Dragonfly's demise

Another progressive preschool bites the dust, leaving me and other parents livid and bereft.

Published March 1, 2001 8:12PM (EST)

My mother rode a Harley 45. And so did her mother before her. In matching Motor Maids of America uniforms, on light blue bikes with broad tires and a kick-start "that sometimes kicked back," they roared through the hills of rural Kentucky. Perhaps it is genetic that I now long for the challenge, the freedom, the risk that a motorcycle offers. But where do I put my kids?

It's front and center for me right now, the issue of where I put my kids. My son's preschool is closing this week. This is the second day-care center I've lost in three years, and will be the fourth to close in Berkeley, Calif., in the past year. Naturally, this comes during the last three months of my dissertation writing, so that, at a time when I am completing the hardest task of my decade of graduate school, the last hurdle before I can finally enter the workforce and leave grad student wages behind, I'm suddenly without child care, as are the parents of 32 other children.

I had opted for center care instead of a nanny (not that we could have afforded one) partly in reaction to my mother's choices. Yep, my mom rode that motorcycle. She also graduated as one of four women in her class at the University of Chicago's medical school, and has been a successful practicing cardiologist (notwithstanding a couple of battles with discrimination) all of my life. When she faced the question, "Where do I put my kids?" my mother chose well, and also got lucky. I was raised at home by a woman whom I hesitate even to call a nanny because she is really a second mother; and by a father who worked but was around a lot.

In choosing center care, I was trying to combine the best that I got from all three of my parents: I would get to perform the daily rituals of bath and dinner and diapers for my kids, get to be their primary anchor and, at the same time, get to ride the motorcycle -- test my abilities in the broader world to see how and where I could do some good.

The first two aims have played out pretty well, but the third is a total bust. That motorcycle idles somewhere just beyond my reach.

The first time I faced a child-care crisis, I was angry at the school. Our daughter's first preschool had a turnover of nine teachers over the course of a single year -- an experience that dashed my hopes for one or two consistent and loving caretakers in her life. I wondered at the time, somewhat resentfully, "What was that school doing so badly wrong that it lost nine teachers in a year?"

The second crisis came as the family day-care center we chose fell apart. My perspective shifted a bit. This time, the caregiver had become a good friend, and I understood all the struggles she went through both to keep providing attentive care and to figure out how to meet the other demands and desires in her life -- caring for her aging and ill father, wanting to have a child herself, needing, after teaching preschoolers so long and so well, some different challenges. This time, while scrambling to find new child care, I felt compassion.

Through the first two day-care situations, I got bit by bit more involved, trying to contribute what I could to keep these fragile universes afloat. With the third caregiver -- a preschool -- I ended up hip deep, and, in the wake of its demise, I'm downright livid. Through my involvement with this preschool, I have seen that nothing has changed: Neither women nor children are valued. Ultimately there is bone-crunching failure even for someone in my situation, a woman with all the advantages of education, money and strong female role models, in a marriage ostensibly committed to sharing the load both within and outside the home.

And I have glimpsed, at a deeper level, into the heart of a society in which a progressive child-care center cannot succeed, not even in "progressive" Berkeley. I have learned that systems designed to assist underprivileged families are instead setups for failure, and all the contemporary talk about diversity and community masks an almost universal willingness to allow children to suffer if achieving these reasonable goals requires any effort, expense or sacrifice from anyone.

We first joined Dragonfly preschool when our daughter was 3. We chose the school both because it had openings for the already tightknit group of kids from the defunct family day-care center and because of its play-based teaching and explicit commitment to social justice. The school was in the process of expanding, the director had secured grants from the city to improve the playground and the student population was genuinely diverse -- we liked most of what we saw (except perhaps the tall chain-link fence that gave the place a bit of a prison look).

At the end of our first year there, the executive director quit, giving only two weeks' notice. The board of directors, mostly parents, scrambled. They tapped one of the teachers to become interim director, a post she left after a couple of months; they appointed another interim director. I joined the board about six months into the year, just in time to help hire a permanent director. Of our extremely limited applicant pool, we picked the young guy with lots of enthusiasm and a clear rapport with kids -- over the experienced but lackluster alternative candidate.

After about six months of getting incomprehensible budget reports at our monthly board meetings, I became deeply worried about the school's finances. I realized the director didn't know what he was doing. Reluctantly (since I was in the middle of my dissertation research), I decided to try to figure out what was actually going on. I committed myself to devoting a few weeks to getting the school's bookkeeping sorted out and properly set up.

