Category Archives: Parental Guidance

Snow-Day

A Wintry Mix: Snow Days and the Parent-Child Time Gap

Mayor Bill de Blasio caught a lot of flack on Thursday for not closing schools in the face of an all-day snowstorm. He even raised the ire of the normally apolitical Al Roker, who horned in on Nate Silver’s turf by predicting de Blasio would be a one-termer for his shoddy response to the inclement weather.

The mayor’s office did a bad job of storm response, and an even worse job of handling criticism. However, his response pointed to an even bigger issue. Namely, that schools and municipal governments everywhere (not just New York City) have failed to evolve along with the changing needs of working families.

Once, it was more common for a family to have one breadwinner and one stay-at-home parent. This has not been the case in the majority of households for several decades. By 2007, there were three times as many households with two earners as households with just one. And that’s across America as a whole. It’s hard to find comparable stats for New York City, but the simple economics of living there require both adults in a two-parent household to work.

New York City tends to not shut down the school system because doing so induces a ripple effect that negatively impacts thousands of businesses, as workers are forced to stay home and watch their kids. The mayor’s response when criticized for leaving the schools open was clumsy at best; some of his assertions were straight up not true, like when he insisted the National Weather Service’s snow predictions underestimated the strength of the storm, which they did not. But de Blasio did one thing right when he pointed to the impact closing schools has on working parents as his primary reason for that decision.

However, the school system doesn’t work on the same schedule as most businesses. Most parents work 9 to 5 or 6, but schools close at 2:30, for seemingly no other reason than that’s when they’ve always closed, and because there used to be stay-at-home parents waiting to receive all these kids mid-afternoon.

For most parents, the childcare gap is occupied by afterschool programs. Some are run directly by the city; others are funded by city grants and run by community organizations. These provide a vital service for working families, especially for low-income households that can apply for such services at low or no cost.

Here’s where the issue lies. Education—as represented by the school system—is considered a vital service. Child care—as represented by the afterschool programs—is not. The number of two-earner households continues to rise, a trend that is unlikely to reverse in our lifetimes. And yet school systems, and the municipalities who own them, continue to regard child care services that serve working families (such as afterschool programs) as something “extra,” a nice add-on. In reality, these services are every bit as vital to working parents as school itself.

On Thursday, though schools were open, the Department of Education canceled all afterschool programs (see screenshot from the DOE’s website below), already the third time they were canceled since the first of the year. When afterschool programs are canceled, it forces parents to leave work early and travel home on roads that are, presumably, treacherous enough to warrant said cancellation.

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 1.11.00 PMHow this affects a working parent depends on what kind of work the parent does. If you have a professional office-type job, your management is probably sensitive to these issues. Thus, leaving work early to pick up your kid in a snowstorm is a mere inconvenience. If you’re salaried, you won’t have to worry about losing any money to do so.

But let’s say you work in retail or the service industry. Your boss might let you leave, but you won’t get paid. Someone who works a retail or service job will probably feel the loss of a few hours’ pay more keenly than a better-compensated office worker would. In short, the cancellation of afterschool programs hurts most those who can afford it least.

The failure to recognize the importance of afterschool programs is indicative of a larger failure of school systems everywhere to adapt to the needs of modern households. In New York State, for instance, there are around 180 school days per year. Assuming a parent gets two weeks’ vacation, receives all major holidays off, and never has to work weekends, he or she has to be at work about 230 days a year. That leaves a differential of 50 days, and even this gap assumes an amount of off time that many parents can’t count on.

Compared to the rest of the industrialized world, American adults have a pronounced antipathy to taking days off of work. This has to do less with ingrained Puritan work ethic and more to do with the fact that many of us simply can’t afford lengthy vacations. And yet, we give our children one of the shortest school years in the world. Making kids spend more time in school clashes with our post-Boomer notion that the ideal childhood is filled with acres of free time to play and be creative. This is how parents wind up with a gap of 50 days (or more for many parents) that must be filled by some form of child care.

What’s especially infuriating about this gap is how little bearing it has on the realities of modern lives. The bulk of those 50 days are comprised of summer vacation, an antiquated remnant from the days when most kids had to help out on farms during the hotter months. The rest comes  from extended vacations that do not correspond to any parallel time off received by working adults. The discrepancy between the schedules of school-age children and the schedules of earners forces periodic child care crises, adding unnecessary stress to the already stressful state of being a working parent.

Next week, kids in New York City won’t just have off for President’s Day. They receive five days of something called Mid-Winter Recess. Most working parents don’t get their own Mid-Winter Recess. There are day camps to take care of all those unleashed kids, assuming parents can afford them. Those who can’t have to hope a grandmother or friend can keep an eye on the kids. If not, they have to take off those five days, assuming their boss will let them come back to work when it’s all over. And keep in mind that this Mid-Winter Recess comes only six weeks after kids were off for eight days around Christmas and New Year’s.

