Why did I hesitate to put all this glory of the sun on my canvas?
– Paul Gauguin
Every parent compromises. We breathe through our uncertainty, living in the world as it is while occasionally dotting the page with what could be.
We put Bug on the rolls for the county School Aged Child Care Program when he was only four years old. A month into kindergarten, and he is still number 72 on the waiting list. They tell us he might get in by second grade.
Tee and I spent a good portion of last year exploring every day care option in the area. We found homes crammed with untended children staring, gape-mouthed, at Dora on giant TVs in converted basements. We found KinderCare centers with such an avalanche of scathing online reviews that we had to restrain ourselves from taking up arms to liberate the children inside. The nearby private schools only provide after-hours care to the gilded young who already attend.
Word on the street is that the Tai Kwon Do place in a local shopping center is decent enough. It has vans that pick up the kids after school. The teachers give their charges a 30-minute martial arts lesson, a snack, and play time in a small nook at the back. Bug and I visit on several occasions. The kid’s default is to notice the things in front of him, and he has only just begun to long for what is absent. Bug does not even register the adjacent nail salon or the lack of outdoor space. These are my issues, and I buoy my tone up above the churning resistance in my belly. Watching the students practice their kicks and shouts, Bug bounces and begs to join.
Not even a postage stamp yard for a jungle gym? Cramped quarters? A Leviathan flat-screen TV in the back of the room where the after-school kids gather? I force myself calm with little mantras. It’s only temporary, it’s only a few hours a day. He’ll be fine (and even if it’s not, what can I do about it? We can’t afford a nanny or a private school, and I have no choice but to work).
I only allow myself a single blink at the image of what I want for Bug. The saturated hues are bright enough to sear. It seems so foolish to covet the impossible, but I know exactly what it is: Real. Living, breathing, tactile, sensory. A wide-open green place where he can run and climb. Games and balls and unscheduled time with friends to spread out on a floor to paint or build. I want there to be no electronic babysitters. I want adults within reach that understand child development but also back off and let their charges find their way. I want Bug to get bored and wander through that uncertainty until his hands take up some task that speaks to him. I want him to track the seasons by simply being among the trees. I want what so many parents want: My kid tapping into his unlimited self on the living earth, playing hard with his whole brain and body engaged.
What is the use of giving shape to the impossible? We are poor(ish), nothing better exists, and I have to work. So I do not give that Real more than one swipe across the canvas before setting down my brush. This is as good as it gets. My wildly outdoorsy kid will only get to play in the fresh air on weekends. He’ll go to a good kindergarten, and be blessed by the fact that his dad and mom both love camping.
Tee and I sign the contract and pay up. Bug would spend 15 hours in a strip mall. Breathe, lady.
When mid-August arrives, we put Bug in the Tai Kwon Do day camp for a few days to acclimate him. I pick him up at the end of Day 1, and he tells me about their trip to the park and their short martial arts lesson.
“What else did you do?”
“Watched a movie in the morning. Then we watched another movie when we got back!”
Day 2. The field trip is to – yes, you guessed it – the movies.
“What else did you do?”
“In the morning, we watched a movie. After Tai Kwon Do, we watched another movie!”
Three movies in one day? Bug is very, very happy at this turn of events.
Day 3. The field trip is to the pool. This time, when I drop Bug off, I walk with him all the way through to the child care nook in the back. The chairs are lined up in rows. The TV is blaring Disney’s Peter Pan. Not a crayon, block, or board game is anywhere in sight. I have never really looked around before, but now I see that all the cabinets are stuffed full of martial arts equipment. The floor has no train set, no bin of legos, no easel or pegboard. The bookshelves house trophies. The tables are bare.
This is not a child care facility. It is a storage closet.
It is 8:00 in the morning, and I am paying this place for 9 hours of DVDs. I could take him to work with me and provide that kind of childcare myself for free.
I leave in a panic. In two weeks, school will start. This is what awaits my son? During the commute, I turn my universe upside-down trying to shake out another choice. Maybe I could quit my job. Maybe Tee and I could get back together and I could work so he could stay home, which is what he wanted anyway. Maybe I could beg my mom to retire. Something? Anything?
There is only so much compromising any of us can do. At some point, we hit the core of what we believe about the world, and we either have to change what we believe or we have to change the world. I can put my kid in a strip mall. I can contort my schedule into a pretzel to accommodate easy transitions before school, as I described in this post about the enrollment choice. I can even allow the occasional hour of Nick, Jr. if it takes place at the end of a dynamic day full of real life. I do believe in letting go of some rigid plans for my child.
