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When you tie-dye a t-shirt, they tell you to keep it in the plastic bag for at least 24 hours, or several days more, to allow the dye to soak into the fabric so the colors of your shirt will be vibrant. What they don’t tell you is that after those first several days have come and gone and you’ve more or less forgotten about the tie-dying because you’re home from family camp and fully transitioned into school year mode, your wet shirt, which has been scrunched or twisted up and secured with rubber bands and enclosed in a sealed ziploc bag, will become fertile ground for colonies of mold. Or possibly mildew. I am honestly not sure of the difference, when it comes to gross spots growing on something I was planning to put on my body. Either way, when you remember to take the shirts out of their bags and start the chiropractic appointment-inducing process of rinsing them out in the bathtub, and you see the grayish brownish spots clustered across the shirts, you make a face that indicates an unpleasant mixture of disappointment, frustration, and disgust.


Your research reveals that a possible remedy could be soaking the shirts in vinegar. Although in your gut you feel like they’re too far gone, you have to try. Surprisingly, three different stores you visit are completely out of white vinegar. Finally, you order some online from Target, in one of your midnight shopping sprees where you make other exciting purchases such as frozen burritos, saltines, maxi pads, paper towels, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. You are living the high life.

Because that’s the way you roll, it takes a few more weeks for you to actually soak the shirts, although they have been rinsed and are dryish and you are pretty sure no longer nurturing the fungus (if it even is fungus?) besmirching them. You’re just feeling kind of defeated by them. The giant jug of vinegar sits in the hallway, mocking your bad decision making and poor time management skills.

As time passes, you think a lot about preschool. One of the many mantras at your kids’ amazing cooperative preschool was “process, not product.” Emphasis on the kids doing whatever they wanted to do with the materials put in front of them — or that they unearthed while playing in the mud garden or tromping through the woods — rather than the ultimate creation of something recognizable or a specific end goal. This is a good rule of thumb for life with little ones, as products rarely–if ever–turn out as expected. Also a good thing for adults to remember, although we are usually held to the standard of producing some kind of acceptable end result. And process is how you learn. Process is the journey. Process is the sensory experience of getting your hands dirty–or stained with dye in the arts and crafts cabin at camp. You recall the peaceful hour spent with your nine-year-old carefully choosing tie-dye patterns, helping them rubber band the shirts, and finding exactly the right color combinations. You each made a shirt or two and a couple bandanas. The bandanas are easy but not quite as satisfying as a result.

If you’re being truthful, each of you already has several tie-dye shirts in your drawers, that you made at previous family camps or on summer vacations during the pandemic. So you’ve enjoyed the process many times before, and even managed to make some decent shirts.

Now that you have soaked the shirts (and stunk up the house with the aroma of vinegar) and washed the shirts and dried the shirts, you discover that three of the shirts still have enough remaining mold (or mildew!?) stains to make them unwearable. Somehow one shirt emerged unscathed, as well as two bandanas.

You wonder if there is anything useful to do with the rejected shirts. You already have enough dust rags for a squadron of Cinderellas. You fleetingly imagine cutting up sections of the shirts that aren’t stained and sewing them into something else. But what? A doll-sized blanket? Plus, you can’t sew. You think of your friend who can sew and wonder what she would do. In addition to sewing, she is an expert at tie-dying, and you’re certain she would never have made the mistake of allowing tie-dyed t-shirts to languish in their baggies until they grow things. But her kids attended that same preschool, and you know she would appreciate your “process not product” attempt at consolation.

Lately I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Somehow more than what I expect from myself, as if I am more than human. My new mantra, although I am many decades out of preschool, is process, not product. I am still learning.

When my kids were in preschool at AUCP one of the concepts that the teachers and staff there reminded us parents all the time was the importance of teaching and allowing our kids to do things on their own even when it would be much faster for us to do it ourselves. If you are a parent or grandparent or older sibling or if you’ve ever cared for or taught a child, you know that it often takes little kids forever to do anything, especially if you are in a hurry.

Of course this is good advice because kids will never learn to be independent if you do everything for them. But also, life. Sometimes it’s really tedious to teach a kid to do something that you could do in five minutes, knowing you’ll have to cajole them to do it and then it will take them half an hour.

