Traditional work environments and schedules, while fairly straight-forward in their structure and demands, give rise to… agitation in me. I’ve always been ‘good’ at the desk jobs I’ve had—much like I was always ‘good’ at school—but I’ve also had the sense that being ‘good’ at those things was 90% bullshit and 10% outsmarting the system. There’s a limit to the value that can emerge from that kind of combination. Luckily, some people foster real passion within the structure of a nine-to-five, and others (also luckily) erect some other kind of structure, and then fidget and fiddle with the pieces until things feel relatively right.

I’m now in the latter category, as is Aaron—he’s never had an office job, even as filler. I have a part-time job with a flexible schedule (slash boss), and we both do freelance work. We’ve been splitting our days and tag-teaming nights for a year, since moving to Austin, fitting work and life around each other like some kind of thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. Juggling 100% DIY kiddo-care with work, finances, marriage and what remains of our individual selves/passions/pursuits (just kidding… sort of… the important parts do remain) we’ve landed upon a happy, sometimes stressful, but ultimately liberating chaos that has benefited us, and—most notably—our son. In exchange for frequent late work nights, which aren’t ‘all that’ at all when you’ve been up since dawn, we’ve had the opportunity to split daytime Kaspar-watch right down the middle (I do mornings, Aaron’s on in the afternoons). As a result, our relationships with him are built on strong foundations and rooted in closeness. It’s been worth it, without question, and it’s what I imagined when dreaming up our move to Austin a year ago.

Looking ahead to the coming fall, though, we realized that the time might be upon us when we introduce some childcare into the mix. Both of our schedules will kick up a notch or ten beginning in September, and while we could continue to juggle in the way that we have been, perhaps hiring a babysitter for those times when we’re both expected elsewhere, that option just isn’t very viable, or appealing, anymore. Having some portion of the day when we can both attend to the things we need to (I’ll be attending class in the mornings this fall, and Aaron will be working) will mean that we’ll be able to organize our remaining time in a much less frenetic manner. Kaspar, too, has lately been showing all signs of readiness to branch out from our foundation. He loves playdates and is fascinated with other kids, and is just Mister Interactive—he’s exploring everything within his environments, and a positive, engaging childcare setting will probably be just his speed.

So, where to start with that?

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I have some reservations about daycare, in general. I started reading the book The War on Moms about a year ago, with the intent to review it, but called my editor halfway through to let her know I couldn’t handle it. It’s a great book—it really sheds light on America’s shortcomings in terms of infrastructural support for families of all kinds (whereas European countries, and even many much less economically or politically stable nations, have done a much better job than we have. Boo, hiss on that, USA). But it freaked me out, as a new mom, to read about the reality of some of my greatest fears. Included among these is the fact that some 90% of childcare settings in the United States are subpar. In New York, good (or any) childcare was debilitatingly expensive. We researched some more affordable, highly rated options in Austin before moving, including some places that allow for flexible drop-off schedules outside of normal working hours, and are set up with freelancer parents in mind. Now that the time came to choose from the available options, though, I wanted to see what was out there that would really nurture Kaspar’s emerging sense of himself and the world around him. I wanted him to have consistency, and to have teachers with whom he can form strong relationships, too, who’ll respect him as a real person, pint-sized or otherwise (not to mention adequately handle his food allergy precautions). I remember adults talking to me in less coherent sentences than I was able to think within my head, as a young child, and I can’t help but wonder if my ‘bullshit’ sensors (and reverb) kicked in then. Sure, the ability to bullshit served me well in traditional classroom settings, where sitting quietly in rows and answering questions by rote trains kids for cog-like functionality later on (hello, cubicles), but the fact is that I’m not a cog. None of us are. What would our world be like if we didn’t have to relearn how to be human beings?

Granted, that’s getting kind of out there in philosophy-land. But it felt somehow relevant as we contemplated childcare settings for our child. I’d heard of Montessori and Waldorf schools (and have friends who attended both, and still remember those experiences as incredibly formative and all-around fantastic), but I didn’t really know any of the nuts and bolts of either approach to education. I got the book The Parents’ Guide to Alternatives in Education—a thorough and accessible resource that covers a HUGE range of options outside of the typical educational model—and discovered that the Montessori educational philosophy is not only geared toward children as young as Kaspar’s age (although elementary schools are beginning to crop up worldwide), but also that this philosophy completely resonates with my gut instincts around child development, and adults’ roles in the process. 