All this time off has no relevance to a modern family’s schedule, and it might even be detrimental to children’s academic development. The same can be said of a school day that ends when most parents still have hours left on the clock.

Of course, there is no solution that will make everyone happy. Absent federal legislation for paid family leave (which seems a non-starter), it would basically require employers to be accommodating to working families’ schedules. Any solution would also require teachers to work more days and hours. Most teachers would say they work hard enough as it is, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. But the difficulty of arriving at a solution shouldn’t be a reason to not fix something that’s clearly broken.

There has to be some way to shrink the time gap between working parents and their children. Perhaps it begins with thinking of those post-2:30 hours not as afterschool, but school period, thinking of child care not as some extra thing but a necessary thing. Until we do, snow days are the least of our problems.

Death Becomes Her

My daughter has become hung up on death, which is a common condition for people raised in Queens. It is not only the home to the Boulevard of Death, but it’s also the borough where you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone’s grave (just one more reason why you shouldn’t throw rocks around like that).

When she was still a tiny thing, I would often take her on strolls through a cemetery a block from our house. It was a quiet, shady, peaceful place in a neighborhood short on all those commodities. I’d push her around in her stroller up a steep hill, passing the graves off Civil War veterans, allegedly loving parents (no empirical evidence provided), and entreaties to the Great Hereafter in several dozen languages. At the cemetery’s highest point, you could see Manhattan flicker in the distance, a testament to all that mankind could accomplish, while we were surrounded by a reminder of where we all end up.

It could be this early exposure to headstones and such made her curious about The Grave. It could be she’s just inclined in a morbid direction; she already enjoys “scary” stuff and has a precociously completist fondness for Harry Potter. Or, perhaps she was marked sent scurrying in this direction by a sad scene we both witnessed nearly two years ago.

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True Parenting Terror

I keep seeing ads for the impending movie What to Expect When You’re Expecting. (Movies like that aren’t “upcoming;” they’re “impending,” like doom.) As with any other Jennifer Lopez vehicle, this shouldn’t warrant mentioning. And yet, I bristle each time I see this film advertised, because it’s in the mold of movies that try to tap into Parenting Fear but get it completely wrong. In fact, it seems to originate from–and be aimed at–people who haven’t the slightest idea of what 99.9% of parents actually worry about.

The folks responsible for this movie may very well have kids, and they may think they have a parent audience in mind, but the ads are filled with “jokes” about things that do not worry actual parents: changings, feedings, sleeping, and so on. I imagine there has to be an awesome “exploding diaper” scene in it, along with a birthing sequence where the mom gets mad at the dad for “doing this” to her. Not to get all Culture Wars on you here, but I suspect that most Hollywood types fear these things because they have au pairs who take care of these menial tasks. And because their level of economic comfort shields them from the real terror that most parents confront on a daily basis.

Before you have kids, you have fears that recede almost immediately once you become a parent. You fret that you won’t be able to deal with dirty diapers or midnight feedings or temper tantrums, because these are the things that TV and movies tell us are the real trials of parenting. In real life, it all comes much easier than you could ever imagine. You will be amazed by how quickly you become blasé about handling another human’s feces on a regular basis. Sleep deprivation sucks, but that too becomes part of your existence, and you deal with it because you love your child and this is what your life demands now.

This is not the most terrifying part of being a parent. Not by a long shot.

The real terror comes from realizing how insanely expensive it is to raise a child. And I’m not talking about the my-child-deserves-the-best accoutrements like onesies knit by blind Sherpas and organic hemp bottles. I mean the bare minimum of what your child needs to live costs a god damn fortune.

It’s not changing diapers that worries parents–it’s how much the diapers cost, and how often they must be replenished. It’s not feedings that worry parents–it’s the fact that formula runs more per ounce than uranium. It’s not your kid freaking out at the doctor or the dentist that worries you–it’s the fact that all those doctor visits add up, even if you’re fortunate enough to health insurance.

Now you must find a way to pay for all this, on top of rent, car, insurance, utilities, food, and the intermittent one-time costs that inevitably pop up because the universe tends toward entropy. And if you work a full-time job to pay for all these things, you must leave your child with marginally qualified strangers all day, which also costs an arm and a leg and inevitably introduces your child to horrible language/habits that you will never, ever, ever be able to correct, which of course means that you are a terrible parent.

I’ve never laid in bed at 3am wondering how I’m going to change a diaper or get my kid to eat her vegetables. I have enjoyed many sleepless nights worrying if I could pay for those diapers and vegetables, or fretting that there was some Very Vital Payment I’d forgotten to make that could doom us all. This may just be my own hangup, having grown up poor, but it has always felt to me like the margin separating us all from living on the street was razor thin.

