For the good of the family….

I reread the email several times, wishing I could take a shot of vodka or something similarly strong before hitting Send.  After several months of waiting to see if we’d be winners in the Boston Public School lottery (we were) and in the Brookline housing market (we weren’t), the time had come for me to email Bree’s current school and let them know that we are moving her to Boston Public preschool in the fall.

I should feel very happy about the money we’ll be saving with two kids out of private, full-time (gold plated) daycare, but instead feel an incredible heaviness in my heart.

Bree has been going to this school since she was three months old.  It is all that she knows.  Over the first four years of her life, she has had some of the best teachers I’ve ever seen, and we have gotten to know some of the nicest families I’ve ever met.   Many of her best friends have already moved up to Pre-K as she’s a few months younger than they are (damn Fall birthdays!) and I don’t think it’s fully sunk in that she won’t be joining them in September.  We’ve been talking to her for several months about this possibility, even taking her to an Open House to visit her new school.  I’ll never forget her reaction when she walked into that empty classroom (which oddly reminded me so much of my old elementary school in Northfield, NH).  Instead of running around excitedly, she stepped in, stopped in her tracks and wheeled around, informing Patrick and I that “this is BAD!”  She sat on my lap during the Principal’s presentation, her big blue eyes wide as she watched her future classmates, some who weren’t even three yet, tearing the library apart, pulling books from the shelves, knocking over art supplies (and to my shock, USING the art supplies, which were not set out for our use).  Most of the other parents didn’t even try to stop their children, and I walked away from the whole thing wondering, what did I get our family into?

But I kept a big smile on my face that day, telling Bree that her school was great.  And I do think it is a good school.  The curriculum is focused on reading, and most kids are reading before they enter “real” kindergarten.   But do I believe that it’s the best place available for my daughter?  I’m not so sure.  So here’s the conundrum that we all face as parents – how and when do you make decisions that are right for your individual child versus for the good of the family?   If you are fortunate enough to have various childcare and/or school options, when do you decide that you’ll settle for “good enough” for one child in order to save your family a little bit of money?

While I’m sad that Emma is also moving on to a new school, I do not have the same concerns about her.  I know that I could drop Emma off in any environment, and she’d be just fine.  Emma has always had a preternatural and somewhat eerie confidence and independence about her so that on the times when she does have a breakdown/tantrum or admits some fear, I have to remind myself that oh yes, you are only five.  I also feel like I know more about Emma’s school and am confident that she’ll learn all the right things in Kindergarten.

Perhaps I don’t give Bree enough credit, but since the day she has been born, she has been an incredible force in our family – both in a joyous and a terrifying way.   At her best, she is utterly charming, completely amusing, and empathetic to her friends who are sad.  But she’s also very sensitive to how others treat her.  It breaks my heart when she tries to engage in a game with Emma, who just shrugs her off.  And for a while recently, she was having “bad drop offs” at her current school – crying and screaming when I leave, “Mommy, please don’t leave me!”  I’m sure at least part of it is an act.  At least that’s what I tell myself when I head to work.

Many people say that transitions like this are harder on parents than they are on children.  Maybe I’m just overly sensitive because I moved around a lot as a child, and hated the transition between schools. I made the decision that I would try to minimize the number of times the kids move. Maybe I won’t actually be able to control it; we’ll see. I love the idea of friends growing up together!  Bree is excited to go to her new school.  We let her pick out a new backpack and lunchbox (Brave/Princess Merida, unfortunately the “jazzed up” version).  We’ve made plans for her to continue activities with her “old” friends to maintain those relationships.  And since my job is the parent here, I will continue to keep up the big smile and the encouraging words and try to keep the faith that it will all work out in the end.

But will I be able to hide my tears at next week’s “Stepping Up” day at school?   We shall see…

Bree School

And with a single envelope, our family’s future has changed…

Whomever wished us luck over St. Patrick’s Day weekend – thank you!  No, we weren’t lucky with the house search.  We were outbid AGAIN for a great place!!!  For a great three bedroom outside of Coolidge Corner!!!  Emma could’ve gone to Devotion School!!!  Ughhhhhhhh…..

