A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Iggy and I were buying dog food on our way to be induced at Shady Grove hospital. (Yeah! I know! Hemingway WISHES he had an intro like that!!) While checking out, Iggy got a phone call. It was from our number-one-choice, deliriously-unlikely, awesome-est daycare that took infants. And they had A SPOT. For US. They asked us if we wanted it and we screamed YES!! They then asked us when the child was born and we said “can you hold on just a second? Because if you wait a little, we might be able to tell you the exact time!”)
Elijah has been going to that daycare since 7 months old. It was a wonderful necessary evil in my life. By that I mean that it is the absolute best daycare around (and possibly ever, anywhere) that takes care of infants, and we were lucky to ever get a spot there, but still infants belong with Mom and having to send a baby of mine there broke my heart.
One of the ways I tried to deal with it, because you must, is to tell myself that this experience will make Elijah more social. “Look at me!” I would say to myself. “I am a pariah, socially speaking. Always preferred books to people, never any good at parties, never comfortable in a crowd, never had more than one friend. No doubt this is because I spent so much time at home with my Mom, being talked to like an adult, having no siblings or other children my age around and so never learning how to interact with my peers!! Elijah will be the life of the party. This will be good. He will have no choice but to be social!”
Elijah screamed through the entire 5 hours that I left him in daycare daily. The staff told me that much later. I didn’t know that at the time. I would pick him up, and they would say in careful tones “He is adjusting. Still adjusting. But he is ok!” When he turned 10 months, they told me that they used to be not sure he’d be able to stay in daycare at all; he cried all the time and was unconsolable, but now, at 10 months, they felt he finally was happy there! They asked me if I had taken him to play with more kids or something. They wanted to know what changed.
What changed (besides my wanting to punch them in the face for never telling this to me before) was that Elijah could now move. Specifically, he could move away from them to where he wanted to be. By himself. He wanted to be by himself and to do what he wanted to do. So much for the influence of “my time at home with just my Mom”. Turns out, it’s just the way I am. Turns out, it’s just the way he is too.
Since that time, I have watched him act more and more like me, and I have become more and more concerned. (If you have ever met me, and are reading this, no doubt you are growing more and more concerned too, because the last thing YOU need to deal with is two of me). I did not have an easy time in kindergarden or afterschool programs, or any unstructured social setting with a horde of other children. I took myself very seriously when I was little; I didn’t like playing pointless games, I didn’t like jumping around, I didn’t care to sing songs, hold hands and do hopscotch. I wanted to get something done. To learn something. To make something. To boss others around so they do something. (I know, I’m a really lovely person! Stop by my house anytime!) Nothing made me more frustrated than someone ordering me to go do something pointless just to take up time. I wanted every minute of my existing to have purpose and meaning, and to be toward some larger goal. I largely ignored childhood as an annoying waiting period before you become an adult and can actually get some shit done without weird people pushing a “nap time” or “play time” on you every freaking day.
But, even worse, I did not understand that being social was important. This is hard to explain. I am not introverted. I LOVE public speaking. I can be a ham in front of a crowd. I really like talking to other people and can approach a stranger with no problem. I like people. It’s groups that I don’t like. Or, rather, it’s not that I don’t like them; I just don’t feel the need to be part of them. Any of them. I could never be part of a club, religion or movement. Groups are not my thing.
And so, at a young age, when people would come to our house and ask my parents “Can Olya come play?”, I would calmly say “No, thanks” and stay at home. I said so because I was reading my book, and wanted to finish it. I was too young to understand, and no adult has ever explained to me, that this response will make everyone hate you, because you just dissed them. I didn’t have a clue; I thought I was just honestly answering their question. I did not realize that “Can you come play?” is also really asking “Do you like us?”. I had no clue that to other people group belonging is as important as life, and as natural as breathing. I was like a cat at a dog party. Predictably, and in very short order, most people began to line up on the spectrum of ignoring me to hating me, which bewildered and frightened me further into avoiding everyone, and so a very fun cycle began.
I am telling you this not just to make you weep and start a non-profit to help people like me (although feel free to fundraise!), but to motivate this scene in daycare: Elijah, by himself, in a corner, building a sophisticated LEGO city with apparent zoning and a sanitation system, while ALL the other children are throwing pillows around in the opposite corner. When a child comes over to engage Elijah, he gives the child a look (and sometimes one LEGO piece), moves and proceeds to ignore the kid. This repeated over, and over, and over. The funny thing is, kids love him. They want to play with him. They keep trying to engage with him. They follow him around. This, of course, annoys him.
I’m watching my Wombat do this and I want to scream at him about what will inevitably happen in a year, or two, if he keeps that up, but he is unreachable. He has no clue. How do you explain to a 2-year-old that his social future is in danger, that he is taking the natural goodwill that everyone has toward him, squandering it and setting off for a very bad cycle of becoming a misfit? Is it any easier to explain to his mother that she might just be completely off her rocker, that this might be a normal 2-year-old behavior and that her child may not become her after all? I know, this is the post of hard questions.
(Nathan, by the way, is not like that at all. Nathan loves company. In a month or two, when you come to our house, Nathan will be handing you a drink. I’m hoping to find a lot of new friends through him in the future.)
Given that I cannot turn my Wombat into a social butterfly, and that I cannot explain to him that he must, at least sometimes, act excited to be with other people for the sake of appearances, I decided I should at least try to make him stand out less. And so, as much as I love our daycare, I started looking into Montessori. Montessori is the individualistic learning method, where each child moves at his own pace, there are no mandatory group activities and you are expected to work, finish your work and make progress. It sounds awful, doesn’t it? Sounds like poor three-year-old doesn’t get any play time anymore and has to work. But I know that I would have LOVED such an environment when I was little. I had always wanted to work, to get something done, not to just play. Really strange: a preschooler who loves and wants deliberate practice. But that’s what I was, and that’s what Wombat seems to be.
I have visited every Montessori school in the nearby suburbs in the last 3 months. And I now have to decide whether to move schools or stay put. Because if I don’t make these decisions, how will Elijah find something to blame me for later? Better give him enough fodder for future things to say about his mother, don’t we think?
*This, of course, is a reference to a wonderful Kipling story. Read it to your kids tonight, because it is very, very sweet.