And that’s when I’ve had a job. Since my child was born, I’ve been laid off twice. I’m working now, but in this economy and the industry I work in (publishing), the specter of a pink slip is always there. If I was unemployed for an extended period of time…just thinking of it in the abstract makes me break out in a cold sweat.

Here is a terror I think every parent has experienced–if not exactly in this manner, then in some parallel way: You leave a party late at night, knowing there’s a long drive to get home. You buckle your kid in the backseat, and she falls asleep within seconds as you predicted/hoped. After a valiant effort to stay awake and keep you company, your wife falls asleep too. And it dawns on you that the reason they fell asleep is they trust you. There is not a doubt in any of their minds that you will get them to your destination safe and sound. And you’ve always held their lives in your hands to some extent, but it was never more stark than it was at the moment. And you think to yourself, People I love are counting on me to not fuck all this up, and “this’ = EVERYTHING.

Make a movie about that, Hollywood.

Baby’s First Brooklyn Moment

On Sunday morning, me and the family took a brief trip into Greenpoint to pick up some gardening supplies and to stroll. I lived in Greenpoint for six pre-kid years and I still love it there, though I don’t find many chances to make it back to ye olde neighborhood.

When I called it home, Greenpoint struck me as having the exact amount of artsy-ness that Williamsburg aspired to while being a tad more real, for lack of a better word. For one thing, Greenpoint never needed to “recover” in the way that Williamsburg did, since it had a well-entrenched middle class that never left in bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s. On top of that, it seemed like the artists in Greenpoint actually had jobs and weren’t being held aloft by trust funds. This was provincial prejudice I’m sure, because it still wasn’t hard to find a wealthy dilettante among the populace, someone who seemed to be dabbling in bohemia until Dad’s Law Firm came calling. These folks tended to be the ones most into juvenalia like kickball tournaments and organized games of manhunt, since they had the idle time and total lack of worries necessary to waste in such pointless pursuits.

As I said, we were strolling through Greenpoint, on Nassau Street near Lorimer, where McCarren Park ends. Ahead of us, I saw a twenty-something swinging from scaffolding like it was a jungle gym. At a certain age and in a certain mood, I could have found this kind of thing is cute. In fact, I’m sure I’ve done the same at some point in my life, though I’m also sure I haven’t done so since college. To mid-30s Dad Me, it just struck me as juvenile, embodying the worst aspect of all the dumb infantile things people think of when they now think of Brooklyn. My mind voiced a judgmental Really?, but I said nothing out loud.

My daughter was less guarded. Our corner of Queens holds very few hipsters, and this was not a specimen she’d encountered before. “Why is that GROWN UP swinging like that?” she asked, very loudly. I saw this guy as a kid, because that’s how he was behaving, but to my child, everyone over the age of 10 is a Grown Up, and this was conduct unbecoming a Grown Up. The Swinger abruptly stopped, somewhat embarrassed, and continued on his way, as did we.

“Grown ups shouldn’t be acting like that,” my daughter said, again very loudly and slightly annoyed, as we passed by The Swinger.

“I agree,” I said, and I felt confident that I’d already given her enough information to tell the Real Grown Ups from the fake ones.

The Style Dad Council

I’ve been working out for a couple of months, with a consistency and determination I haven’t shown in many moons. I’ve also been trying to eat better, or at least not eat such enormous portions of things. My problem has never been snacking or eating much junk food. For the most part, I eat what you might call “good food,” it’s just that I have no real sense of proportion when I do. You know the saying “live every moment like it’s your last”? That’s what I do, except exclusively for meals.

By the end of last year, I was feeling truly horrible about my appearance and general well being. Stress plus lack of exercise conspired to make feel like absolute garbage. Making changes to my lifestyle was difficult, but I accepted that I’d reached an age where taking care of yourself means something different than it did when I was younger. Now that means, “eat salad for lunch every day” whereas ten years ago that meant “guess I won’t have that ninth taco.”

I’ve been pleased with the results thus far. My general energy levels and ability to not eat like a monster are much improved. As for my appearance, I think I look marginally better. But I also realize that there is a rigid ceiling to what I can achieve, appearance-wise. I could go on the Insanity regimen and I would still look like a Dad.

For the rest of my days I will look like someone whose every spoken word is greeted with a vigorous rolling of the eyes. That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. After all, I am a dad and I like to think I’m as good at that as anything else I do. And maybe I’m finally growing into what I am. I’ve never known quite what to do with this thing that stumbles around below my brain, and every time I thought I might have half a clue, genetics have intervened.