According to the Guide, Maria Montessori, the woman whose philosophy the Montessori educational approach is based upon, observed that (and here the book paraphrases) “children by nature want to develop their potential and assume an independent identity and role in the world… The young child... is largely a being of the sense organs. The child has to experience the world through the senses, must be able to touch, see, hear and smell in order to grasp a concept.” Can I get an A-men to that? My gut feelings around school environments and work environments are one in the same; they make me antsy because they don’t really seem ideal for the development of human potential. They seem removed and sterile, deadening to the senses. Maybe this is good for some people’s focus, but, particularly for kids, I don’t think it’s ultimately very good for minds. Or spirits. Turns out the Montessori philosophy also maintains that “young children have… ‘absorbent minds’ that take in and ‘incarnate’ everything from their surroundings. Thus the school (and the home) should be beautiful and inviting.” This rings true for me, loud, bright and clear.

Turns out it rings true for a lot of other parents, too. Montessori schools continually crop up all over America, but waiting lists are long. I kinda dropped the ball on the whole getting-on-the-list-when-Kaspar-was-in-utero race, too. I thought it totally ridiculous in New York and thought it might be different here, but have had other moms go from smiling and friendly to arm-wrestling ready at the mention of their coveted charter elementary school’s admissions lottery (even though their kids are still in diapers… True story… It’s best not to bring these things up). Still, I contacted a Montessori that’s about three miles from our new house (and that some local parents have told me is wonderful), earlier this summer, in the hopes that they might have a space become available for the fall. They got back to me, said one might be opening up. Low and behold—six weeks later-- it did!

We went and met the school’s director, as well as the Young Children’s Community teachers, last week. My jaw dropped as soon as we stepped through the gate. They had me at the garden. Then the classroom. OMG. All I could think was, “Can I get a do-over on my own education?” (which was priviledged and New Englandy and nothing to scoff at). Kaspar became immediately comfortable with his teachers. We were just head over heels for the whole operation. Even Aaron, when we left, said, “I love it.” They’re all about creating an environment that allows the kids to assume their ‘independent identities’. They don’t speak to the kids in baby-talk. The kids eat from real plates and drink from real glasses. They choose what they’d like to do for their “work” each day, within the structure of a consistent schedule. They also begin toileting as soon as they arrive (we’re going for it, people), patiently and respectfully encouraging body awareness and communication skills. This is all just newly-introduced, in-a-nutshell info, but all in all we just got a great feeling from the place, and wanted to enroll ourselves. So Kaspar will get to go in our stead. Lucky him.

He’ll be on the young end of the class, which is composed of kids from 18 months to three years old, and he’ll only be attending for three and a half hours a day (mornings), while I’m in class. On a normal day, I’ll drop him off (we’re doing a ‘phase in’ when we return from a quick summer vacation in a couple of weeks), and then Aaron will pick him up. When I get home, I’ll do lunch, put him down for a nap, get some work done, and then be back on momtime when he wakes up an hour later. There are some days that I’ll need to go in to work, in person, and others when I’m in class all day, but because Aaron will have had those mornings to do his thing, it’ll be less stressful for him to pick up the slack. And, I’ll still usually get my afternoons with Kaspar, which I’ve loved, and which are important to me. I know that from here, he’ll only get bigger, and become more independent, and that’s what I want for him. But I also want to savor his little-self as much as I can. I’ll probably still work late on most nights, but I’m used to it. Sleep is for sissies. (Actually, sleep is really important for your body and mind, and we should all snag as much as we can.)

Sending Kaspar to his new school, even on this minimal schedule, is definitely going to constitute a huge expense for us. I’d initially inquired as to whether we might be able to do four days instead of five, pay a bit less, contribute some of our skills in exchange for a lesser tuition cost, or some combination of those compromises, and the director seemed open to working with us. Then another family had an unexpected job loss, and the scholarship funds were funneled to them. I think the school still would have been willing to work with us (most Montessori schools are non-profit organizations, fun fact), but we looked long and hard at our budget and figured we can probably do this. We’re doing it. We’ll eat a lot of red beans and rice and see how it goes. The good news is that if we go to full-time (8:30 to 3), it’ll only be, like, $100 more per month. So making this work will mean we can make future arrangements work without having to go to full-time desk jobs, or win the lottery (my backup plan). And, this school is about to start a kindergarten program, and will possibly grow elementary grades on top of that, so Kaspar can potentially stay with them for many years yet. Our incomes will increase in the coming year or so as we both wrap up some of this education stuff (hello, cash tips for massage!), so if we can hack it financially now, we’ll be good to go moving forward.