Yet there comes a time–perhaps when you are in quarantine–when you are making three meals a day for your family members, that you must teach your first-grader to make a sandwich. For whatever reason, Zeke has never liked peanut butter and jelly. Recently he has changed his mind. He seems to change his mind about a lot of things lately. So I taught him to make a sandwich. He was proud of himself. He added pretzels to the plate. I cut up the apple. I’m wondering when I can give him the sharp knife…

I’ve been taking for granted all the things I love to do that involve being surrounded by strangers. Hearing live music and singing along with people you’ve never met but who find meaning in the same songs that you do. Seeing a movie and laughing or crying along with everyone else who is laughing or crying. Eating delicious food at your favorite restaurant, noticing everyone else satisfying their craving for that same food. Exploring a museum, learning something new, being inspired, wondering how the exhibit is speaking to those around you. Going to the beach and watching people fly kites and build sandcastles and splash and swim and throw frisbees and soak up vitamin D. Being at church and listening to a sermon that might be preached just for you and also for hundreds of other souls searching for ways to make sense of the world, and lighting candles, and praying and meditating together, and holding hands and agreeing to help each other be a force for good in the world.

Even reading, which you might think of as a solitary activity, often involves strangers. I love going to the library–helping my kids pick out books and finding something for myself. And in Arlington I almost always run into someone I know at any library. Browsing in bookstores, which is as much a sensory experience as an intellectual one. I’m one of those people who likes to feel the covers of the books and inhale the scent of paper and ink. At my favorite bookstores there are post-it notes or little notecards taped to the shelves explaining which books are recommended by which of their booksellers and why. I love discovering wonderful things to read thanks to mysterious other readers who are humans rather than algorithms. This month I had planned to go with three good friends to hear Glennon Doyle read from and talk about her new book, Untamed. I would’ve been in the audience at the Lisner Auditorium with thousands of other fans, mostly middle-aged moms like me, feeling intense sisterly solidarity. I was also excited to go with one of my best friends to see one of my all-time favorite authors Ann Patchett speak at a local middle school. Being in a room with strangers and knowing they have all read the same books you’ve read and have been moved by them too is heady.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time over the past 13 years at playgrounds, which are usually lively and well-populated. Around here, if you spend more than 10 minutes at a playground, you’re likely to hear families speaking in at least a couple languages besides English. It’s always fun for me to guess what language they’re speaking and where they might be from. I haven’t heard any languages besides English (random French, Spanish, or German phrases thrown around by my family notwithstanding) in a couple weeks now. Even when we’ve been out on hiking trails in Northern Virginia, I feel like I hear mostly English. We see a lot of white guys in their teens and 20s, some of them talking on their bluetooth earpieces, looking like they’re training for something big.

Just before coronavirus exploded in the US (fortuitously), I had the opportunity to be part of literacy activities at both my kids’ schools. At Zoe’s middle school, I coordinated Booktopia, where invited all 1,100 students to come to the gym (not all at once) to pick out a book to keep. Any book they wanted (that we had)! This involved a lot of volunteers who helped me sort, organize, and restock the books, then sell the leftovers at the used book sale at the school a few days later. Booktopia involved conversations with students and teachers and touching a lot of books that a lot of people had touched. I didn’t think too much about that at the time. The book fair at Zeke’s school was held the same week. This year the book fair was presented by one of my new favorite Arlington organizations–READ (Read Early and Daily). READ’s mission is “ensuring babies and young children have new, quality, culturally relevant books of their own that are mirrors and windows into their everyday lives and communities.” One of the ways READ funds its book giveaways is by running school book fairs. One of the best things about this set-up is that our school book fair had the most spectacular selection of books with diverse characters by diverse authors that I have ever encountered. And since I had just spent several months ordering books for Booktopia that featured diverse (in every possible way) characters written by diverse authors, I was super impressed. The point here is that book fairs are another occasion where many kids and teachers and parents are swirling around. I love helping kids pick out books. I love reading with kids. Now when I think about that I just think about all the possibility for transmission of germs.

Then there’s substituting as a co-oper at Arlington Unitarian Cooperative Preschool, which I have enjoyed doing on occasion since my kids graduated from there. Turns out it’s much less stressful to co-op when A) you’re not required to do it but you’re getting paid for it and B) your own child is not demanding your attention when you’re supposed to be helping with the whole class. The bad news is that infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are pretty indiscriminate about who or what they touch and when and it doesn’t matter where their hands have been. The good news is that AUCP is really into good handwashing. Every kid and every adult washes their hands before snack and after snack and after the playground and before lunch and after lunch and of course after diaper changes and using the potty. One of the lines I always remember from the many parent orientation sessions we attended there was the preschool’s fabulous director Susan Parker saying, “I suggest you invest in a good hand cream because you will be washing your hands all day long.” All that hand washing practice has paid off! So many adults have had to come up with creative ways to remember how to wash their hands properly, but I guarantee you that the five and under set at AUCP have it down already.

