Sunday, May 1, 2016

Out of the Mouths of Babes

My children have an uncanny knack for embarrassing me lately.  As much as we discuss that the world is a big place with lots of different people, and as many times as we have the discussion that sometimes it hurts feelings to have someone point out how a person is different. . .my children are still little, and sometimes apparently just can't help themselves from being inquisitive.

So, while in an elevator last week with a woman in a motorized wheelchair, Miss M asked me quite loudly why the woman was in that type of chair.  In fact, it was quite an advanced motorized wheelchair, and a type Miss M had surely not seen before, so I understand why she asked about it.  It intrigued her.  But I'm never sure quite what to say in the situation.  My standard lines are "because that's how god made her," (even though we are not particularly religious--she attended Catholic school, so it is familiar concept to her), and "she's like grandpa" (because her grandfather has a significant birth defect, and she's familiar with the concept of people being born different--which is also where I found the "because that's how god made her" line, as it's one I've heard him use).  In this case, in response to uncomfortable followup questions, I think I also said "because she needs a bit of extra help," and Miss M of course followed up with "what does the chair do." The woman and her companion were obviously a bit uncomfortable, but when the elevator doors mercifully opened, the woman said "it goes really fast," and grinned and sped off.  It was a nice moment, and a good opportunity for us to (again) discuss that it would be better if she asked me her questions about a person's differences outside of the presence of the person.

Which she promptly forgot.

Today, while at the grocery store, there was an African-American man with uneven pigmentation on his hands.  Parts of his hands had almost no pigmentation, and parts of his hands were dark brown.  It was fairly distinctive, and immediately drew Miss M's attention.  "Why are his hands like that?" she asked, within earshot.  "Because that's the way god made him," I replied. But before I could pat myself on the back for the smooth transition away from the subject, she said "I think he used to be white."  I was mortified.  The man thankfully started laughing, and turned to tell the woman next to him what she had said.  I think we were out of earshot before she made the next comment.  "Maybe he's just dirty," she said.   Dear lord!  It was a hot mess of childhood innocence.  We had a conversation about skin color and melanin on the way to the car.  I'm actually surprised it had not come up before, given that her school, this city, and our friends are very diverse.

So, I continue to search for the perfect lines to use when my children blurt out uncomfortable questions about strangers.  I'm mostly focused on making the other person less uncomfortable.  What do you say to manage such a situation?  And what conversation can I have with my children that will stay with them so that they hold their questions until a more appropriate time?

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Road Not Taken

One of the things that I have noticed about living abroad is that changes with friends and family at home seem all the more stark to me when I return.  What might seem to others to be a slow, imperceptible decline feels shockingly huge and abrupt to me.  And now that I am in my 40's, middle age I suppose, I am seeing and feeling the sadness and bitterness of lives not having turned out the way one hoped and planned.

I feel so young, and so blessed in many ways.  I have tried to live my life in a way that I am constantly doing meaningful things and seizing opportunities.  As much as the day-to-day gets me down sometimes, I still feel pretty good about my life, my lovely girls, my husband, my career, my choices.  I am lucky.  I am blessed.  I also push myself to keep going, to stretch beyond my limits, and to take advantage of opportunities, because I have always felt like if you don't, you wither, stagnate, grow bored and listless.

I am struck by how many people I know have reached a point where maybe they did not end up in a place that they sought out:  that stagnation point.  It's been such a long, slow slide for them that maybe they are surprised that they are where they are.  To me, it's jarring to have seen the before, been away for the middle bit, and now returning to see this.  There is just a hopelessness, a sadness, where before there was a joy of life.  And I'm seeing it enough, across enough people that don't really know each other or have relationships with each other, that I think it's something that is not uncommon.

I guess this is midlife, and I guess this is what is behind the so-called "crisis."  You've driven along a road, and it turned out that it didn't go where you expected, and you feel like you've driven so far for so long that it would be impossible to go back and start over and take another route.  Hence, hopelessness, depression, fear.

I say, screw that.  Life is too short.  As long as you are breathing, you can start over, try again, live, thrive, achieve, enjoy.  The alternative is just too damn sad.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Path Forward

The school move seems to be everything we've been needing for many months, and possibly all school year.  SB continues to be a completely different person--happy and confident.  She likes school.  She has fun.  Her behavior at home is a complete 180 from her behavior when she was in her old school.  She has been my fantastic little ray of sunshine again.  Everything, finally, is working.

