He begged, and then he reasoned. Knowing that I rarely pay full price for any of our clothes anymore (most of what I wear now is secondhand, but that’s a column for another day), he pointed out the price tag. It listed the shoes for $19.99, instead of the original $40.
I surrendered. The cleats got tossed into our cart and later placed on top of a shoe rack in our garage.
Why am I telling you this? Because those size-1 cleats have come to symbolize for me the type of guilt that many parents in the Washington region carry in one form or another.
Many months later, the tag is still on them. Every time I pass them, they mock me with their immaculateness and remind me how hard it is to parent in the DMV, where you can’t simply sign your kid up for activities, you have to presign them up and then be quick on the day when the real sign-up occurs.
You have to predict what they’ll want before they want it — and then be prepared to click and refresh, click and refresh.
You have to be a parenting ninja.
I, of course, knew nothing about this bizarre side of Washington until I had my own kids, two boys who just entered kindergarten and second grade. For years, I lived in blissful, stress-free ignorance of what my co-workers and neighbors were going through to sign up for child care and backup child care and camps and beyond-school activities in this high-achieving region where available spots, especially for programs with strong reviews, can’t often meet the demand.
This week, hundreds of thousands of students started school in Maryland and Virginia. Those pictures of them holding signs declaring they are entering first or fifth or 10th grade are adorable achievement markers. I look forward to seeing them every year.
But for the first time, I found myself also thinking about the achievements of the parents behind those cameras. I found myself considering how much time and energy they spend throughout the year to give their children opportunities to excel in and out of school.
I also found myself wondering whether they have their own cleats, something that has caused them to question whether they are doing enough.
Rachel Bailey, a family specialist in the Washington region who is raising two daughters in Northern Virginia, said she has seen how mothers and fathers, “especially in this area of well-educated, successful parents,” put pressure on themselves and their children.
“All of this is reinforced by the fact that there is a lot of comparison and judgment when it comes to parenting,” said Bailey, who has a master’s degree in clinical psychology. “Parents are talking to other parents about what their kids are involved in and what it takes to be successful. People aren’t shy about giving their opinions because often insisting that they know what it takes to build a better future for their kids makes them feel more in control of the often-unpredictable job of parenting.”
She teaches parents every day how to reduce that pressure. One strategy she calls “tuning in, instead of tuning out.”
“I ask them to create an avatar of the type of parent they want to be, based on their values,” she said. “Then I ask them to use that avatar to be their North Star when it comes to making parenting decisions for their child. And when they see other parents doing different things — especially during these ‘comparison’ conversations or when scrolling on social media — I ask them to tune in to their avatar, to their inner voice, to their own morals and values, rather than using others’ stories to determine the decisions they make for their children.”
Tuning in, instead of tuning out. It’s a helpful tool that many of us should probably keep close, especially because there will inevitably come moments when we’re not fast enough at the keyboard or standing close enough to the front of the line.
It should go without saying that this type of parental angst is a luxury. Parents struggling to financially survive in this high-cost area have other worries. The homeless families living in hotels on New York Avenue NE, which I recently told you about, have to stress about how to get their children to and from school safely and on time.
The problems they and other struggling families in the region face deserve our attention, and more. They deserve resources and solutions. But we can help those children while also trying to figure out how best to take care of our own — and, in this area, many parents learn quickly how that comes with unique challenges.
The first time I realized parenting in the Washington area was going to be different from in other places, my firstborn was weeks old. I was on maternity leave and finally had time to start looking into day-care options. There was a day care I passed by every day as I walked to the Metro, and I assumed I could just call and arrange for him to get in.
Present-day me now laughs at postpartum me.
When I called that day care, a kind woman who answered the phone told me I could pay $75 to be placed on a wait list and then whispered “but don’t waste your money because you won’t get in.” Receptionists at other places also described limited space and told me that people often sign up before they even have children. The one day care that seemed the most promising, and which I did pay to consider my application, called to let me know that my son finally made it to the top of the wait list. By that time, he was 3 years old, and I had a second child.
More recently, my husband and I decided to sign our boys up for a summer camp that came highly recommended and was convenient for our commutes. We quickly learned that if we wanted them to have any chance of getting in, we needed to pay for a membership to the organization running the program and then stand in line, hoping the slots we wanted weren’t all filled. An hour before the place opened, parents were already waiting, and many held detailed lists of their first options followed by their backup options followed by the backup options to their backup options.
After my son expressed an interest in soccer, I looked up programs and realized I had missed a recent deadline. The next time the sign-up period opened, I filled out the online application in time but wasn’t fast enough. He got wait-listed, and then rejected.
Finally, a few weeks ago, another parent sent me an email telling me she had just signed her son up. I had flown 10 hours and was in a different time zone, but I dropped everything to do the same.
This time, he got in.
On Friday, he will finally put on those cleats and attend his first soccer practice. I hope he loves it, or at least doesn’t despise it.
Mostly though, I hope his shoes still fit.
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