Next Monday would’ve been the first game of the soccer season with my amazing women’s team Ice & Ibuprofen. We have cool new jerseys for the season, with a new logo. I don’t know when we’ll have a chance to wear them. Soccer involves a lot of contact with other people. You could kick a ball back and forth while standing six feet apart, but you couldn’t play a game. I know a lot of my teammates know each other because they live in the same neighborhood and their kids go to school together, but I only see them on the field. We had tickets for our family to see the Washington Spirit play their season opener at Audi Field for my birthday. Randy has season tickets to DC United. There are few things as thrilling as cheering on your favorite players and teams in a stadium filled with tens of thousands of other fans. No matter how big your TV is, it’s not the same watching from your couch.

Even though we’re going a little stir-crazy, my family is fine. We have more than enough stimulating and fun activities to do in the house. And we’ve been hiking. We’ve been FaceTiming and Zooming with friends and family. All that is absolutely saving our sanity and keeping our brains engaged. But there’s something about being out in the world, surrounded by strangers, doing something you love and they love too, that I am missing deeply.

Originally published on

They were invited 
to take off their shoes and socks
which is usually NOT allowed at school
but this was barefoot day 
in kangaroo class

On the concrete floor the teachers 
had taped down
bubble wrap
(the kind with big bubbles and the kind with small bubbles)
that padding that goes under carpet
and lengths of textured yellow foam–
packing material that could be a topographical map
of another planet

Along one wall 
of the classroom
they laid out a long sheet 
of brown butcher paper
with gallons of bright paint at one end

Each child who wanted to
(which was not everyone–
some built train tracks or 
sculpted play dough or 
did wooden puzzles of 
farm animals and vehicles)
chose red or yellow or blue paint
and the teachers poured a puddle
onto a square of bubble wrap
and the child stepped in

The teachers had to hold the hand 
of each child as they squished their toes
into the paint
because paint on bubble wrap
can be quite slippery
when you’re two or three years old

Walking along the brown paper path
they left small footprints
until they came to the end
where I had filled a big blue basin
with warm water
and they stepped in
and i washed their feet
with my hands
even though they did not know me at all
they leaned on my shoulders
to steady themselves
as I gently lifted one foot 
and then the other
to wipe away the paint

Then I held their hands
as they stepped out of the water
onto a towel 
where I dried their feet
and wiped off smears of paint 
from their ankles that I had missed
(there was still some paint between their toes, 
but I had to keep the line moving)

Soon they would return
having left more footprints
now in blended colors
because eventually all the paint
mixed together

and I would wash their feet again
and now they knew me as the lady
who was there to wash and dry 
their feet
(still between their toes the paint clung)
and they smiled at me 
in wonder, 
so delighted by what they had done

At the end, one of the teachers decided
to walk through the paint and 
down the brown paper path
and one of the little girls
quickly took her hand
to walk beside her and make sure
she was steady

louseWhile I hate to keep Zoe home from school when it’s only the second week, I also don’t think she’ll be in much shape to learn anything tomorrow morning at 8 when she went to sleep just before midnight. Why did she stay up until midnight on a Monday night, you ask? The answer is a repugnant four-letter word: LICE.

Most nights after she showers, Zoe asks me to comb her hair, and tonight when I was combing I observed some small, unwelcome creatures crawling on her scalp. After Randy had taken Zeke upstairs to bed, I told Zoe that I thought she had lice, and she started weeping. I called my mom for advice. I tried to calm Zoe down but I also felt like the need to expunge the bugs was rather urgent. I combed and she cried. I texted friends whose children I knew had dealt with lice. After Randy came downstairs I dispatched him to the drugstore to buy some lice-repellent product. Zoe asked if I was going to be combing her hair for the rest of her life, and I said, yes, I would be combing her hair when she breaks her board this Saturday at the martial arts growth ceremony, and when she goes to the prom, and as she’s walking down the aisle during her wedding. She added that I would be combing her hair while she was giving birth to her first child, and then while she was combing her own child’s hair. By then she was laughing instead of crying.

I did the treatment. Randy stripped the bed and sprayed it with some magic lice-be-gone spray. I did the second treatment and combed again and made the bed. I put most of the stuffed animals in the wash and some pillows in a trash bag where they’re supposed to live until the lice suffocate and die. I inspected Eve, Zoe’s doll who cannot go into the wash, and she looked clean. I didn’t feel like giving her the treatment. Also she doesn’t have hair.

It’s Randy’s birthday too. Fortunately we celebrated yesterday, as tonight was not especially festive. Exciting, sure. Festive, maybe not. Although yesterday was also exciting when the cake we made for Randy caught fire in the oven (marshmallows on top) and Randy blew it out and made a really big wish. That was festive AND exciting.

