On the occasion of International Women’s Day, contributing editor Esther Kreider-Verhalle reflects on some problems of daily life in New York City that she and many women (and men) face in our changing times. -Jeff
A couple of weeks ago, Jeff wrote how change is all around us, but doesn’t necessarily have an effect on the underlying realities of the human condition. The original French saying he used, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” the more things change, the more they stay the same, has been on my mind as I have been introduced into the rituals of applying for preschool in New York City. During this process, it was another saying that started haunting me: “the only thing constant is change.”
Next school year, my son will be eligible for preschool. Since the end of the 90s, New York State has offered free, voluntary pre-kindergarten classes for children age 4 and 5. While children are not required to attend school here until they are six, for many working parents, sending their kids to daycare, a nursery, preschool, or kindergarten is the logical thing to do.
Our parents, particularly my parents back in the Netherlands, may not relate to our issues. The dads worked while the moms stayed at home, caring for the kids. By the time we turned four, our mothers dropped us off at one of the local schools. There was no tuition or it was nominal. For sure, a lot less than the ten thousand dollars that is the yearly tuition at the private school in my neighborhood – and which preferably is prepaid before the beginning of the school year (ten percent off if you pay it well in advance!)
A generation ago, the school day also tended to be a longer, maybe not a full day, but certainly not the meager two and a half hours that NYC public preschools now offer. Who will pick up children after a couple of hours in one school, to chaperone them to another daycare facility, where the working parents can pick them up at the end of the work day?
In our case: our local public preschool is across the street from where we live, but offers only limited space for an overwhelming number of applicants. We have settled in a wonderful neighborhood where thousands of people are filling up new apartments, many of whom are young families. But the schools have not been able to serve all the young newcomers. The public school system has an interesting lottery method, with ten tiers of priorities. The first priority is for kids who already have a sibling in the school in their own zone, the second is for kids with a sibling in the school in their district, the third for those with siblings in the borough, etc. We assume our child will not get in. We’ll have to bite a substantial financial bullet for our child’s early education.
Things have changed and not stayed the same at all, affecting the quality of life. With the changing of economic roles of women in society, family life has transformed accordingly. A generation ago, mothers would have taken care of the child who could not get into a free pre-K. Nowadays, both parents want or need to work outside of the home. When the parents need to work to make ends meet, the children need to be looked after during the workday. Free or affordable daycare needs to be available. When both parents want to work, free or affordable daycare also should be within reach.
In my experience, a lot of moms are eager to return to the workplace sooner rather than later. But while the idea of a family with two working parents is quite common, the practicalities surrounding this reality are quite challenging. Apart from the discussion of which parent does the most within the household, there is a general trend that women and men are sharing the roles of caregiver and provider. Unfortunately, the labor market has not adjusted to the demands for flexible hours, reasonable maternal and paternal leave. The needs of mothers who return to the job market go unaddressed.
We are applying for public pre-K and have back up plans in the form of private daycare and community based organizations that offer Pre-K. But in New York City, the private route reveals the absurd. Some schools ask parents in all seriousness for essays and letters of recommendation. In the essay, one must describe the child’s academic, social and personal strengths and challenges. Strength: knows his alphabet and can count way beyond ten; weaknesses: has a limited attention span and has an occasional tantrum during which both numbers and letters are thrown around.
Things change. Perhaps, it is all for the best that the role of parents in bringing up their babies has changed. No longer do women typically focus on raising their children, and primarily shape the mores of society, as Tocqueville would have it. And perhaps, it’s good that John Dewey’s account of the primary role of education in the life of democratic citizens will already start at age three or four. Yet, raising children in New York City has become stressful. We take two steps forward, one step back, as change happens.