The Boston Public School lottery results arrived that weekend.  And whether it was Irish luck, or because someone randomly pulled a government connection we didn’t realize we had, both Emma and Bree got into good public schools.  Emma got into the Josiah Quincy school in Chinatown, and Bree got into an Early Education Center/Pre-K program about a mile from our house (essentially free daycare!).   This news should have been met with pure happiness, as this is the luckiest thing that’s happened to us in some time.  Maybe it’s because the school search has been such an emotional rollercoaster or maybe just because I’m me, I freaked out.  Immediately, I assumed that Patrick would call off the house hunt, and sure enough, he had the audacity to suggest that we wait another year to buy to save up more cash.  I started to panic about staying here another year, and whether I did the right thing putting Quincy down for Emma instead of the Early Education Center or the Lyon School…Once cooler heads prevailed, we both agreed that we’d still look for a new place.  Now that we have a decent school solution for the girls, we are no longer desperate buyers.  Just very, very eager buyers.  We have time to wait for just the right place.  We could even consider buying something in Boston, where we would get a lot more for our money.  And while I’m not sure that one year will really help all that much in terms of saving money, we hope that our child care costs will go down at least a little.

Like many parents with children still in full-time daycare, we didn’t realize that care for school age children is still really expensive.  There’s before school care (Emma’s new school starts at 9:20 – what’s up with that???), after school care (most schools are out by 2:30/3:30 p.m.), summer camp (no, I’m not talking the situation I always dreamed about growing up – sleepaway camp in a mountain cabin retreat for the summer – I’m talking about the weekday “camps” working parents drop their kids off at over the summer), school vacation camps, etc.  I can practically hear you parents with school age children giggling at my naiveté.   Not to mention the million holidays schools are closed, snow days, sick days….come to think of it, school is only required to open 180 days a year….I’m no math major, but even I know that is less than half a year.  When I combine that with the fact that most people have to work more than five hours a day, I tend to believe that our current system is set up against working parents.

And if we do move into Brookline or Newton, we will have missed the deadline to sign up for before and after school care anyway.  A mom I met at Ballet on Saturday asked me why I didn’t JUST SIGN UP for before and after care in Brookline, and tell the schools that I’d be moving there soon…I had to explain that I don’t even live in Brookline, I live in Boston.  If they didn’t really check on residency, wouldn’t everyone try signing up???  Apparently she signed up for all SEVEN programs offered by Brookline even though she still hasn’t closed on the apartment they just bought.  Hmmmph!  One nice surprise about the Boston Public School system is that there are people working at the schools called City Connects Student Coordinators whose job it is to support families, including helping parents navigate care options.  While I was in the midst of my freak out, this really nice woman emailed me and Patrick with a few options for Emma including a before school orchestra where she could learn to play violin or cello.

I am quickly coming to the one conclusion I’ve been dreading – we are going to have to get a babysitter.   I will not detail here my feelings about leaving one person alone with my children for extended periods of time, but I will openly admit that I have NEVER had someone unrelated to me by blood or marriage watch my children outside of group day care for longer than 20 minutes.   And there’s a reason for that.  How much would it cost to install Nanny Cam in every room?  Plus, my house is the saddest place on earth, and I hate having to subject my children to it, much less inviting a stranger into the chaos.

But it is what it is, and while I know I’m not the first parent to struggle with this issue, I do wish I had known all this going in.  Perhaps I would’ve chosen a different career path or would’ve saved money more wisely.  Luckily, I don’t have to figure it all out tonight, sir, so I’m just gonna hang with my daughters.  Note to Patrick:  that’s a play on a movie quote.  But in the meantime, it’s good to know I don’t have to break out my old waitressing apron anytime soon to pay for private school tuition.  And that if we don’t find the perfect place to live by the Fall, it’s not going to be the end of the world.