But I also believe in the open sky and in the beautiful play of the body and mind when they are free to roam. I believe far too deeply in calling out the pulse of our humanness, of our mammalness, at every opportunity. We dull too many edges with our entertainments and ill-conceived inventions. We grow numb far too early, and we rebel far too rarely. When my son was born, I made a quiet promise to him and to the world for which he will someday be responsible: My child will have poetry and he will have the earth under his feet, and he will learn to be a steward of this precious place. Even if it means I throw out the safe-enough income, the health benefits, and the someday-home-of-our-own, my child will have the real. I will work part time and live in a rented basement before I let him spend his 42 weeks a year in a place that thinks it’s okay to stultify our beautiful young ones with three #&%*$ movies a day.
I arrive at work and start trolling. Internet. Phone. Someone, somewhere. Every place within the zip code of Bug’s school, I check again. Same names of the same desperate ladies in their cramped townhouses with the TVs doing the babysitting. Same big-box profit-hungry franchises. Same elite institutions with no transportation provided to and from the public schools. I expand my search to the next zip code. I have already cried twice, and it is only 9:00am.
Then. I stumble upon this place out on the very edge of the district boundary line. The website describes hands-on learning, farm animals, and free play. It is country day school, drawing on Dewey’s experiential roots and the progressive tradition.
I call. “Do you have openings for after-school care?”
“Before and after-school, yes.”
“You are in our elementary school district? Really?”
“Yes. The bus picks up here in the morning and drops off here in the afternoon.”
“Can I kiss you over the phone?”
Giovanni, my knight in shining armor, takes a hiatus from work, picks me up and whisks me over the twisting country road past million-dollar homes and horse barns. We pull up to the address and step out into the sun.
Into the Garden of Eden.
Five acres of land. A sledding hill. Two playgrounds with hand-hewn wooden play equipment. Chickens, a goat, a pony. Jumbled flagstones wind through an overgrown garden and pumpkins spill from vines behind the fence. Peeling layers of children’s art plaster the walls of an old, rambling house whose rooms are cluttered with books, board games, blocks, balls.
Other than a single computer in the office for the Assistant Director to send emails to parents, electronic screens are verboten. The bus ferries kids between this paradise and Bug’s school every morning and afternoon. Even with the addition of the before-school care we need, this utopia is only marginally pricier than the Tai Kwon Do place.
Most importantly, there is room for my son. Plenty of room. Acres and acres of open sky. He can run with his arms stretched out and swallow the whole day.
Now, when I pick Bug up at what he calls “the chicken school” at 6:15pm, he is pink-cheeked, grubby, and usually perched at the top of a jungle gym lording over the playground. He does not want to leave. I sit at the picnic table and watch him dash up and down, past the rabbit in the hutch, over the relentless weeds, dust flying.
For a time, I did not believe in anything but the limits of this new life. I did not allow myself to see in color because the dulling gray of resentment and grief had so blanketed the beginnings. Leaving behind a marriage, a life in the mountains, and dreams of a happily-ever-after can bring on temporary blindness. It hurts so much, that distance between what is and what could be. It hurt enough that I built a prison in my mind and stopped letting in the light. It is safer there, no?
Stay there long enough, and the temporary condition becomes permanent.
I have spent far too many years – years well before Tee – only letting my trust go so far. This here is enough, I say. This here is as good as it gets. I will learn to live with it. This time around, desperation forced my hand. I hit the core of what I believe about the world and teetered on edge of trading my faith for a release from the duty to serve that calling. A small existence may seem a safer bet than facing the possibility of change, but it’s an awfully expensive deal. A compromise of that magnitude is pure capitulation. Thank goodness the pulse of life is stronger than my cowardice.
This gift of a perfect way-station for my son arrived at the moment I refused to settle any longer for just good enough. I want to hold onto this small truth: it is an act of courage to believe there is more to this journey than surviving on scraps. It is never too late to voice desire for what can be, to dip the brush into the richest colors, and to use the whole spectrum to craft a life.
No more picturing toil and limits. No more hard, dark images of poverty. I shake off the hair shirt and surrender the title of martyr. Artist is much more to my liking. I pick up the brush. I paint the world abundant, and so my son and I are rich beyond measure.