Weeks of involvement became months, then more than a year, as one crisis after another rocked the school: A key teacher left; a few paying families withdrew, decimating our income; it came out that payroll taxes had been dramatically underpaid for the previous year, and the IRS was at our door. Some of the teachers weren't really providing the care we wanted. A year after hiring him, we replaced the director with someone who actually had the abilities to run a program such as ours, and began yet another push to rebuild the school.

And our new director has turned the school around, in all the ways that I think really count. She has assembled a caring, talented and compatible staff. She has enrolled a group of families that are truly diverse and worked hard to open up lines of communication and understanding across race, culture and language, family structure and class. The kids are loved and challenged, guided and played with, and have formed deep friendships with one another. And she has forged a community that is just beginning, now, to believe in the importance of taking care of one another through hardship, across lines of class and privilege. The really, really hard work has begun to fall into place.

Why, then, are we closing?

One word: money. As it turns out, the financial mismanagement of the previous year was not an isolated situation, the product of an inexperienced director hired on the heels of a seriously botched transition. It was not really particular to this school's history, except insofar as the school has maintained its commitment to low-income families. Rather, the financial disaster was the product of the fact that the numbers just don't work, not for a day-care center committed to providing high-quality and affordable care to all kids.

These are the realities: Paying for child care is a stretch even for middle-class working families that can pay out of pocket. A year's tuition can run up to $13,000. Even at these rates, teachers -- the people providing the love, attention, patience and commitment, the people serving as surrogate parents to our children 40 hours a week -- are getting paid $10 to $12 an hour and must live on that in the Bay Area.

The vaunted child-care subsidy programs (such as Calworks and Callearn in California), meant to support families getting off welfare by paying for child care while parents train and enter the workforce, turn out to be massive bureaucratic nightmares. During my entire year of doing the books for the school, I cannot recall a single Calworks check that paid in full and on time for child care the school had provided in the previous month.

And our landlord, the Berkeley Unified School District, an entity that one might think would actually have some interest in supporting high-quality early childhood education for kids soon to be entering the public schools, has charged nearly $3,000 per month in rent, rebuffed most efforts to renegotiate this amount and threatened to evict us for nonpayment -- all for a space that has the warmth and light of an Army bunker.

I feel defeated. In my life, the school's closure means some additional work, and may postpone my impending graduation. In the lives of the low-income families -- who will be looking for child care at a bad time of year in a world where the best centers often don't accept subsidized kids precisely because of the money issue -- it may mean that parents lose jobs or drop out of school. And for the teachers, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck, homelessness is not an impossibility.

But what makes all of this feel even worse is how clearly it shows that, at the start of the 21st century, even in Berkeley, even when one has a husband and extended family who are long-standing supporters of women in the workforce, women and children don't really count.

Throughout the time that I've worked at the school, sometimes putting my Ph.D. work on hold, I have found it challenging, infuriating, rewarding, meaningful and sometimes overwhelming. Friends would ask what I'd been up to, and if I said, "Volunteering at my kids' preschool," their response was "Oh." If I said, instead, that I was "doing volunteer work at a small nonprofit," they were impressed that I was working for some unspecified noble cause. The point was clear: Caring for children was beneath me, worthless, unimportant.

This society has made it utterly clear, through its recurring political debates about whether women "should" work or stay home with their kids, that caring for kids, and about kids, is women's work. Even the progressive husbands of some of my progressive friends talk about getting child care so that she can work, not so that they can work. In my own home, for a few years, my own husband, when discussing evenings and weekends, would ask whose turn it was to "have to do child care," rather than who would get to spend time with the kids and when.

No wonder all the mothers I know well are falling apart right now -- we're all hitting the wall. At best, we're juggling parenting and jobs, negotiating relationships with partners and husbands, while trying -- yet again -- to find decent child care. Those of us with fewer resources confront, with Dragonfly's closure, the loss of a point of stability in our kids' lives as well as, perhaps, the specter of joblessness and homelessness.

We are stretched to the max, fighting hard battles on every front. We are tired; we are confused. We thought our marriages would be easier and our jobs more fulfilling; we believed, or hoped, that having eschewed the motorcycle for the minivan, we could find safe passage for our children in this country. We are aghast that even those of us with privilege can't respect children -- all children -- enough to lend a hand up to those in need.

In the midst of my midlife crisis, I long for the indulgence of a bike and the open road. I long to seek out the things that make me, as an individual, feel alive. I long, as did my mother and her mother before her, to work hard, to do a job well and to know that I can offer my children not only emotional but also financial support. But who, during these moments, will help shelter and care for my kids?

By Jennifer Miller

Jennifer Miller's debut novel, "The Year of the Gadfly," is out now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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