Stepmonster

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Letter from Manhattan: Why NYC Parents Freak in October

Why is October the cruelest month for parents in Manhattan?

April may have been deemed the cruelest month by Eliot. But parents of preschool and elementary school-aged children in Manhattan beg to differ: it's October that brings many of us to our knees.

I'm not talking about the days getting shorter, darkness that comes earlier and stays longer, the rush of back-to-school settling into the familiar and draining routine of getting them there every morning and picking them up every afternoon.

No, what's getting us down and then kicking us as we lie prone around here these days is a ritual known as ongoing school applications. Every year, parents all over this island who have decided that public school is not a great option for their kids apply to private and independent schools, and some selective "test-in" public schools, in the fall. For most, it is a rite of passage that, like the coop board interview, brings out our most primitive anxieties about who we are and whether we measure up. Even worse, it involves assessments of our children, something that can rattle us to our core.

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On the streets of the Upper East and Upper West Sides all month, expect to see little girls with big bows in their hair and boys in their mini-Boden splendor--accompanied by overdressed parents clutching lattes, scanning their blackberries with mildly suppressed looks of panic on their faces, their heads bowed as if going toward execution.

You can't blame them. It's been a long, hard slog, and it's only just begun.

Well, technically it started last winter and spring with ERBs, standardized tests for four-year-olds that too often stress both kids and their parents incredibly because so much rides on them. They are one important component of an entire application package that may also include letters from teachers and nursery school directors and essays by parents. "My kid is whip smart, all her teachers tell me, and it's just obvious," one mother told me. "But like me, she's a terrible test taker. Too bad it matters so much," she observed grimly. Other four-year-olds just have a hard time paying attention or taking the test seriously. After all, they're four. But the number of hours of sleep lost across the island of Manhattan the night before ERBs are administered might rival the figures on that scary national debt clock near Herald Square.

After ERBs comes the early fall phone call frenzy. The day after Labor Day, parents are speed dialing school admission offices (many families apply to ten schools) for an application. Busy signals prevail. In-laws, nannies and even friends get involved in the dialing process. Sometimes, one is dialing for the privilege of being put into a lottery for an application. "It's harder than getting a black Birkin bag at Hermes," one mother dryly observed. Next step: filling out ten or so lengthy applications, some at $90 per pop; and an average of three appointments per school application, including a school visit for the child, a parent tour, and a parent interview.

That's thirty appointments with your pre-schooler, most of them crammed into the space of October and November, almost invariably before work and school. Naturally and unfortunately, the appointments are so charged and harried that it's hard to make them fun. "My daughter was just so excited to go somewhere in a pretty dress with me and my husband, to meet teachers and be in a new classroom," one Manhattan mother and psychologist said to me, shaking her head. "But all I could do was worry about her getting her tights dirty and maybe saying the wrong thing. What a freaking waste."

It's not an earthquake, and that's important to keep in mind. No one is going to live or die over whether a child gets into a private school of his or her parents' choice. But it's not a reality that affects only a very neurotic few, as some argue. Indeed, private and independent school applications affect parents and kids in every income bracket across the city, as many schools offer financial aid and parents are keen, like parents everywhere, to get their kids the best education possible. For parents of children with learning disabilities and special needs--for whom there are fewer schools and fewer spots proportionally, such that one educational specialist told me off record, "It's harder to get a spot in a school for kids with LDs than to get a qualified high schooler into Harvard"--the pressure can feel unbearable.

The list of stressors is long and real, say therapists who work with these parents and their kids. And protracted stress takes its toll. " I have worked with many parents whose self esteem declines when they try to get their children into nursery school," says Rachelle Katz, Ed.D., Manhattan psychotherapist and author of The Happy Stepmother "While they know beforehand that the process is competitive and grueling, they still find it incredibly stressful and are affected in ways they did not anticipate." One couple Katz worked with-both of whom had graduate Ivy league degrees and figured their daughter was just as bright and sociable as the other kids applying-was shocked when their child was rejected by all five schools in their area. This rejection hurt them deeply, and personally. In fact, Katz recalls, "They were so worried that their child wouldn't have the opportunities they wanted for her, they decided to move to the suburbs for her education." While there are no figures on how many families leave Manhattan under the stress of "ongoing applications," listening to the stories, you learn that these parents were not exceptional in their decision to opt out.

And we can't just write it off to parents overreacting, says Manhattan psychoanalyst and mother of two Stephanie Newman, Ph.D., who points out that it's not merely internal but also external realities that come into play during the fraught application ritual and waiting period.

Owing to demographic shifts--in which more families stay in Manhattan rather than moving to the suburbs, and siblings get dibs on coveted spots that open up--the numbers are stacked against parents who want a school in their neighborhood, or one they know to be a good fit for their family and their educational philosophy. On top of this, Newman points out, "scarcity has psychological implications. Basically, in the school application process one is trying to join a group or system, and that can often entail feelings of humiliation and anxiety as you must adapt to fit in and make yourself vulnerable." Not to mention your child. "Your child is an extension of you, and putting a child out there for evaluation and assessment can be terribly stressful." Newman describes the entire process as "a narcissistic injury waiting to happen."

Meanwhile, all over Manhattan, parents are trying hard to keep it together. School applications are much scarier than Halloween, they might tell you. But they're too anxious to admit it, and too busy and stressed to talk.

 

Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., is the author of the book Stepmonster.

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