The day my first kid was born, my husband stepped out into the hallway at the hospital and dialed a Montessori school in town, to put our newborn on their waitlist for admission. Three and a half years later, Finn finally got into the school. And I’ve been stepping in it, both literally and figuratively, ever since.
It is an amazing place. I once saw Tate’s teacher get tears in her eyes while talking about how much she enjoyed working with the twelve toddlers in her class. From joy. I have a good radar for emotional fakery, and she wasn’t faking it. I feel incredibly fortunate that my kids spend their days with extraordinary teachers who care that much about them.
It’s not the teachers (“guides”), or even my children. The problem is me. I have no previous experience with Montessori schools, so the language of Montessori and the unspoken rules are utterly foreign to me. For instance, because Montessori is fundamentally a practical, work-based approach to education, “pretending” of any sort is generally out. In my family’s day to day life, what that boils down to is this: no costumes, no books involving imaginary characters (talking animals), and no clothes depicting characters.
I try to toe the line at home, but it’s hard. My kids spend 75% of their time at home pretending to be Batman, and given that they are children, I imagine they reveal a lot of their active fantasy lives at school, foiling my desperate attempts to convince their teachers that I’m bona fide. At home, my 27-month old (Tate) is regularly armed with a foam sword or plastic light saber. I cannot stop it. It is simply not stoppable. I took the weapons away once and he started using our chopsticks–which, it turns out, are a lot sharper than foam or plastic.
I picture Tate at school, impaling his buddies on imaginary swords, and fervently hope that he is keeping the make-believe on the DL during school hours, but I fear it’s not happening. I also fear that he’s showing off his new verbal skills by shouting his favorite words (“good guy,” “bad guy,” “Chewbacca”) to all passerby.
Montessori is not big on TV. My kids watch TV sometimes. And I imagine everyone at school is aware of that fact, given that my five-year old (Finn) has a keen ear for music and mimicry that these days, mostly retains TV jingles. If he’s singing at school what he sings at home, his teacher is hearing a lot of the Sprout jingle and voiceovers for Zhu Zhu pet ads. Outed again.
Back at the school, I do a lot of pretending of my own. I pretend that I have it together, that things are under control, that I’m living the Montessori dream and loving it. But I’m failing miserably, and I’m pretty sure everyone can tell. Every time I enter the school to pick the boys up, I square my shoulders and give myself a little pep talk: “I’m a good mom. I’m a good mom.” And then I go in and spend ten minutes chasing Finn in laps around the playroom while the other parents watch. I know what they’re thinking: they’re wondering how bad things can be at our house that my kid doesn’t want to go home.
If the chase goes well, Finn will lose speed after a few laps and I can get close enough to hiss that there’s a granola bar in it for him if he will just GET IN THE CAR. If it goes poorly, I have to kick it into turbo and grab his arm firmly enough that he will inevitably yell “YEEOW MOM YOU’RE HURTING ME!!!” loudly enough for the entire school to hear. And that’s usually when the image of Maria Montessori turning in her grave pops into my brain.
It’s not like I don’t try. I do. I watch amazing parents like my friends Suzanne and Mollyanne, who sew napkins for the class, or can get their children to stop doing something by calmly saying, “that’s not available.” I want in that club like you wouldn’t believe. But the harder I try, the worse it goes. I actually thought hard about Finn’s Bruce Lee t-shirt, which he really wanted to wear, and which depicted a realistic image of Bruce Lee (not a cartoon). Thought it would pass the mustard, especially since Bruce Lee was a) a real person, and b) an Asian and therefore diverse. No dice. When I picked him up, Finn’s shirt was on inside out, a silent protest. Or when I baked healthy banana bread in mini cupcake molds and carefully packed one in Finn’s lunch. At pickup, Finn handed me his lunchbox, looked at me sternly, and said, “no cupcakes, Mommy.”
If I sucked this bad at my job, I’d quit. But it’s my kids. I can’t quit them. So I do it wrong, pick myself up, and try again. That, to me, is what parenthood is all about: getting your teeth kicked in and smiling through the blood. I’ll keep at it, and one day, I’ll look at my boys and see two confident and self-reliant citizens of the world, and there’s no question it will have been worth it.