I am hoping, praying that somehow we can come up with a way to pay for the school for next year, if indeed we remain in this city (more on that in a moment).  It is an amazing, amazing little program. It's unbelievable how expensive private preschool tuition is in the city, and right now we just can't see how we would pay for it.  But it is such a perfect fit.  It is everything she needs.  This is the constant tension of living in America, for us:  balancing the best fit vs. the expense.  Balancing the investment of time vs. the reward from doing so.

We've talked about it, and we think it might be time for us to go back overseas.  I really like my job here.  I'm enjoying the work (well, I have one passive aggressive boss, but nothing is perfect).  But the hours are long, the commute is long, the best schools are expensive. . .versus going back overseas, where my contract includes school tuition and housing, access to top schools (it's often easier to get in as an expat than it would be to top schools in America), often a better commute, higher salary, etc.

On the one hand, it finally feels like we are settling in and things are working here.  The kids are becoming reasonably happy.  T is actually okay with his job, and looking to expand his opportunities.  But I think over recent months the costs of being here have also become really apparent to us.  Americans don't have very good quality of life.  We've become a society about things, rather than about family, and too many people spend the bulk of their time pursuing higher salary and more things.  We obviously don't intentionally choose to do so, but with the high cost of everything, T has taken on some extra projects to afford the "extras" like summer camp (which we actually need so we can keep our jobs).  And with the expectations inherent in the professional world about how much people work here, in order to be perceived as being successful at my job, I have to put in more hours than I otherwise might, and certainly more than I was working before we moved back to the U.S. last summer.

So, we're reviewing options.  If there is a window of opportunity to move this summer, we would take it.  The girls have to change schools anyway.  We've only arranged summer camp for half the summer.  Our lease is up in June.  It feels possible.  I've considered at a few jobs in Europe and Asia, but they don't feel like the right opportunities.  I'm keeping my eyes out, and trying to figure out what will be best for our family.

It's interesting.  When we moved back, we thought it would be for a long stretch.  But this was our first time living in the U.S. with little kids and two working parents, and we've discovered it is not what we were looking for at all.  It's kind of a weird thing to realize about your own country.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Most Wonderful Week

This week was. . .amazing.  I can't believe we had so many weeks and months of angst and teeth-knashing about whether to switch SB's school.  She has done beautifully in her new school this week, and is so very happy.  I know it's still early days, but it's like someone flipped a light switch.  I have my child back, and she is burning bright.

They had to pull her off me the morning of the first full day and I won't lie:  I shed a few tears.  But I knew she was good--behind her words of protest, there was a little smile.  She may have been a little apprehensive, but she was in really, REALLY good hands.  We got a great report at the end of the first day from the teacher, and she looked VERY happy and engaged, from all of the pictures that I saw.  And she was so exhausted from all of the running around and playing hard that she slept, really slept, at a real bedtime.  It was just. . .amazing.

But I knew that it was a good match when I got home from work that first night, and I asked her how it went.  She said "Mommy, I had a good day.  I made a new friend."  Not "I was bad today."  Not "I didn't get a snack because I didn't sleep."  Not "I was on yellow."  No outbursts.  No negative behavior.  Just "I had a good day."  And it's been that way every day.  New friends.  New adventures.  New projects.  Art that she is thrilled to share.  Stories about the class hamster and kids who push her on the tire swing.

She skipped away from me the subsequent mornings and slipped in with the group, busying herself with activities and forgetting about me before I'd even left the room.  She doesn't say "I don't want to go to school" every morning and every night.  She isn't upset when I tell her it is a school day.  Again, I know it's early days, but she hated her old school from day one.  This is just really, really different.

I can finally exhale.  This is her childhood, as it was meant to be.

Monday, April 4, 2016

A Bit of Peace

This morning was really hard.  My girls are very close, and their classrooms were across the hall from each other.  Their teachers aides are sisters.  They LOVED being at the same school.  When Miss M woke up this morning, she cried big round tears when she remembered that she and SB would not be going to the same school any longer.  SB was, is apprehensive about going to a new school, adamant that she will return to her former school.  She loathes change.  She is so thoroughly her father's child.

