Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Counting Dads at Preschool Potluck

Guess what happened at our fall preschool potluck? Lots of dads showed up. Hooray!

I don’t know what was going on. Had they all read that recent Newsweek cover story about how men need to step up to the parenting plate to survive the rigors of the 21st century? The one rehearsing those awful statistics about how even unemployed men do less housework than their wives, and including a choice and characteristically hopeful quip from the founder of this blog?

Or is it that Daddy Dialectic has succeeded in guilting all those late 20- and early 30-something dads into giving up whatever the hell it is they are so devoted to doing on Monday evenings, once every three months, at 7 o'clock in the evening? Reorganizing their tool box? Lowering a new racing engine into the chassis of their pro stock car? Founding a charter school? Or maybe flying back from Africa where they have performed free surgery on thousands of needy children? Perhaps these worthy projects were all put on hold for this one modest event in late September, because suddenly, strewn among the current generation of neighborhood toddlers, there were dads everywhere. And for the future of this generation of preschoolers, I don’t think that is a bad trade-off.

I should give some specifics as to the sample size and metric upon which I base these remarks: having attended a number of preschool potlucks, I now feel like I have a good sense of which dads can be expected to attend these events, which dads would probably rather not -- but can be prevailed upon approximately once every 9 months to do so -- and those who will just never show, because they need to … well, do whatever the hell it is they need to do.

A number of the latter have nonetheless found the time to encumber their wives with at least two children, a toddler in one arm and a suckling infant in the other, a situation that is usually best witnessed around 7:45PM in January, at the conclusion of the winter potluck, when it’s past the kids’ bedtime, frickin’ freezing outside, and mom has to belt the kids into the back seat. As far as I’m concerned, the Chicago Police should be stationed outside the building door, issuing violations for “Being Too Much of a Male Douchebag for the Conditions ,” or, “Failing to Yield Your Wage Slave Ubermensch Identity” in order to help out with a quarterly ritual of some significance. Fines would range between $100 to $150.

The question naturally arises, what exactly is it that prevents dad from going to the preschool potluck? That is indeed the mystery. Might it be answered by that classic alibi, work? The one reason rooted in real, inescapable, hard-core, survival-of-the-fittest economic imperatives (such a string of conventionally masculine adjectives!) The realities of a globalized, Great Recession world that make it virtually impossible to break out of the centuries-old division of gender labor that decrees: And man shall work, so that woman shall attend potluck dinners.

Pondering this, I envision the deals doubtlessly being struck around kitchen tables across the land: “Look, honey, I bust my ass at this job that I can’t stand (and at least I still have one) to make sure that you and the kids have a roof over your head. So in return, it’s your job to take the kids to the potluck, while I, well, while I whatever.” And the wife nodding her head in agreement, or just nodding her head, and thinking to herself, “So… (even though I have a law degree) we’ve decided that I’m going to stay home, so … and you really are doing important stuff and earn more money, so… OK, I’ll be the one who takes the kids to the potluck tonight, and then again … Every. Single. Time.”

Fair enough. Or is it? Obviously, it doesn’t apply to those unemployed men who aren’t helping around the house. But what of those who are working? I do in fact know some super-achieving males, those who make over the infamous $250,000 threshold doing such things as cutting-edge medical research, and therefore are usually in a clinic or somewhere in China or South Africa advancing the field in ways that will probably benefit all of humanity, or at least the minority with health insurance. You could argue that guys like this deserve a pass. Go, Great Men, go save the world. I’ll take the kids.

Yet aside from this conspicuous minority of Great Men who might – might -- deserve a pass, the interesting thing is that this alibi is not deployed by my wife, whose earning power stands to my own as does the Pentagon’s latest fighter jet to a paper kite. She can run with the best of them and does run, back and forth to the train station every morning and night. In fact, of the moms who never fail to attend these modest potlucks, I can think of a half dozen of them who work at least part time and a few that, like my wife, are full-timers. Somehow, they are always there. They would be ashamed not to be.

And here is where the double-standard comes in: working moms are more insistent about cutting out to be there for the events in their kids’ lives, but they get dinged for it, and make less than their male counterparts. Their employers mistakenly anticipate lower productivity from their female workers, let them cut out, and pay them less. Their husbands don’t get off so easily. They think – assuming they want to cut out from work, which is evidently still an open question – “I might be able to do this once or twice, but much more than that and it will hurt my career.”

The dad who checks out of the meeting for an early flight, so he can get back in time for his daughter’s softball game, might be fawned over by the women in the meeting room, but one too many such departures and his boss might pull him aside for some words about his future.

Which brings me back to the $250,000, heroic medical researcher. Maybe I shouldn’t give him a pass, even if in reality he happens to be a neighbor to whom I have entrusted the care of a very sensitive portion of my insides. Why not? Because until guys like him conspicuously demonstrate that they will not automatically trade family time for career advancement, until they insist that the well-being of their own children is just as important as the well-being of future generations to whom their scientific labors are dedicated, it will be harder for Joe Spreadsheet to make the case that he has to cut out in time to get to the softball game. And easier for Joe Douchebag to get out of a potluck just because he wants to.