Real estate wars

“I don’t think I’m ready to give up city living,” Patrick said to me last week, as we were contemplating putting in an offer on a great townhouse in Newton.  This took me by surprise as he never really was a “city person” and I’ve always suspected that he resented the fact that I dragged him here.  But then I thought maybe he’s finally fallen in love with the same part of the city that I have!  Several years ago, when Patrick and I first moved to Allston from our place in West Newton, we set out to explore Coolidge Corner, a Brookline neighborhood just a ten minute walk away.  As we neared the town center, we could see that a crowd was forming on the elementary school lawn.  Then, we heard a familiar female voice.  We looked at each other.  Could that be….Kay Hanley, the lead singer of Letters to Cleo?  It was!  She was performing a free concert as part of Brookline’s 300th anniversary.  And Buffalo Tom was set to take the stage later that day.  All sorts of people, college-age kids, families and young children were there, dancing.  That’s when I first realized what a special place Brookline was.  I started to notice old couples, walking hand in and hand and pictured Patrick and I spending the rest of lives here.

Three kids and almost eight years later, we have built a wonderful community of friends and families through our Coolidge Corner school/daycare many of whom live in the neat brownstones lining the streets.  Attending playdates at our friends homes has allowed us a peek into their lives and how we too could be living.  Popping into Panera on virtually any day at nearly any time means that we’ll bump into at least 2-3 families we know.

North Brookline is truly the best of both worlds; it is urban living in leafy neighborhoods.  You have the T, you have the bus, you have a CVS on every corner. Who needs a yard when you have your choice of a million playgrounds within a short walk? Restaurants, bars and shops?  Got it!  Dunkies or Starbucks?  Yup, and a few other coffee shops too!  In the summer, you have free family concerts and movies in the parks.   Do you have children?  If so, you can’t swing a dead rat without hitting a fantastic school.  What don’t you have in Brookline?  Trash on the streets, for one thing.   Brookline takes pride in its public works and it’s not unusual to see ride-on street sweepers driving up the sidewalks during the morning commute.  I went running one morning and nearly stepped on a (dead) rat, and it was gone by the time I was returning home.  Yes, there is crime.  Read the Brookline police blog sometime and all you’ll hear is shoplifting, shoplifting, not stopping at a stop sign, and more shoplifting.  But you don’t often hear about violent crime or murder in Brookline.  It is city living but with clean streets, excellent schools and relative safety.  We live two streets over from the Brookline/Boston line, and it’s like two different worlds.

However, there couldn’t be a worse time to buy in Brookline.  There is very little inventory on the market, which means there will be multiple bids submitted on the day of the first open house.  It’s not for the wishy-washy.  Like buying soup from a certain vendor on the TV show Seinfeld, you’d better know exactly what you want, quickly place your order, then shuffle down the line to wait.  But if it were only that simple!  People engage all sorts of strategies to get the winning bid – dropping contingencies (including inspection, can you imagine??), offering a 30% down payment or even PAYING CASH.  Seriously, if you have $600k just sitting around in cash, why the hell are you looking at these dinky apartments???  Then, there is always the sympathy vote – people sending letters to the sellers telling them how much they love the property, including pictures of their babies (I’ve even heard of people submitting a picture of their babies taken inside the open house – kind of weird).

Looking for a new place is like having a part-time job – studying the Redfin alerts all week, carefully planning our Open House strategy, researching the schools and before-and-after care, constant calls and emails with our Broker trying to get some inside scoop.  We go through the whole analysis on a weekly basis – do we move to the suburbs to buy something affordable, but then tack on significantly increased commuting time and cost and somehow having to coordinate the kids various drop off and pick up?  By the way, what’s up with school starting at 8:30 or later?  And no, I don’t consider 4-6 hours to be “full day Kindergarten!”  How do people actually work, especially if you work over an hour away?  Assuming we do find a good school solution for Emma, the smart thing to do would be to  wait another year, and save up some more money.  But that also means staying in this neighborhood with the constant parties and vandalism, the guy in the building who can’t seem to stop smoking pot in the common areas during the day, and in this horrible apartment with a kitchen not big enough for two adults to make breakfast in.   There’s the fact that I promised myself that I wouldn’t be here for another September move in, and particularly not with the same futon I’ve had for 20 years.  And the sad fact that I’d just like to live somewhere I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have people visit us.  I’m a 37-year-old mother of three with a successful career living like a poor college student.

Didn’t win Powerball tonight, so I guess it’s onward with the search.