99 Problems

Published on July 7th, 2014 | by Frances Badalamenti


Three-to-Six: When After School is Not So Special, by FRANCES BADALAMENTI

About three years ago, I was chatting it up with the dad of one of my kid’s preschool mates. We had both lived in Hoboken, New Jersey for a number of years. That small town will bond you pretty good and he often came in to see local band Yo La Tengo play at Maxwell’s, where I worked through college and beyond. I most likely pulled him a few pints of Guinness. We had also both lived out our twenties in and around New York City. Then we’d pioneered out west to Portland, Oregon, around the same time, right around Y2K, when something about all those zeros made us realize that work and life didn’t have to be so damn hard.

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We’re hanging out in front of the hippie preschool with the other parents. It’s a sweet craftsman-era bungalow that is rented from the singer of a famous indie-rock band who used to play shows in the basement. None of us work quote unquote normal jobs and many of us work from home and our kids are pretty feral.  It was one of those days when you really need someone to relate to for a second because you’ve been alone all day with plastic jammed into your ears.  Many of us have arrived on bikes that have been outfitted with mad shit to ride the kids on like trailers and tagalongs and extra-cycles and handmade seats and a few of us have ratty dogs or free-range little ones in tow.

The kids are still inside and we can hear them singing the folksy goodbye song and it’s so cute that some days if you’re raw enough you tear up and we know they’re about to come out because we go through this shit every day at pickup.

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And then the dad dude takes down his rain hood and gives a little tug to his beard and with a tone of introspection and sadness says to me, I don’t know what it is, I just can’t stand these few hours between pick up and dinner, they just suck the life outta me.

I was taken aback. I said, I know, man, it’s really hard sometimes.  

And the kids came spilling out the front door, a clusterfuck of backpacks and gear and those colorful rubber rain boots with the handles that always break. There were the usual tears of overwhelm and then there were hugs and then we all got on our makeshift bikes and rode away in the pissing down rain.

* * *

My kid is going to a diverse public elementary school now. I don’t know the other families like I knew the preschool families. My family is bi-racial. We are also gentrifying our neighborhood. There’s an unspoken awkward line between me and the other parents waiting at pick-up that is harder to cross.

The over-educated progressives like us are sending our kids to the school that only a decade ago was predominantly not white.  And some of us are trying to change some shit that may or may not be broken within these schools and within our communities and it doesn’t always go over well with those who have been around from day one.

As a somewhat stay-at-home and definitely privileged mom, I know I don’t have even close to the same stresses and struggle of so many others. But, the time between picking my kid up and when my husband’s beat up Toyota pickup truck pulls up out front remains lonely and frightening and frustrating.

There are days that I get super sad from three-to-six.

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When I was my son’s age, my mother walked a few blocks to pick me up from public school like I walk a few blocks to pick him up and both are brick schoolhouses in urban neighborhoods. But we lived in a house stuck to a bunch of other houses in a New York City enclave where we knew every single family on the block. The neighborhood had not changed in decades. When I got a little older and we moved out to the Jersey suburbs, a lot changed. Nobody walked me to school anymore and there was a lot of space between houses and we didn’t form relationships with our neighbors.

We exist in a very interpersonally isolating time and even though it’s nothing new, it’s pervasive and it’s chronic.  Our lives are riddled with blaring screens and electro-communication and not a lot of direct human contact.  When I lived in Queens, we had a mustard yellow phone stuck on the wall in the kitchen and it cost a lot to make calls so we didn’t make a lot of calls and we had a television in the basement that only got a handful of shitty channels.  We had neighbors that were like family and we had a big city park to play in and we had each other.

Once we got out to Jersey, we got the cable television box that you had to slide to change the many new channels and we got a new living room set because that’s where we started to hang out and then my parents split up.  I was sent to live with my mother in an apartment that was next to and on top of other apartments and I only knew one kid around the corner and everyone else had their door locked shut.  Maybe times were changing or maybe living in the burbs was different than the city.  When I came home from school, I took a house key out of the mailbox and I let myself in and I waited until six when my mother walked up the stairs, panting and exhausted from a low-paying job that left her not a lot of patience.

* * *

Now it’s full-on spring.  When I get my kid from school, the weather is good enough that we can hang out on the playground or the park and kill an hour or two before we walk home to the deprivation chamber. He has some friends but they are five and six and it tends to end with some kind of tiny male power struggle, which means that I will have to do some negotiating with a parent who doesn’t know me and probably doesn’t get me.

There are a few families on my block who have moved in during the past few years and they have children around my son’s age and the thought of having to engage in small talk with the parents makes me instantly tired. So most days I’d rather sit in my chair by the window and read a sad book while my son watches vintage Pink Panther cartoons on Youtube. And then I feel terrible in my body and I am riddled with guilt that I am not engaging with my kid and I am riddled with guilt for not herding him to make more friends .But I am burned out from writing all day in isolation and I am jacked up from too much good coffee and these are the times that I have nothing left to offer. Yet there is always that existential tug to be the magic mommy who sits on the front porch with a plate of watermelon wedges to share.

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And these are the times that I say, Fuck it.

These are the times when I say, Sure, you can have another half hour of Tintin.

I ask myself what needs to change.  There was something special about the bohemian preschool parent posse and I think it was that we were all cut from the same organic cotton cloth.  We all made art of some kind and when we came to pick up our kids, we related to one another. We had potlucks and I hate to throw it down like this, but what we had was a community.  I had it as a kid in Queens and I didn’t have it as a kid in Jersey and I don’t have it now because I don’t live in a neighborhood that hasn’t changed in decades.  I live in a neighborhood that changes every single day and I’m not always sure it’s for the better.

Ten or fifteen years ago, I would have never sent my kid to the school up the street.  He would have gone to a charter school a few miles away and we’d be driving all over town for play dates and this is what my friends have chosen for their kids.  I instead opted to search for a local community and the irony is that it is really hard to find in the midst of constant change and it is really hard to find in the midst of gentrification and it is really hard to find in the midst of figuring out what it is to be a parent who also wants to be a person.

But what I do know is that being a parent can be really, really hard and that shit is super universal and it’s not just me and it’s not just the dad dude who feels those existential pangs from three to six, I know it’s not.

It can’t be.

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Photos by GOo (c)

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About the Author

Frances was born and raised in Queens, New York and suburban New Jersey, but currently lives on the left coast in Portland, Oregon with her husband and son.  She has completed a full-length memoir and a collection of essays. You can find her at:  francesbadalamenti.com

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