Before the discovery of the bugs tonight, Zeke had mysteriously melted down at dinner. He burst into tears because Randy cut up his broccoli too small, so he could eat it. He wanted big broccoli. This might not sound crazy, but Zeke doesn’t usually get upset about such things. He usually spends dinner either eating his food, spilling it on himself, or trying to make us laugh. I guess he had a long day. We went to the meet and greet at his preschool today so he could check out his classroom and spend a few minutes of quality time with his teacher. On the way into the school he was so excited that he started sprinting across the parking lot and fell down and scraped up his knees. They were still hurting him at bedtime. We tried to assuage him with Muppet band-aids. So Zeke was feeling a little fragile all day, although when I strapped him into his carseat as we were leaving preschool he had tears welling up in his eyes and I asked him what was wrong and he said, “Nothing. Happy.” Perhaps even he didn’t know what was wrong. But he seems to love his teacher, who was once Zoe’s teacher and as a result greeted Zeke by name last year when she saw him in passing. I didn’t know he even noticed or remembered her, but when I introduced her to him as his new teacher he leaped into her arms and gave her a hug like they were long-lost buddies. It is possible he doesn’t understand why he keeps going to school for brief periods of time only to have to leave again just when he’s getting going. Thursday is his first real day. Hopefully it will be satisfying for all of us.

The report on third grade: so far so good. Zoe says her teacher is awesome. She is thrilled to have a locker, for which she shopped for decorations this past weekend. I still haven’t gotten a lot of concrete details about anything she’s learning, but she’s seemed happy every day when I’ve picked her up, so I’ll take that. Except today when I picked her up, I asked how her day went, and she said she spent most of it worrying. This afternoon she had her green solid belt test at Evolve All, where she had to demonstrate the exercises, techniques, and understanding that green solid belt martial artists are supposed to master. She was nervous. She said Master Emerson reminded her last week that it’s good to be nervous because it means it matters. During the test I kept Zeke entertained with puzzles and snacks and a blue car we rolled to each other, while I watched Zoe out of one eye. She did awesome. I can see how much confidence and poise she’s gained over the past year, even though she still gets nervous. She passed. She wasn’t as pleased with herself as I expected, but she stood on her head in the turf room for a bit afterwards, which always seems to make her happy. Now onto the board break on Saturday. I will remind her again then as I did today, what Rev. Aaron said in his sermon on Sunday, “We got this.”

So watch out, lice. Move on out. We have our combs and our creams. We can run our washer and dryer all night if we have to. We got this.

gourds!Zeke is so delighted with himself.

Lately he loves to careen into my office, which doubles as our guest bedroom or the bed where Zeke sleeps with one of us when he won’t go back to bed during the night, and scramble up onto the bed and throw himself onto a pillow. He grins this huge grin like he has gotten away with something amazing. Then he pats the pillow next to him, indicating that you are supposed to lie down there with him. Then he pulls the covers up over himself and grins some more. He also loves to climb up on his sister’s bed, using the Lego bins or the dress-up bins as a stool. If there are objects sitting on the bins he will fling them away so he can climb unencumbered. If you move the bins away so as to discourage him from climbing onto Zoe’s bed, he will move them back or find some other way to scale the foot of the bed, perhaps channeling his inner Spiderman.

For an 18-month-old boy, Zeke is remarkably committed to good hygiene. For example, if the bathroom door is left open he will climb up to the sink and wash his hands with some frequency and plenty of glee. He loves turning on the water. He will also sit in the bathtub and play long after you’ve drained the water out. I don’t know why he enjoys this or how he doesn’t get cold, but sitting wet in the empty tub with his toys seems like nothing less than paradise to him. He loves the tub so much that one day when he and his sister were both driving me a bit batty, I stuck him in the tub with his clothes on. (Naked he tends to slide around some). I retrieved from a kitchen cabinet an enormous metal bowl that I have only ever used for food when I once made a huge quantity of salad for a picnic for people who were homeless. The bowl is now primarily used as a musical instrument or for science experiments. So I put some water in the bowl and threw some bath toys in and let Zeke play in the tub fully clothed until he was soaked enough to be uncomfortable. It bought me some time. We’ve recently resumed our efforts to brush his teeth because he has some now, but he prefers to do it himself. I think he is mostly brushing his tongue, but that’s important too, right?

Whether he is gathering and distributing or cuddling with gourds, or trying to scoop Chex cereal out of a snack cup with a small pasta ladle, pasta ladle!or turning on Randy’s clock radio so he can dance, Zeke does things his own unique way. He loves the co-op preschool where he goes two mornings a week. After a few mornings of crying when I dropped him off he now runs (as best he can) for the classroom and tries to scale the baby gate to get in as fast as he can to investigate the sensory table or squish playdough between his fingers. Last week I co-oped in his classroom and they were painting pumpkins with acrylic paint (the kind of paint preschoolers usually use doesn’t stick to pumpkins well, I guess. Or maybe it washes off too easily). Zeke had a paintbrush and a cup of black paint. He painted a bit on his pumpkin. Then he carefully painted the palm of each hand and all his fingers. Then he gestured for his teacher’s hand and painted it black as well. Then, as any creative genius would, he ran his fingers through his hair. Then, after washing hands, he wandered over to the book corner and laid down on a blanket and pillow and rolled around, adding his black paint touch to the pillowcase (I’ve since washed it and you’ll be relieved to know the paint came right out after being soaked in Oxi-clean.