It was hard to walk into that building this morning, to put on a smile and say good morning to the principal whose leadership I have lost all faith in.  And of course, I had to walk in the building with not just Miss M, but SB, too, because I had nothing else that I could do with her when it was time to drop off Miss M.  Miss M's teacher hugged me when she saw me, and the girls' aides circled around us and made a big fuss over SB.  It was so kind, and so sad.  I am really disappointed in how this all turned out.  This just isn't what I want.

But it's not about me, and it's not about what I want.  It's about making sure that my kids are happy and healthy.  We visited SB's new school today, too, to drop off paperwork.  She instantly loved the head of the school, and ran into her office today when we got there.  We got the financial stuff squared away (they will prorate), and everything is all set for her to start.  We are wading in slowly, so she'll do an hour tomorrow, and then start on Wednesday.  When we visited today, she was delighted to see that they already had her name in a cubby.  She flashed a huge grin, then clapped her hand over her mouth.  They had a picture of her, too, and her name printed onto a school bag to take home her school things at the end of the week.  They had a picture of her in the classroom already, and they gave us a laminated copy of pictures of all of the kids in the class, her included, with all of the kids first names.  She carried it around all afternoon, and proudly showed it off to her big sister and her father when they got home.

They let us see the classroom today, too.  The classroom at her old school is huge and bright and beautiful, but there were so many limitations on everything.  "Don't touch" was her old teacher's unofficial motto.  When her new teacher showed us the dramatic play center at her new school today, SB quite forlornly told us that only a certain student (the teacher's favorite, whose mother regularly volunteers in the classroom) got to do dramatic play every day, and the teacher didn't let SB.  I think her new teacher was a little taken aback, and quickly reassured her that she could do it every day.  She can also paint. . .every day.  There is an easel with tempura paints all set up in the classroom, and the kids are free to use it.  She looooooves to paint, so I think that will be huge.  And there are hours a day of playground time, too.  But not just regular old playground. . .they had a tent set up, and props, so the kids could do dramatic play outside, too.  I think it's going to be really good for her.  Fingers crossed.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Playing Chess

I still haven't sorted out the financial piece regarding the preschool.  The school's been closed for spring break, so I'm hoping to get that squared away tomorrow.  They sent me reams of paperwork, which I need to sit down and complete before tomorrow.  Unfortunately, although I haven't worked in a week, I also have not accomplished anything--we have been the house of sick:  both kids were terribly ill this week, one with a random virus and the other with the flu.  It's been exhausting, and I haven't slept through the night in forever.

On the bright side, SB, who has been in pull-ups at night for the last year, up and decided she was too big to wear them any more.  I was worried, because she had woken up dry exactly never.  I mean, NEVER.  But she insisted she could do it, so I let her try, and. . .she's woken up dry for the last 4 nights in a row.  I am amazed.  It literally was like she just had to put her mind to it.  We've limited liquids after dinner, but otherwise made no changes.  It's pretty remarkable to think that she could do it if she just tried hard enough.  I totally thought it was developmental.  Huh.

And now on to the core subject of this post (the rambling is due to the sleep deprivation):  We just received our school lottery results for next year.  We did fairly poorly this year.  Last year we had really good lottery numbers and got into a couple of schools, but this year, not so much.  It's not even just that we didn't get in anywhere; we also have high lottery numbers on the wait lists, unlike last year.  In other words, there is little hope we'll get in anywhere decent.  Now we have to make hard choices.  Miss M could continue at the current bilingual school, but I've lost all faith in the administration after our experiences with SB.  Plus, it's been a weird year socially for Miss M.  Part of it is that her class is boy-heavy, and she'd been in an all-girls school before this.  She is bothered by how "poorly behaved" the boys are.  I say it with quotes, because I think from her description that the boys are acting like normal 5-6 year old boys, and she just doesn't know what that's like.  But she finds it distracting.  Plus, she's. . .I don't know how to say it. . .Mature? for her age?  She's a kid who's lived on three continents and had a wide array of life experiences that have given her an unusual perspective for a six year old.  I didn't think that would matter in kindergarten, but I think I was wrong.

