By Beth Eakman
It took me about a year after my husband left to feel like I’d regained something resembling control of my life. I had managed to scrape together a couple of regular freelance writing gigs and a part-time teaching position at the local community college that would give me a small but regular pay-check—and the regular part was going to do wonders for my mental health.
It had been rough. My kids, ages three and five at the time he left, had been profoundly freaked out and honestly I had, too. I was single again, which was weird. A lot of the people I’d thought were my friends had ditched me, everything had broken, and I’d burned through almost all of the savings that my ex and I had split up in our settlement. But as the bad first year was coming to a close, things were beginning to look up.
In late July, I got a phone call from one of the top Montessori schools in the nation. I’d put my daughter, Annika, on their wait list as soon as we’d moved to Austin and had completely forgotten about it. They had a last-minute first grade slot for her. Did we want it? My mother offered to pay the tuition.
The fantasy of becoming the working-mom who “does it all” shimmered like a beacon on the distant horizons of my imagination. I had emerged from the smoking ruin of marriage, kept my kids clean and fed, secured gainful employment, landed a boyfriend, and, as far as anyone outside my closest friends and the school registrar knew, could afford private school for my kids. We might be eating lentils and scrubbing the stains out of thrift-shop clothes inside the house, but those clothes were clean and pressed when we walked outside. I might not actually have a traditional family anymore, but I was doing a pretty good job of faking middle class.
My first major setback was Spud Day.
The Montessori school we joined requires an almost cult-like level of parental involvement. At the very first parent meeting, we all sat in a large circle in the classroom chairs that our first through third graders used during the day. Because I came from work and thus was not one of the first parents to arrive, I got one of the really tiny ones. I was wearing a fullish, knee-length skirt, which I had to wrestle the entire time because my knees were higher than my seat. I learned from the introductions that I was one of two single parents in attendance. The other was a teacher at the school.
We discussed the school’s philosophy. I’d been a Montessori preschool teacher in the handful of years between my undergrad and grad school, so I knew and was in full support of the method, which allowed me to space out a bit and focus on keeping my skirt tucked tightly under my legs, think about wearing flat shoes next time, and glance furtively at my watch, calculating how much the childcare was going to cost. After an overview of the history of Maria Montessori and her method, the meeting agenda went on to recommendations for supporting the Montessori education at home—televised news: bad! Branded clothing: horrible!
I was selective about the quality and amount of television my kids watched, but, in the words of my first single-mom friend, there are going to be days when television and potato chips are going to be your best friends. I made a mental note to cut back, but a full prohibition was out of the question.
This was the mid-2000s, probably the apex of the social trend of what one journalist has called “aspirational parenting.” It was a kind of child-raising philosophy that I had been totally down with when my kids were babies. We were the cloth-diapering, baby-wearing, breastfeeding, co-sleeping people who took parenthood very seriously, probably in reaction to our own find-yourself/me-generation parents, many of whom had had a much more casual philosophy.
A certain percentage of this population crossed the line from aspirational to competitive. You might use cloth diapers, but they grew and hand loomed their own organic hemp for their cloth diapers. You might support gentle discipline, but they considered making a recalcitrant youngster brush his teeth against his will child abuse. And, because this was Austin, there was an additional level of Competitive Earthiness.
Even with our organic textiles, homeopathic remedies, and mail-order composting worms, we Montessori parents weren’t barking lunatics like those Waldorf nuts. Heavens, no. They were a contingent who rejected recorded music in favor of folk songs sung by the family and manufactured toys in favor of baskets of pine cones. We were still a pretty aspirational bunch, though, and the discussion at the parents’ meeting was increasingly lively.
I kept my mouth shut, aware that I was lucky to be here, able to give my daughter—and later, my son—a top-notch education.
“Spud Day,” was one of the last few agenda items. Good.
Spud Day, it turns out, was an exciting treat for the children. Every Friday, parents should send a potato along with the rest of the daily healthy brown-bag lunch—no chips, crackers, or cookies. This potato should be scrubbed and poked multiples times with a fork. Apparently there had been an insufficiently poked potato some years ago and the resulting explosion in the oven had reached legendary status. Furthermore, the potato skin should have the child’s initials or otherwise identifying symbols carved into it to reduce confusion.