When we drive by a playground, he squeals and claps in recognition. Yesterday at Zoe’s soccer practice he walked across the field on his own to reach the playground and did what all the four- and five-year-olds were doing. I sprinted in pursuit. He loves to carry Zoe’s rolling backpack and was rolling rolling backpack!it up and down the track around the field. Eventually he abandoned it and it sat there on the track with young cyclists and grown-up joggers maneuvering around it until I had a chance to move it at a moment when I didn’t think Zeke was going to leap from a 6-foot high play structure.

I would estimate that his sleeping through the night is up to 50% to 75% of the time. His tantrums run about five to 10 per day, particularly when you’re strapping him into his carseat or changing his diaper or taking away something that he wants but isn’t supposed to have. But when he’s not shrieking in protest, he truly is delightful, to himself and to us.

On good days, parenting is made up of many ecstatic moments interrupted by a few exasperating ones. On bad days, the reverse. Some days as a parent I can rejoice in the trivial triumphs, like getting Zeke’s nails clipped so he won’t claw himself or us in fits of excitement or fatigue. Other days I look around at the colossal mess and the long list of undone items and struggle to see what I’ve accomplished, other than keeping everyone fed and alive. Which is something, but sometimes seems like a low bar.

While I am a working mom, my work only happens during the hours that Zeke is in day care and Zoe is in school, or sometimes at night if necessary. Although night office hours are much fewer and further between since Zeke was born since his sleep patterns are utterly unpredictable. But I am on my own with the kids most afternoons, and with Zeke on Fridays, and typically on snow days, so I did identify with this post by The Ugly Volvo. Parenting a baby can be so spectacularly joyful and so thoroughly frustrating from moment to moment.

At this moment, thankfully, Zeke is asleep. It was a hard-fought nap. He has a cold, so he was only willing to nurse briefly because breastfeeding makes it hard for him to breathe when he’s congested. I knew he was tired and still hungry but he screamed and battled fiercely when I tried to keep feeding him. Eventually I liberated him from his napping cocoon and took him downstairs to play while I pumped four ounces. Luckily I was able to entice him to stay in the play area instead of crawling off to find uncovered electrical outlets while I was tethered to the breast pump. Then we returned upstairs and he sat up and gave himself the bottle while I sneakily eased him half into the cocoon. As soon as he finished drinking and discarded the bottled I zipped him all the way up, singing “The Wheels on the Bus” at the top of my lungs to distract him from his capture. Then I rocked him and toned it down until he zonked out.

At nine months, he seems gigantic. He’s wearing 18-month clothes and stretches out way beyond your arms when you’re holding him. And he’s so tough and sturdy. He hardly seems like a baby because he appears indestructible (don’t test this, please). He just steamrolls over toys of any shape or size to get what he wants. He crawls so much faster than you expect and then you really don’t have time to look away or do anything you thought you’d have time to do between when you put him down and when he’s at the top of the stairs, or in the kitchen. He’s made a game of taking a toy and throwing it on front of him and crawling to get it and can repeat this over and over circuiting around the first floor of our house. At long last, he has two teeth–one fully in and the other emerging–and loves to use them to crunch. In fact he’s so excited to feed himself that more often than not he wants cheerios and the other little crunchy things instead of the baby food. I think the baby food is getting boring. But we haven’t quite gotten to the point where he can eat what we’re eating. Probably what has to happen is us putting in the extra effort to make some table food that’s appropriate for him, but we haven’t quite managed to do that yet. And I’m also not sure that anything I can make will be as nutritious as these little pouches of spinach, apple, and rutabaga, or plum, berry, and quinoa.

Zeke recently discovered clapping, and today I saw him pick up two blocks and clap them together and enjoyed his reaction when he created his first hand-held percussion instrument (aside from one of his favorite hobbies of smacking and tapping all wooden surfaces). Much like his sister and his parents, he loves music. Yesterday we went to the open house at Zoe’s former preschool, which will hopefully be Zeke’s preschool next fall. One of the first people we ran into was the music teacher there. One of my favorite times when I used to co-op in Zoe’s class was going to music class and seeing the kids either enthusiastically sing and dance and stomp around, or just observe mutely. I am reading the book Quiet right now and gaining a better understanding of how personality develops and what it means when kids are introverted or extroverted or low-reactive or high-reactive or sensitive and the various combinations of all of those factors. And I know participating in preschool music class isn’t really everyone’s thing, but I think all of the kids are still taking it in on some level, and how it comes back out remains to be seen. Zoe was not always a jubilant singer, but that didn’t inhibit the development of her fascination with and intense enjoyment of music. Today in church, she was sitting with me in the front row, right behind the grand piano, percussionists, and bassist, with a great view of the choir. On the first Sunday of the month, kids start out in the sanctuary and participate in the first part of the service, then listen to a story for all ages, and then go to their religious education classes. But after the first couple songs, Zoe said emphatically, “I want to stay for the music. I don’t want to go to class.” So she stayed, and she seemed as entranced and moved by the music as I was, singing to herself quietly, but clearly part of the moment.

