Late Learner

By Petula Dvorak
Sunday, August 6, 2006

I hadn't been fired yet, so I figured I had it all under control.

During my first year back from maternity leave, I'd made it to work every day -- albeit sometimes with a bottle in my purse and my cellphone left in the refrigerator.

We couldn't afford a nanny, but none of the day-care centers in the city would accommodate our late work schedules, so we had found a great compromise: a nanny share that gave us flexibility and our little boy a chance to build his social skills with a fetching girl two months his senior.

It felt like I finally had the working mom thing nailed. Then one morning this past March, when my son, Milo, was 20 months old, I overheard a conversation at the neighborhood playground among some mom acquaintances that ran a Mack truck through my bring-home-the-bacon-and-fry-it-up-in-a-pan reverie.

"What lists are you on?" one of the moms asked.

"We're definitely trying for Aidan," said the one whose weekend outfits always matched.

"Hill Preschool sounds great; we're in for that one," added the one whose child was always too well-dressed for the park.

Umm, what lists?

They could've been speaking Telugu. I didn't understand a thing they were talking about.

I've tried hard to become fluent in the lingua franca of contemporary motherhood: boppy, Baby Bjorn, Bugaboo, breast-feeding, Ferberizing, co-sleeping, attachment parenting, Dr. Sears, Super Baby Food and the sleep sack. But, in all my research, I never realized I should have started looking for preschools last fall, when my son was barely walking.

Thus began a journey in which I tested my principles as a parent, nearly accused a very nice mother of corruption and became known as the wife of a thug.

I began calling schools the next day, but I had missed the application dates, the open houses and many of the lotteries. It turns out that most preschools are on a collegiate admissions schedule, with open houses held in October and applications due in January. Out the window went my musings about the Montessori teaching method versus Reggio Emilia. My list now consisted of anyone willing to take us. I found one preschool on Capitol Hill, a small, friendly place that began 26 years ago as a play group in a church basement. In addition to taking great field trips and having a wonderful arts-and-crafts room, it is a year-round program, so it is always accepting applications. If I were to send an application now, we'd be 19th on the waiting list, I was told.

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