The preschool application process in New York City can make any mother anywhere on the tiger-to-earth spectrum begin to quiver in her espadrilles. It's the first round of the school process, and it's intimidating. In small towns and more manageable cities, preschool admissions don't loom with the menace they do in New York. Here, it's the first round of a many-tiered fight, with quality education, a seemingly scarce resource, as the prize.
The application process is all the more intimidating for me, a single mother by choice, who recently attended a panel discussion on the topic, where I seated myself among a gathering of sophisticated couples. Granted, it was mostly the mothers who took frantic notes during the session while the fathers tickled their Blackberries, but those women had a companion by their side, and when an education consultant on the panel encouraged applicants to make certain both parents attended the school interview, I felt a new wave of panic overwhelm me.
Just about every imaginable fear surfaced as I inched my way toward the decision to have a baby on my own. I knew I was hardly the first to make the choice. It even seemed like a growing trend, what with magazine covers informing us, "Jen Wants a Baby!" But what Jen wanted had no bearing on my fear of how my world would judge me, or how I would now be perceived: a failure, the one who couldn't get a man, forever lonely, doomed to lifelong single status. Plus, what if these fears proved true? Was this choice a final verdict on my worthiness as a mate? Would I be blowing my opportunity for a normal family life? Worse, what kind of assumptions would be made about my child? Would he be pitied automatically?
Even when I would quiet those fears, I'd then anticipate all the additional challenges I would face, and I'd envision all the occasions that would fan the embers of those lingering concerns. I had a feeling I'd be the only single on the tour of my hospital's maternity ward, and I was. I had a feeling travel with my infant son would be challenging, and it is. I have a feeling parent/teacher conferences will be difficult. We'll see.
But then there are the unexpected zingers, like sitting in the audience of the panel, listening to my frenzied thoughts, "I'll be at a disadvantage on my applications. My son won't have the opportunities a two-parent child would have because of my decision to go it alone. He's already screwed because of me and he's not even two!"
After the discussion ended a few of the panelists hung around to field the stray questions attendees didn't have the gumption to ask in public. I slinked up to two of the powerhouse women who had seemed the most commanding in their knowledge, one the administrator of a prestigious private school, and the other the education consultant. With a straight spine braced for judgment I declared that I was a single mother, and I wanted to know if the schools would count this against my son's application. It was the first time I introduced myself this way. It felt like coming out.
"You're the second woman to ask us that tonight," the consultant replied. I was shocked, and for a moment surprised by my attachment to being the only outcast there. "Don't sweat it one minute," she assured.
Then the administrator chimed in.
"Remember when I said that all schools in the city want to demonstrate diversity in their student body? Your situation diversifies the population. For all you know it will work to your advantage."
And just like that, I found myself part of the New Diversity, my scarlet letter a potential all-access pass. I can't say that all concerns have vanished, nor can I speculate as to whether the same degree of acceptance can be found in places beyond the confines of my downtown New York existence, but it did feel liberating to walk away with the knowledge that, along with the inevitable challenges, there may yet be gifts of recognition, opportunity, and welcome.
The sensation I felt in that moment reminded me of the puzzled-yet-curious expression on my son's face when I first put him in a pair of shoes. Neither of us was certain how to walk this way, but we are very much open to the experience.