Is it easy to be hard on yourself as a parent, or as a nursing mom, or as a nursing, working mom. Sometimes things do not go the way you expected them to go, or the way you think they must magically go for everyone else. But sometimes they work out fine. And sometimes your baby beams at you for minutes at a time without breaking eye contact, showing you the best way he knows how exactly how much he loves you. And sometimes your first-grader holds your hand and sings with you in church, or snuggles up to read, or gives you a kiss when she knows you’re feeling beaten down, and she even says “I love you,” because she can, and she does. And a nap would be nice, but you know you’ll make it through one way or another.


My Love Letter to AUCP

When Zoe was born I began to receive advice from friends with children—“apply to preschools right away—they’re very hard to get into around here!” Never one to ignore a cautionary tale, when Zoe was almost a year old I started preschool shopping, expecting to apply and be waitlisted and have her start school at two. We applied to three preschools and I definitely loved AUCP most—expansive classrooms and all that natural light! Despite being in the lower level of the church, AUCP was the only one that didn’t feel like a church basement. And Randy was an AUCP alum and my mother-in-law had been a co-oper! Much to my surprise, we were offered a spot in the Panda class right away, and Zoe started at AUCP when she was 17 months old. I still remember that before-school Panda gathering on the AUCP playground, and watching other small girls toddle around the sandbox with Zoe, thinking we couldn’t possibly be starting preschool.

Now I can’t believe we can possibly be leaving preschool. Zoe is five and while we are excited about kindergarten (she’ll be attending Abingdon in the fall) we are sad to be leaving AUCP. I don’t want to bring it up too much with Zoe (thank you for the advice, Ms. Susan) but I know I’m sad. I will be leaving my friends too. While I’m sure some of us will stay in touch, there’s no replacing the daily conversations in the lobby, chats on the playground, and sympathetic looks you get in the hallway at pick-up or drop-off when your child is going berserk. I am sad to be leaving a place where I know I can trust any grown-up in sight to watch out for my child, even if I don’t know that person’s name. I am sad to be leaving a place where I am confident that all the grown-ups will be kind to and patient with my child. I am sad to be leaving a place where grown-ups and kids alike can be as creative as they wish, treat each other with respect, and have so much fun. I can think of few places in the real world where process is valued so much more than product.

My heart is filled with love and gratitude for all of Zoe’s teachers over the past four years. They have taught me as much as they have Zoe. I am thankful for Ms. Elizabeth’s boundless love and patience and her willingness to always greet a child at child eye level and that she remembers everyone who was ever a Panda. I am thankful for Mr. Peter’s sense of humor and the effort he put into creating learning opportunities for the kids. I am thankful for Ms. Aasma’s infectious enthusiasm and zest for life and for the fact that she never misses an opportunity to stop what she is doing and give Zoe a hug whenever she sees her. I am thankful for Ms. Patricia’s steadfast serenity in the midst of chaotic children and the insightful questions she asks them. I am thankful for Ms. Julie’s thoughtful planning and her ability to teach our children how to greet her and each other with lovely manners. I am thankful for Ms. U’s inspirational creativity and the countless hours she must spend at home preparing unbelievably cool art projects for our kids. I am thankful for Ms. Susan’s constant sense of calm and friendliness that she infuses into the entire school. Her advice and wisdom, which usually boils down to, “Listen, it’s going to be ok. You’re going to be ok, your child is going to be ok. It’s ok” has reassured me many, many times throughout the past four years. Sometimes when you’re in the middle of some craziness with your child it’s impossible to believe it’s going to be ok. But Susan, you’re right.

I am thankful for the parents who did nice things for Zoe when you co-oped. I am thankful for the parents who told me she was ok during the various periods of separation anxiety when I would have to physically hand Zoe to a parent or teacher while she screamed and I tried to make my exit without breaking down myself. I am thankful to the parents who made and delivered meals to us when Zoe had surgery. I am thankful for anyone who ever spotted Zoe on the monkey bars, risking back pain for the rest of the day. I am thankful for Ms. Susan, Ms. Patricia, and Ms. Aasma welcoming Zoe (and us) back with open arms after our time away. I am thankful to all the parents who supported us and loved us when we came back. I am thankful that no one ever complained when Zoe had an accident and no one ever made her feel bad about it. I am thankful for the friendship, the commiseration, the advice. I am thankful that I’ve always known you all have my back.

