By Leslie Bruce
I was your worst nightmare.
When it came to preschool hunting, I was that insane mother touring campuses with a 5-month-old at home and an excel spreadsheet to track every communication, every remark, every philosophy and every important deadline for more than a dozen of Los Angeles’ finest early childhood programs. I joined four different “parent and me” classes, sent handwritten notes to directors and even did a consultation with a known Los Angeles “preschool guru.” (Yes, that’s apparently a thing.)
Fortunately for most, this sort of erratic behavior is only common in cities like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco where the admissions process for three-year-olds (or should I say “2.9-year-olds by September 1st of the corresponding school year”) is tantamount to most four-year colleges and universities.
As a first time mom, I felt wildly unprepared for the actual care-taking of a newborn. My background was in journalism, where hunting down stories, working under intense deadlines and relentlessly networking was how I got the job done. Needless to say, when I heard about the ultra-competitive L.A. preschool process, I figured that was where I could make up for my many shortcomings when it came to the more “maternal” aspects of motherhood.
Ultimately, I just wanted to do what was best for my daughter and since I had a hard time transitioning into motherhood, I decided to focus on the things within my control—like finding a preschool that could provide a strong, positive foundation as she grew into a little person.
So…I drank the preschool Kool-Aid and as many of my mama friends can attest, I got totally caught up in the rat race.
What’s worse? Most preschool administrators—save for a few wonderful, compassionate directors—had no problem fanning the flames of parental anxiety with terms like: “waitlist, sibling priority, date of application.” I feverishly filled out applications and handed over checks to just about every school I visited. On top of being an expensive ordeal, it also became incredibly time consuming.
Of course, there were a handful of moms who had walked this path before and had assured me that every child ends up where he or she belongs, and that there were more good schools than children to fill them.
While I really wanted to believe the sentiment, I couldn’t rely on hope. Instead, I chose to sell my soul left and right just for the possibility of paying between $15,000 and $20,000 for my child to go to preschool for four hours, three to five days a week. (Unless it was a co-op in which case, it was more like $11,000, but that also required me to have “a school-appointed job and weekly campus possibilities.”)
After 18 long months of emails, toddler groups, interviews and tours, we had submitted applications to our “top choice” preschools. There was a sense of relief when the deadlines came and went, because now the decision was out of my hands. I had done everything I could to “set her up for success,” and all I could do now was wait…and drink.
And that’s when my world got flipped upside down. In January 2017, just weeks before preschool acceptance letters went out and just nine months before the start of school, we moved. It was sudden and rather unexpected, but our family had decided to relocate about 60 miles south of Los Angeles to Laguna Beach.
“Now what?” I asked my husband when it came to the topic of preschool. We would be starting from scratch in a new city where waitlists and application dates didn’t really seem to matter. How could I ever feel confident about sending my daughter to a school that didn’t have a waitlist? Who was the architect behind their on-campus play structure? What? They didn’t have one? It was a pre-fabricated playground?! Gasp! (For the record, L.A. likes the term “structure” because certain schools want the students to decide what it is for themselves and not have the teachers “define it” for them. Yep, you read that right.)
To add insult to injury, in early February, we received acceptance letters to two of our favorite programs. It was both exhilarating and soul crushing. I let the “Welcome” email to our first choice school sit in my inbox for three days before I mustered up the courage to write the lovely director a note telling her we had moved. It was the hardest break-up of my life, and I’m being completely genuine. I not only invested my time and money into finding the best program for my child, I also invested my heart. For me, it was a real accomplishment. I set out to find a wonderful school where my daughter could grow, learn and discover…and I had! I did it! It was an incredible school where I knew should would feel safe, comfortable and happy…but she’d never have the chance to actually go and experience it all.
Begrudgingly, I began the process of looking at preschools all over again in our new town…only this time I didn’t have the luxury of time. In fact, I appeared to be the last-minute parent rushing around touring preschools mere days before applications were due (or sometimes already past deadline). I felt rushed, disorganized and once again, like I was somehow letting my daughter down.
And you know what I found? Some really remarkable programs that I knew would be a wonderful place for my daughter. There wasn’t the pressure of “who do you know” and “how early did you apply”; it was a process where I met with teachers and visited schools, and decided what would be the best fit for my two and half year old. Back in 2015, I had no clue about what my then 5-month-old would need from a school…but I did know exactly where my toddler would thrive.
Ultimately, my husband and I decided on a lovely school with a huge outdoor garden, and even a few farm animals. While the administrators can’t promise me that she will one day matriculate to Yale and become the CEO of a Fortune 500, they can guarantee that they will care for my daughter, nurture her and treat her with respect and love. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
And back in LA? Literally every single one of my mama friends—both the early birds and the late to the party applicants—were accepted into a preschool program where their children will be happy, healthy and safe. It appeared that all the fear, pressure and anxiety that had been created around the preschool bubble were for naught.
A few weeks after acceptances went out, we even received a handful of calls from some of the self-proclaimed “ultra competitive” preschools that I had been terrified into submitting an application to while on tour (in 2015!). Figuring we never had a shot, I never followed up and hadn’t even thought to alert them of our move—and now they were calling to offer my daughter a spot. I mean…it really was all smoke and mirrors.
With that said, would I do anything different knowing what I know now? I’m sure, but even with the crazy rat race of it all, I was just doing, like many of you, what I thought was best for my child.
Sending our children off to preschool for the very first time is a big deal; we are releasing these beautiful little people into the world and charging someone else with the responsibility of their care. And I actually think it’s okay to be thorough and thoughtful about the process, but would have perhaps tried a little harder to keep everything in perspective. I mean, it’s preschool after all. What I learned through it all is that the best place for my child may not look like the inside of a restoration hardware catalog, and maybe doesn’t guarantee that she’ll be a doctor, but rather offers them a safe, loving place to be children under the care of teachers who really feel passionate about what they do.
With all that behind me, I can finally relax about the whole preschool ordeal and take a minute to enjoy our new town. After all, I won’t be looking into colleges for the 2032-2033 school year for at least another few months.