But anyway, we didn't get into another bilingual school.  To be fair, I only lotteried for a few really great schools that I thought we'd leave our current school for, because the lottery stuff was all due before all of this stuff happened with SB.  At that point, I thought we could make it through the year.  The teacher she'd have next year is pretty amazing.  Sigh.  The only realistic option is for us to enroll Miss M in our local school that we have a right to attend (it's a very good school, but not bilingual, and it's overcrowded).  SB will likely get a spot there, as well, because they give siblings preference.

There are two flies in this ointment:  One, it means we would pull both of them from bilingual school.  They both have great Spanish, and multiple teachers at the school (not SB's, obviously, but others who know them both and know that we've been thinking about leaving) have implored us to ensure they stay in bilingual schools.  And two, in order to ensure that SB gets a spot anywhere at all in public preschool, we'd have to ensure that Miss M actually attends our local school.  SB only gets the preference if Miss M actually attends.

Although I'm not holding out much hope that Miss M or SB will get into a bilingual school from a wait list, we applied to one private bilinguals school for Miss M when it became clear that socially her current school was a weird fit.  This private school is very expensive, and we would need some grace for it to all work out there, but it's really a perfect school for her.  It really felt like her tribe.  She was wait listed, but after she was wait listed, the director set up an appointment with us, and told us how much they liked her, and that if a spot opened up, it is almost certainly hers.  They had no available spaces this year, but know that one of their current students may be leaving.  They won't know for sure for another couple of months, though.  They've told us what a "leader" they feel she is, and encouraged us to "hang in there" and wait for them.  There is the slimmest of chances that the planets will align for this to happen, but if it did, SB would lose her spot at our most realistic public preschool slot.  There is also the slimmest of chances that Miss M could get into a good public school bilingual program, and the most likely scenario with those would be that even sibling preference would not help SB, because competition for those schools is so fierce.

If either of those last scenarios were to happen, we'd have two options for SB:  hold out for one of the schools where we are wait listed, or go private.  As much as I'd love to, we can't swing two private school tuitions.  It would be $60,000 or so for one year, and that's just not in the cards.  As for the schools where we are wait listed, for SB our most promising options are unfortunately Montessori.  I like Montessori, but I don't think it's the right program for SB.  I applied because. . .well, some less than ideal options are better than no options.  The schools do Montessori well, but my concern is that SB needs external structure.  Internally, she doesn't have a whole lot of self-discipline.  I think it would probably be a disaster, and this really needs to be a year where she grows in a lot of ways.

It's so hard to know.  SB did very well at her preschool in South America.  It's hard to know how much of what we are experiencing is her age, how much of it is her personality/inflexibility, how much of it is how she's been treated while at school and how she has internalized that, how much of it is how we are parenting her at home. . .but we are in a hard space.  She is really down on herself, and I feel like we have to put an end to this negative spiral and get her back to a positive place.  That's going to be key.

So we are moving the pieces around the board, trying to figure out the best way forward.  So far, I don't like any of our moves.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Amazing Visit

We visited the potential new school yesterday, and it was. . .pretty close to perfect.  There was giant, beautiful playground space--creative, hand-built stuff that is SO MUCH FUN.  The kids play outside for a couple of hours a day.  There are two certified teachers in each classroom.   There are animals:  bunnies, dogs, birds.  They have a science lab.  It is bright, beautiful space.  They seem very nurturing and child-focused, and were so very focused on and concerned about our child's well-being.  And they were so very, very kind to us.  I can't tell you how much I valued their concern for our daughter, and for what she's experienced this year.

We haven't worked out all of the financial details (indeed, they sent me a contract for the full year's tuition, which I pray is NOT what they want me to pay!), but that's the only thing that remains.  I'm a bit worried about that part.  It wouldn't be rationale to ask me to pay the entire tuition with two months left in the school year, right?  I have irrational angst that somehow they are going to ask me to do that.  But this is the only thing we have to sort out, and I'm hopeful that we can make this work.

Honestly, I am allowing myself the tinniest glimmer of hope that we have found a solution that is going to let SB be herself, be happy, feel supported and cared for.  I slept well last night for the first time in many months.