I’ve often said that co-oping—for me—is like going to the gym. I don’t especially want to do it, and it’s usually really hard while I’m doing it, but afterward I’m really glad I did it and I know I’m a better person for it. I have learned from other parents and all of Zoe’s teachers and Ms. Raylene, Ms. Diann, and Ms. Susan smart and interesting ways of being with children I would never have thought of myself. I value the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Zoe’s classmates and friends much better than if I weren’t in the classroom on a regular basis. I love that I’ve had the chance to work alongside parents with so many different ideas and attitudes and learned a lot from all of them. And co-oping has also given me the wonderful opportunity to talk with other teachers besides Zoe’s. I have loved every continuing education event I’ve attended and (I know I’m a nerd) I love the fact that we are required to always be learning about kids.

Our family is so lucky to have been members of the AUCP family for the past four years. Thank you for your unconditional love. We will miss you. Hopefully someday we’ll be back. We’ll send you a postcard from kindergarten.

We told Zoe she was getting an extra-long Christmas vacation because she’d been doing such a good job at school. What else are you supposed to say to your three-year-old when she’s been suspended from school for a month because of having too many potty accidents?

This explanation was my mom’s idea. She was thinking more clearly than I was during the panicky and maddening hours after I was called into the principal’s office and told my daughter “had had enough chances” to master her tiny bladder and that removing her from school for several weeks was the only solution.

This happened on a Monday morning after I had dropped Zoe off in her classroom. The previous Friday the principal had escorted us out of the building, while promising she would continue to work with us to help Zoe reduce accidents in the classroom. That week I had agreed (against my better judgment but hoping to placate the principal) to come into the classroom whenever Zoe had an accident. The principal said my doing that would demonstrate my and my husband’s commitment to working with the school on this issue. I complied with her request and of course Zoe was completely confused and the classroom totally disrupted both times when I arrived. Of course Zoe wanted to go home, so I took her home rather than cause a scene that would further interfere with her classmates’ activities and the teacher’s ability to teach. I worried that Zoe would think she was either being punished or rewarded because of the accidents.

Throughout this saga we’ve done our best to shield Zoe from the school system’s opinion that something is wrong with her because she has accidents. I’m sure she’s overheard me talking about it on occasion, but she seems to be ok. She’s perceptive, though, and knows there’s been anxiety around the subject. At a friend’s house over Christmas she had an accident. While we were in the bathroom afterward so she could change clothes, she said “You’re not mad at me, are you? You know I’m trying as hard as I can, right?” My heart was breaking. Of course I know she’s trying as hard as she can. Perhaps I didn’t at first, but now I do.

What’s ironic is that my husband and I were so determined to get her into one of our county’s popular public Montessori schools and we spent much of the spring and summer strategizing and worrying about whether or not she’d get in. While we loved the small cooperative preschool she attended before, we were looking for more consistency. At two she attended preschool two mornings per week, a home-based day care two days per week, and was with her grandparents or at home the rest of the time. We thought she could benefit from more stability and that she would thrive in the Montessori setting, which encourages independent thinking and responsibility. We knew it was hard to get a spot in one of these programs, especially since two-thirds of the slots are reserved for children from low-income families, which we are not. At the same time, we couldn’t afford a private Montessori program, which can easily run upward of $10,000 per year.

During the summer we heard that a spot had opened up at one of the schools, and we were thrilled. In August, in preparation for starting school and going on vacation, we took Zoe out of day care. We had started potty training her in June, later than we had originally planned because she had eyelid surgery just after her third birthday in April and we were advised to wait eight to 12 weeks before attempting potty training because the surgery was already stressful enough.

By July she was doing great, using the toilet independently and having infrequent accidents. Although we had heard that stress can cause regression in potty training, it’s hard to remember that something as seemingly simple as changing a child’s routine can cause stress. Taking her out of day care, going on vacation, and then a death in the family (accompanied by our attending the funeral and her staying with another family member) resulted in a lot of accidents. Then in September, she started school.

During the first week of school, which was 8:30am to 3pm in a classroom with three-, four-, and five-year-olds and no rest time, Zoe had a lot of accidents. It was a big change. Academically and socially she was having a blast, but her body had a hard time keeping up. Every day when I picked her up, the teacher announced, across the room in front of Zoe and everyone else, how many accidents Zoe had. She suggested that something was wrong and instructed us to take Zoe to the pediatrician immediately. We did.

