Status quo

June 09,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Decisions are funny things; you agonize and agonize over them (if they are major ones), you toss and turn at night over them, analyzing the decision from every angle, turning it over to see the underside, then sling-shotting it far into the future so you can examine it there and wonder whether it will have some dire unforeseen impact that will wreak irrevocable damage, thus altering the course of the future forever. At least I do all these things--maybe I'm just obsessive that way. I don't remember agonizing over decisions this much when I was single, or even when I was married. I did give major decisions some thought, but it seemed easier somehow to reach a decision back then--it was more of a peaceful process. What I have noticed now that I am a parent is that big decisions related to my children tend to throw me into a frenzy of worry. We make them in the end, but the process is long, intense, and involves a lot of information-gathering. When you're a parent you can get paralyzed by the possible outcomes and options--it's one thing to make a decision affecting only yourself; quite another to make a decision affecting your fragile and still-growing kids. For always, always ahead in the afterward of a decision is the spectre of the Wrong Decision. The one that will send your kid into therapy for the rest of their lives. ************ For months now we've agonized over what to do with L.'s schooling for next year. Since last summer we felt assured that T. would go to our neighborhood school. In this area it is very rare to find a neighborhood where a large number of kids all go to that neighborhood school. The sheer number of magnet and charter options around here have diluted the concept of a neighborhood school, and I think this is sad. But we're lucky: we moved into an older, established neighborhood where there happens to be a large number of rising kindergarteners who will start at our base school this fall. T. knows most of them, and almost all of them are on her swim team this summer. A large number of those same kids will then move on to the same middle school, and maybe even to the same high school, who knows? But we knew in our bones that this type of environment would work well for T. She would be successful in a larger school, with more going on, and the chance for larger social groups and after-school clubs and activities. And apart from one week in which we flip-flopped a bit about our decision, we've felt pretty good about it. But L., L. is a different story. We struggled so much with this past year that we seriously considered pulling him out of his current school and moving him to our neighborhood school. We spent (and I'm not kidding here) about six months information-gathering: asking the opinions of the people who work with him, visiting the new school, meeting with prospective new teachers, polling current parents there, making lists of pros and cons, and catapulting the decision into the future so we could examine all the possible after-effects. Wrestling with that decision was one of the most difficult, time-consuming, and mentally and emotionally-challenging things I've done in a long, long time. But while we the parents spent the year seeing the many things that were not working--while we were spending our time so engrossed in what was wrong--we were also blinded to what was working. Sometimes when you are decision-making you can only see the negative things, at the expense of those poor good things that end up shuffled to the side. L.'s school is not perfect, but I would venture to guess that no school is, really. Maybe T.'s school will end up being not so perfect, either. Maybe it would have been a great place for L., too. Maybe L.'s school would have worked for T. Maybe ten years into the future we will look back into the past and wish we'd made a different decision. Maybe. But sometimes you have to work with what you do have, because that's the only certain thing around. And what we do have are two different schools: one for T., and one for L.; one that is right for him. A place where he is appreciated and understood, even if we have not always agreed with the methodology. It's a place where L. has spent years building up his understanding of the social world around him, and where others have spent years building up their understanding of L. I think for me it clicked into place on Friday when I sat in a beach chair, the waves foaming up around my ankles, and I watched L. jumping and shouting in the waves, happiness shining up from him like a light. I realized that we parents--no matter who we are or what we deal with--will always--always--feel that tug and pull between what we wish for our children, and what the world gives them; what we expect of others on their behalf, and the reality of what others can give out. We will lie awake and toss and turn and fret and wring our hands. But in the end, there is little we can guarantee. There will never be any decision we can make that won't have, along with it, tied little stings of regret and what-ifs. For now, knowing we can do more by staying put, rolling up our sleeves and continuing on with the hard work seems the right choice; as does knowing we have not completely upset L.'s world next year--the one that sometimes seems so precarious and fragile it could crack in an instant.