Katie in Cornonation Street used to have some of the best lines about motherhood. There was the time she was so unsure of herself after having a baby that she didn’t even know what type of music she liked anymore and then there was the time a bit before that when everyone else around her was enjoying the getting-ready-for-the-work-day panic while she just sat on the couch, a hollow version of herself. As Fizz hurried her own child out to her childminder’s, Katie, exasperated said, “I’d like a childminder and all,” to which Chesney, also exasperated, responded, “yeah but Fizz works.”
Well, that got to me.
What was Chesney saying, exactly? On the surface, it seemed he was stating a simple fact: Fizz works, therefore Fizz has childcare. But he was also saying a whole lot more. He was, I would argue, summing up a general cultural attitude towards the value of paid work versus unpaid caregiving. He was saying that Fizz deserved childcare because she went out to work. He was saying that Fizz contributed to the household, nay to society, while Katie was just at home with the baby, not working, apparently. He was saying that were Katie to work like Fizz, then it would be okay to outsource the childcare of their child because she would be paying for it and consequently, earning it. But as things stood, Chesney’s attitude—condescending, talking to Katie as though she were a spoiled child—was that Katie staying at home with the baby was her “job” and it was hers to do alone, with neither help nor pay.
The worst part is that for a long time, I agreed with Chesney, even though I often felt like Katie. I had internalized the message that I could only have childcare if I had paid work. Otherwise, it seemed like a double negative; after all, I was already taking away from the family by not earning money and if I were to get childcare, then I would just cost the family even more. Katie in Coronation Street, on the other hand, had a team of writers who circumvented the whole issue for her by getting other characters to volunteer unsustainable amounts of free childcare. Meanwhile, I just let the market-model of capitalism, which conveniently disregards the economic contribution of unpaid labour, overrun my thoughts and feelings, thoughts and feelings which have been very hard to shake. In fact, I don’t think I’ve fully shook them yet. But job or no job, it was clear that I needed a break from mothering, preferably a defined and scheduled break for two to three mornings a week, so that, ironically, I could work. Also, Boone needed to hang out with people his own age on a more regular basis, especially since we’d both had it with a lot of the so-called mum and toddler-friendly playgroups and activities, mainly because they’re not friendly at all. Hence: playschool.
(I know I’m supposed to call it “Montessori” or “pre-school” or whatever, but I just can’t bring myself to do it so “playschooo-uhl,”as Boone calls it, it is.)
I also know that I’m conflating childcare with education here but for me, it is about childcare. I simply need someone else to occupy Boone for a few hours. I couldn’t care less if he “learns” anything, particularly anything from the numbers-letters-colours-shapes canon, which according to a very jaded eleven-year-old Dominic is the entire (and boring) curriculum of early childhood education. No, Boone learns plenty as it is just by being almost-three. Also, he watches copious amounts of telly, all of which seems hell bent on educating him, despite my misgivings.
Although the HSE recommended that I visit at least three different “centres,” I signed Boone up for the first one we visited, as of all the playschools I had oh-so-diligently entered in an Excel spreadsheet, this was the first one that answered my call. As it happens, I already knew about this playschool as the daughter of one of my momfriends goes there. I remember my friend describing the school as “no frills,” which appealed to me on several levels. Plus I’d heard other mothers talking about the school, with one woman telling me that she thought her son would never adapt but he did, thanks to the teacher’s magical powers. (Actually, what she really said was “I didn’t think anyone could break him but this teacher did!”). When I spoke to the teacher myself, I thought she was really cool.
When we went to visit, the first thing I was struck by was the smell: sticky surfaces and kids, or, I should say, the symbiotic relationship between sticky surfaces and kids, the one existing because of the other. I observed the class, a small group of about eight three- to four-year olds, while they made rice krispie buns. It was all sorts of adorable. Later, I told the teacher, Ruth, that it wasn’t much different from my own teaching experience. “Oh, did you teach Montessori?” she asked. “No,” I said, “I taught adults.” But really there was no difference, expect age, because just like in my own classes, here was the kid sneaking in mouthfuls of sprinkles while they thought the teacher wasn’t looking, here was the kid who couldn’t resist giving a sly puck to the one beside him, here were the two lovebirds exchanging furtive kisses. The smell didn’t matter; it was how the teacher responded to and managed all of this with such care and patience that impressed me the most. And she reminded me of Adele, possibly the most conscientious person I know.
We picked a start date. We were all set. Every night we read our beloved Usborne Going to School book to Boone. We went shopping and Boone picked out a new green lunchbox and matching water bottle. I got him a new hoodie and then the week he was due to start, Dad died. I found myself in the ludicrous position of trying to word this in an email to the teacher. I had no idea what to say. I couldn’t just blurt out the truth, so instead I was vague and said that there was “a family crisis.”
A couple of weeks later when Boone did start, I wasn’t exactly as robust as I’d hoped to be on his first day of playschool. Not only was I raw with grief, I was also very worried that this playschool experiment could go the way of the music class fiasco. Thankfully, thankfully, it didn’t. Barring that bout of hand foot and mouth disease and the mornings when Boone cries, it’s been a very good experience.
And now, in a somewhat thematic order, here are all of the things I like about playschool:
Packing Boone’s lunchbox and unpacking it when he gets home. For some reason, I get a kick out of picturing him getting his lunchbox out of his little schoolbag and then eating his sandwich at the classroom table.
The smear of peanut butter and/or jam on his face when I collect him.
The way Boone’s face lights up when I arrive and the sweet hug that follows.
Missing Boone and he missing me.
All of the work we’ve put into discussing emotions with Boone (or as he calls them, “lotions”) paying off. He tells us things like “I cwied and cwied and cwied and then I was happy at playschooo-uhl” and “Ruth got me a tissue and blew my nose” and “saying goodbye is hard.”
The genuine interest Ruth has in getting to know Boone and what makes him tick. “I get him,” she said the other day and I know she does.
Someone else appreciating Boone’s Boone-ishness.
The sincere little reports Ruth gives me every day like, “he’s doing super!” and “he’s very communicative about his needs,” which I know means that he has no qualms telling her “I need a do a weeeee!”
The name tag above Boone’s “special hook,” which includes a picture of a red fire engine as this was the toy he played with exclusively for the first week. Teacher of the Year Award right there.
Hearing Boone come out with phrases that are obviously borrowed from the teacher, things like “no-one would be going out on a day like today” and lots and lots of tag questions.
The way all the other kids say “Boone, Boone, Boone!” We’re trying to get Boone to call them by their names, too, or at the very least to stop referring to them as “the kids.” They’re the other kids, Boone!
Being out and about early in the morning and feeling like I’m part of the masses, all of us going to our expected and respective institutions.
Getting a solid block of three hours twice a week to sit at the computer, write, listen to music, and hatch terrifying, high-risk, and bound-to-fail plans.