In which case, I say, write that last guy a ticket.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A social dilemma: What if we’re the only ones who don’t send their kids to preschool?

On the Tuesday after Labor Day, we went to the playground. The sun was out. The air was warm. And the place was empty. It was ten o’clock in the morning, and Pip, Polly, and I were the only people there. This was a surprise to us. On the previous Tuesday there had been a number of kids running around, whipping down the slides, twisting on the swings, and creating the general commotion that is the specialty of children. Now, the playground was a ghost town. It was so quiet I could hear the swings creaking as they were pushed by the morning’s gentle breeze.

We stayed for about an hour. During that time, only one other kid appeared – a toddler who was probably 18 months old. At first my kids enjoyed having the place to themselves. They ran up the slides. They hopped from empty swing to empty swing. They scurried up the little climbing wall over and over. But soon the absence of other kids to watch and to play with left them bored and ready to leave.

Where was everyone? The answer came to me on the walk home: preschool. With the passing of Labor Day, all the area preschools are now in session. The kids we had seen the week before (and the week before that) are now scattered about the region’s various churches and private preschools. And they won’t return again until sometime in the month of May.

This phenomenon has raised an uncomfortable question for me: Am I going to have to send my kids to preschool to give them the chance to play with other kids? I hope not. We’ve done preschool. Ava and I sent Pip to one last year, and the experience was mediocre for us all. This was not the fault of the preschool. The program was well regarded, and the teachers did everything they said they would do. Pip made art projects. He went to Spanish class. He did music class. He learned some sign language. He got playtime everyday. We went with him on field trips to a local farm in the fall and to a exhibit of live butterflies in the spring. His experience was everything the ‘preschool industrial complex’ (Ava’s term) promises preschool can be.

But we never really were happy with it.

Our unhappiness stemmed largely from two areas. First, it felt like the activities were tailored heavily towards producing ‘things’ for parental consumption. On a daily basis, we were swamped by a deluge of paintings, drawings, collages, paper cutouts, etc. The importance given to all of this ‘stuff’ by the teachers did not align well with our own attempts at living a relatively simple life.

Second, Pip never really seemed comfortable. While he always said he liked preschool, whenever we did something with him there, he never appeared happy and relaxed. In fact, the indelible image for me from Pip’s year in preschool is of him standing on stage at the end of the year concert and nervously pulling the cuffs of his shorts up around his hips while he was supposed to be singing along with the music. His uncertainty in that moment was emblematic of what I saw from him throughout the year.

The main reason we sent Pip to preschool was for him to gain some “socialization.” As a two-year old, he was significantly more comfortable talking with adults than with kids. We hoped that by having the opportunity to independently interact on a regular basis with a group of kids his own age, he would at least get comfortable in a crowd and maybe even make some friends. In this respect, Pip’s preschool time was largely successful. He is much more outgoing now with other kids than he was a year ago. In particular, he is much more willing now to talk to new kids on the playground and engage in the kind of back and forth that is necessary for learning about new people.

That willingness made me hopeful that we could skip preschool this year. Over the summer our family moved to a new city and the potential for non-preschool socialization opportunities seemed high. We now have the great fortune of living in a neighborhood that is crawling with kids of all ages. There are strollers in abundance and tire swings hanging from multiple trees. During our first couple of weeks, Pip had begun to make a couple of friends at the playground nearby. He was talkative and playful and seemed to be figuring out how one goes about making friends.

Then Labor Day arrived, and now I’m facing a dilemma. In a new place where we don’t go to church or have an established network of family and friends with young children, if we want our kids to interact regularly with others their own age, do we have any choice but to send Pip (and eventually Polly) to preschool?

Obviously, I don’t really want to. In addition to my ambivalence about Pip’s earlier preschool experience, the following question comes to mind: what good comes from my being a full-time father if we are just going to send the kids to preschool every morning? I can do all the cognitive stuff better and more efficiently at home. The kids will get more direct attention, read more books, learn more letters and numbers, get exposed to more novel ideas, and have longer periods for playtime with me than at preschool. As a result of all of this, they’ll probably start reading and writing on their own sooner, too.

But what I can’t replicate at home is a social environment where Pip or Polly has to negotiate things with six other kids. How important is that in the long run? Will it put them at a significant disadvantage once they go to kindergarten or are these social development moments ones that they can catch up with pretty quickly? I don’t know. These are questions I’m still working out.

In the meantime, I’m trying a couple other avenues to get them playing with other kids. The most promising is an internet meet-up group for playdates that on the surface looks to be well-organized and highly active. Unfortunately, like the good preschools near us, there is a waiting list to get in. So, while I wait in line there and elsewhere, Pip, Polly and I’ll keep prowling the playground, hoping for that chance meeting with some other preschool holdouts.