I also have this odd condition I like to call anachronistic dysmorphia, wherein I can see pictures of myself from five years ago and think I look okay but can’t be happy with what I see in the mirror. “Why did I think I looked like crap then? I looked fine! But today, Jesus, I look like a bridge troll.”

In other words, the bar for what I expect from myself in the Looks Department is very low. And maybe looking Dad-Like is what I was meant to be all along. I should be okay with that. I would be okay with that, I think, if I didn’t live in New York City. Because there is a class of parent found in NYC that makes me feel powerfully inferior. I look like a normal dad, but I feel at times that I live in a city full of Style Dads.

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Ethnic Envy and the Case of the Misidentified Holiday Decoration

This weekend, my daughter presented me with two questions I wasn’t sure how to answer. The first came during a trip to a diner, after I insisted we wrap up the uneaten portion of her meal to bring home. “My nanny* always said, ‘Wasting food is a sin’,” I told her.

“What’s a sin?” she asked. That was a puzzler.

* Our family word for grandma. Don’t judge.

The second unanswerable question came during a trip into the city to do New York-y holiday things, like visit the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and get pressed against strangers’ Starter jackets. (At Manhattan’s biggest tourist attractions, it is always 1993.) This being a weekend, our trip necessitated lots of transfers and waiting for trains to arrive, because Bloomberg needs the money that could go toward a functioning mass transit system to enforce anti-smoking laws and beat up hippies.

While biding our time on a subway platform, my daughter spontaneously sang a cute little song about Hannukkah, to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” It made reference to dreidels and menorahs and latkes and, like most songs sung by a five year old, was adorable. (Later I found out it’s a seasonal staple that, to this point, has escaped my notice.)

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Being and Nothingness by the Long Island Expressway

When I walk my daughter to school in the morning, we take a shortcut up a service road by the L.I.E. It is noisy, and each exhaust-choked breath I take makes me a little nervous for my future health, but it’s the quickest route we can take, and I’ll be damned if I let carcinogens slow my commute.

One morning, I noticed a fence surrounding a parking lot along the way that had a sign hanging from it. The sign featured a stick man getting squished by a closing gate, basically warning you DON’T BE THIS GUY.

It amused me, because I am ill. And because I like to spread my illness among the world, I pointed it out to my daughter, who proceeded to laugh. “He’s getting crunched!” she howled, thus proving Mel Brooks’ great line about what constitutes comedy: “Tragedy is when I prick my finger; comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die.”

My daughter is just learning to read and is very enthusiastic about deciphering the world of words and letters. She wanted to know what the words on this sign said, so I read them to her.

Of all the words on this sign that were unfamiliar to her, she wanted to know what “death” meant. This is at 7:30 in the morning, by the way.

When you die, you’re dead, I said. That’s death.

She nodded. She has a vague idea of what this means, as much as any five year old does, I suppose. I’ve had to inform her that many of the people I talk about–my grandparents, my father, the aunt we named her after–are dead. She’s been to more than a couple of funerals in her young life, a lot more than I had attended at that age, although in her world I think a funeral is just another occasion where she gets to see her family, except we’re all wearing suits.

She likes to tell me stories that I’ve told her about myself, as if she’s informing me of what happened in my own life. So every now and then she’ll tell me that some family member of mine is dead, and say it in this weird tone that’s half consoling and half instructive.

She has also told me someone I love is dead the way you’d say it if you were playing army or spaceman with your friends, almost taunting. “Pew! Pew! C’mon, you’re dead, I shot you like 20 times!” On these occasions, I’ve had to tell her, “It’s not funny when someone’s dead and you shouldn’t joke around about it.” She’s seemed to understand this as much as any kindergartener could.

“So that gate could make you dead?” she asked.

Yes, I responded. If you didn’t pay attention, it could crush you and hurt you really bad. She made a crunching sound, we laughed, and moved on.

Every day after that, I would make sure to point out the gate sign so we could laugh about it on our commute. Sometimes she’d say “crunch!” or mimic the stick figure saying “agh!” Before long, she began to say “death!,” in this mocking, sinister tone. It always cracked me up, hearing her little voice say such a, well, deadly word with such carefree abandon.

Earlier this week, we passed by the sign, I pointed it out, and she said “death!” I laughed, and then she got very serious all of a sudden.

“Why did you laugh?” she asked.

Because what you said was funny, I said.

She scolded me. “Death isn’t funny, Daddy.” She’d taken my scoldings to heart, all of a sudden.

You’re right, I said. Death isn’t funny. It’s the unfunniest thing there is, pretty much.

“So why did you laugh?” she asked.

The way you said “death” was funny, I said. Sometimes if you say things that are unfunny and scary in just the right way, you can laugh about them and not be so scared anymore.

“Oh,” she said, and added a crunch. We laughed and moved on.