The pediatrician said Zoe was normal. She said even after potty training, kids have accidents, especially in new and stressful situations. We talked about how increased patience and decreased anxiety on our part might help her relax and improve. I struggled to get my anxiety under control in the face of the teacher’s exclamations about Zoe’s accidents. I asked the teacher to please tell me something good or interesting Zoe had done that day when I first walked in instead of focusing exclusively on bladder control.

Two weeks into school, we got a call that a spot had opened up at another school. My husband and I struggled with the decision to cause yet more disruption and possibly more potty setbacks. But we went to visit the school to make an informed decision. The new school was beautiful, with a classroom twice the size and filled with light. The new teacher seemed very easygoing. The program was housed in a sought-after elementary school with a special focus that we would be guaranteed placement in if Zoe went to preschool there. We decided to make the switch. We told the teacher about the accidents and she assured us that she’d help Zoe and it would be fine.

Even with the switch, Zoe’s number of accidents dramatically decreased. Rather than daily, she didn’t make it to the potty on time one to three times per week. During this time we were still working diligently at home to encourage her to stay dry. We employed every possible reward system. We sang and read books in the bathroom. We read to Zoe many books about kids using the potty and watched many videos. We bought a watch that you program to alarm at various intervals to remind kids to go. Zoe could go five or six days at a time without an accident. We saw improvement and were proud.

Then, suddenly, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, we got a letter from the principal saying that the school system’s policy stated that children who had more than three accidents in a week or one accident three weeks in a row were not potty trained and could be removed for a week or more until they were potty trained. What?

This was the first we’d heard of this policy, which we were later told was an “internal guideline,” but which was not available to the public or given to parents when children apply or enroll in the program. We scheduled a conference call with the principal and teacher to understand what was going on. The principal mentioned repeatedly during the conversation that she could remove Zoe from the program because of the number of accidents Zoe had had.

We talked to an assistant superintendent, who assured us that no one wanted to remove Zoe from school. We talked to someone in the early childhood office, which oversees the county’s preschool programs, who reiterated the policy the principal had outlined. We didn’t see how this was possible, but it was still happening to us.

In the meantime, we loved our daughter even more fiercely. She is a creative, charming, bright, and affectionate little girl. Just because her bladder control hasn’t yet been perfected does not mean that she deserved to be kicked out of a school where she was otherwise thriving, making great friends and learning a lot about herself and the world every day.

We took Zoe to the urology clinic at Children’s National Medical Center to ensure that there was no actual medical problem contributing to the accidents. The urologist said she is shocked by the number of parents who bring in their children every September for similar reasons. Their kids’ schools say they have to stop having accidents and, surprise, they can’t make their kids do it! The urologist said approximately 20% of five-year-olds have frequent accidents, years after they’ve been potty trained. The pediatrician and urologist agreed it was developmentally inappropriate to remove a child from school because of accidents.

We felt like the facts were on our side, but it didn’t matter.

Zoe stayed home for a month. We had a lovely time. We took trips, made cookies, spent a lot of time at the library, and played  with Zoe’s large collection of tiny people and food items. Thankfully my parents live nearby and are happy to spend time with Zoe because I had to meet some deadlines for my business, which effectively shut down for the month. I wondered what would have happened if one of the kids in Zoe’s class whose parents work low-wage jobs had been made to stay home. Would one of those parents have had to quit his or her job?

As Christmas vacation came to an end, we started to get nervous. What would happen when Zoe returned to school? We had received acknowledgements of our letter to the school system from the superintendent and school board, but no further action. My husband’s calls to the superintendent went unreturned.

In January Zoe went back to school. Days one and two were accident-free. Day three she had an accident at naptime, which is completely out of her control. I’m sure most of the kids in the class still wear pull-ups to bed. Day four she had four accidents. I have no idea why, except maybe the stress of worrying about having accidents. She hadn’t had four accidents in a day in months. I asked her whether the teacher had said anything to her and she said the teacher’s aide had dealt with her all day, and had gotten upset at her every time it happened. I’m sure the more she worried about it the more she wasn’t able to handle it. She was so worried I would get mad. I asked her if she wanted to stay home the next day and she was jubilant.

That night and the next day I worked feverishly to find preschools with mid-year openings. As it happened, the lovely co-op preschool where she used to go had a spot in the three-year-old class. We took it. We told Zoe we wanted to find a preschool where they didn’t get mad at her for having accidents because we knew she was doing the best she could. She accepted that. We visited the school so she could see her new classroom and meet the teacher (whose daughter was in her two-year-old class, so Zoe was already comfortable with her). She immediately started playing and said “I’m fine here, Mommy, you can go out now.”

Everyone at the co-op has been delighted to welcome us back. The community is supportive and nurturing and understanding of early childhood biological development. Every preschool director, teacher, and parent I’ve talked to about this has been shocked by what happened and how we were treated. So were we.

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