Yesterday morning was one of my busiest in a long time: I made ice-cream-cones out of bristle blocks, decorated play-dough muffins, purchased three pumpkins and a slug and a bear for a total of $21 (all the money available), and negotiated the rerouting of a racetrack to accommodate new businesses going up in the area (specifically, a pet store and a parking garage). I think I could have gotten a better deal on the pumpkins, but I didn’t want to haggle too much. This was my introduction into my daughter’s social life at school; I just hope I made a good first impression.
Ros attends a co-op day care, which means that twice a month, I come in for a two-hour work shift in her classroom. I play with kids for the first hour and a half, then I help serve snack, clean up the dishes, and lay out the kids’ mats for nap time before I am on my way. These days, it actually is that simple most of the time. Since the new school year started just last week, today was mostly about trying to learn the names of kids I didn’t know previously and learning how Ros’s new teachers like to run their class. There is a parent in this role every morning, which helps the room maintain the child/adult ratio required for its licensing; without the parent helpers, the school would have to pay for more staff hours (and indeed we are fined if we miss work time, for exactly this reason). Now that our family is in its third year as a part of this community, though, I understand work time as the life-force that makes this particular school special.
In Ros’s first year of day care, I would have gladly undergone oral surgery rather than do work time. Having just turned one, she was a (totally developmentally appropriate) barnacle whenever I was around, and my being in her classroom during the day seemed only to confuse and distress her. Whereas my understanding was that I was supposed to help the teachers by acting in my capacity as an adult, I would instead be covered in a wailing and clawing mess for the entire two-hour shift. It felt like a pointless exercise that actually made the classroom a worse place to be, the exact opposite of a "contribution" as I understood it.
People talked about children “growing up” and “maturing” and “going through phases” but Ros's behavior didn't feel like it changed or got any easier as time went on; I had to try and see it in another way. These fraught appointments were giving both of us some much-needed practice with our patience in managing our relationship – each work time shift tested us, and we muddled through. I took lots of deep breaths. I did not always handle it well. As we muddled, I would occasionally get the opportunity to vroom-vroom some trucks across the rug with the other kids, too. At snack time, provided I was within (short, chubby) arm’s length, Ros would smile and settle in, and I would get to sing the name song with her classmates as we sat around at the table. I learned all the kids’ names and little tidbits about their personalities from these relatively calm snacktimes – who liked which stories, who picked which song when it was their turn to choose. I loved watching the way every single child had a distinct and, to me, totally on-brand approach to eating cupcakes, when someone brought them in to celebrate a birthday. I actually knew these little people, and they all started to warm to my presence, even sing my name when we did the name song (or "Ros Mama," close enough). By the same token, all the other kids’ parents would greet Ros with the familiarity of old friends. “Ros was hilarious the other day,” I heard over and over again in parent meetings. Of course, I love hearing funny stories about her, but more than that, I love the affirmation that she is herself when I am not there, and that she has relationships with all of these children and adults that exist independently of me.
The co-op model asks a lot of us as parents, and my husband’s and my involvement with Ros’s school feels almost constant at times. What it yields, though, is a powerful sense that this is a place where our daughter herself is a valued member of her community, independent of us. Our time in her classroom gives us a snapshot of how she spends her day, and other parents’ time in the classroom adds to the ranks of trusted adults in her life. At her third birthday party the other day, when she had the inevitable I’m-so-excited accident in mid-swing, it was another kid’s mom who caught her and got her right to the potty before I even saw it happening. I apologize-thanked her as I rushed over with clean underwear, and she waved me off: “if it were my kid, you would have done the same thing! We’re all in this together.” Which is totally right.