Anyway, we’ve got some real Montessori love goin’ on, and are quickly getting up to speed on the ins and outs of the school and its roots. I mentioned to Kaspar’s lead teacher that we’re moving to a new house, and intend to set things up in as toddler-friendly a way as we can. She offered, on the spot, to come over and help us do that. Awesome, right? Montessori room design comin’ at ya in future posts. In the meantime, we’ve got a vacation to take (leaving next Wednesday for the New Hampshire lakes region. I’ll blog remotely; have no fear). We’ll be back to Texas when the weather cools off, partially-potty-trained and ready to jump in to this fall full of fortuitous changes.

Have you explored alternative daycare, preschool or other education options for your kids? Do you have any experience with Montessori in particular? What about other programs? I'm really fascinated with the variety of approaches out there. Tell me about what's working for you.
Erin O
08/12/2011 15:53

Yes! I was reading along thinking, Montessori, Montessori and you did it! I think you and Kaspar will love it. My 5 year old was in a fabulous Montessori preschool from age 2 and 1/2 through this past July. We had intended to put her in regular public school kindergarten this fall, but were so happy with the Montessori education and what it did for her that she is going to be continuing on with it. We are incredibly fortunate that there is a program here in Northern CA called the California Montessori Project which provides tuition free Montessori charter schools for K-8th graders. We put our daughter's name in the lottery and she got in! Starts next Wednesday. So, so excited. I hope this goes wonderfully for you guys and Kaspar as well. Oh, and the teacher coming over to help you set up the room for him -- DO IT! Our preschool offered a seminar on how to set up your house for your toddler, and I can not tell you the difference it made for all of us. Giving her the independence to do things for herself was huge! They can do so much, even as little people and Montessori helps them do it. So, yay, yay! Don't hesitate to e-mail me if you have any questions about Montessori. Good luck!!

04/09/2012 23:20

Awesome post! Everything I desired summarised in a very short way. In my opinion it’s the most amazing work I have never read

08/15/2011 11:42

Thanks Erin! I'll definitely let you know if we have questions-- and yeah, we're so down for the room design consult from K's teacher. Super excited for that. And this whole Montessori thing in general (if that wasn't clear in the post, haha). The Montessori Project sounds amazing (and congrats on winning the lotto on that)! We're crushing on Northern CA these days... just keep hearing about stuff like that. There's been some talk about starting a charter Montessori in Austin, and in fact the woman who started Kaspar's new school has been contacted by parents and other preschool owners to get her involved. It'd be lottery admissions-based, as well, so there's no guarantee that those peoples' kids would get to attend, even if they put in two years of work to get it up and running. Sounded like the woman running K's school was game for it anyway-- I'm going to keep an ear out, and, if the project gets under way, try to help make it happen. More kids need schools like this! So glad there are already-working public models for others to go on. Can't wait to hear what your experience is like this year.

Ellen W
08/15/2011 18:25

Our older son went to a Christian Montessori preschool for two years (we currently live in Billings, MT) and loved it. It was one of the more expensive options but I think it was worth it. He will be starting public school kindergarten next week and hopefully the transition will be smooth. His Montessori school goes up to 6th grade, but financially it didn't make sense when we have a well regarded public school just over a mile away. We're hoping to move to Austin within the next 6 months, so I'll be researching preschools for our younger son who will be in preschool next fall.

02/15/2013 17:12

How many days a week did your son go to Montesorri? The Montessori school down the road from is does not offer a part time program. My daughter went two morning a week at age three and three morning a week at age four. I was hoping the Montessori school would have a similar offering. They said the child really needs to be there everyday to benefit. Just curious what others have experienced.

05/16/2012 23:23

Good post. I will add bookmark on your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon..

09/17/2013 12:36

Can you please share which Montessori school you found? I'm looking for a good part time program


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