“Oh,” the teacher rhapsodized, “when the potatoes are cooking the smell just fills the room and it is absolutely heavenly!”
“What kind of potato, exactly?” one parent asked.
“Just a plain baking potato,” the teacher said.
“Well, at our house we really like to bake sweet potatoes,” another parent offered, initiating an avalanche of potato-related discourse. What I’d thought had been passionate opinions about televised news programs and Disney characters on t-shirts paled in comparison to the freshly energized positions on potatoes.
“But sweet potatoes are so much bigger than regular potatoes. They would take longer to bake!”
“Not all of them. It depends on each individual potato.”
“I think Irish potatoes tend to be more uniform in size.”
“Irish potatoes? What are Irish potatoes?”
“They’re the same as baking potatoes; you know, just regular potatoes, the brown ones that you’d get at a restaurant if you ordered a baked potato?”
“At our house, we like to slice sweet potatoes into about one-inch thick disks and sprinkle them with olive oil and cinnamon and bake them on a cookie sheet,” the sweet potato aficionado interjected.
“Wow! That sounds great! About how long do you bake them?” A side conversation broke out among those excited to try this at home.
The teacher and her assistant were trying in vain to reign in the conversation.
“Should we send toppings, like butter or sour cream?”
More side conversations erupted. Emotions ran high regarding bacon bits.
I might have had my head in my lap at this point. I was pretty sure that there were dissertation defenses that were shorter than this conversation about Spud Day. Was I the only one who was finding this absurd and existentially exhausting?
The meeting went almost an hour past its originally scheduled closing before ratification of potato policy. I noted the critical action items as follows. Send potato in your child’s lunch on Fridays. Poke potato with fork and carve identifying mark in potato skin. No fancy potato varieties. Basic condiments would be provided. Additional condiments could be sent, with the exception of bacon bits, which had been determined to serve no good purpose. Maybe for next year’s meeting, I would volunteer to create an instructional brochure about Spud Day.
At 7:30 am, ten minutes before we were to leave for the first Spud Day, I discovered that the only potato in the vegetable drawer of my refrigerator was a red-skin potato, aka, a “new potato.” Curses. I checked my watch: no time for a grocery store run. Surely this would work, though, right? It was approximately potato-sized. I poked it with a fork, carved an A in it, and sent it in Annika’s lunch box.
At 1:00 that afternoon, I received a phone call from the school. The Montessori method emphasizes classroom leadership and self-reliance by the children, so I was only slightly surprised to hear a child’s voice.
“Hello, this is Waleed calling from Annika’s class. Is this Annika’s mother?”
“Yes?” I responded in the slightly sweeter voice that one reserves for children.
“The potato that you sent for Spud Day was the wrong kind.”
I explained as gently as possible that I was aware of this, but that it had been all I had and that, speaking as a person who’d baked red-skin potatoes before, I knew that they would behave approximately the same way as Irish potatoes when subjected to heat.
The world would never know. Non-conforming potatoes were not added to the baking sheet. My claim was entirely theoretical and therefore invalid.
When I picked her up from school, Annika displayed great self-discipline and forbearance when she told me, concisely, how disappointing it had been.
I had exposed both of us as outsiders and frauds. I might be able to pass my- self off as a normal, competent, middle-class mom, but I could not pass off a red-skinned potato as a baking potato.
I would not, however, accept defeat so easily. Not over a potato.
The next week I sent an enormous, brown, Irish, baking potato.
Waleed called, again.
“Hello, this is Waleed calling from Annika’s class. Is this Annika’s mother?”
“The potato that you sent for Spud Day was too big. You need to send a smaller one next time.” It was becoming increasingly clear that Waleed, one of the older children in the mixed-age classroom, had the job of compliance officer. This was likely a merit-based assignment and he was clearly proud of it.
Annika preferred not to discuss the topic on the ride home from school, but confirmed that, while this potato had actually made it onto the baking sheet, it had emerged with a hard, impenetrable center. She had not eaten it.
My boyfriend, Mike, whom I would later marry for being just the sort of guy who’d do this sort of thing, offered to go to the grocery store and find me a potato that would not subject my child to further ostracism and disappointment. He was the father of teenaged twin girls and thus a true veteran of conformity and compliance problems. He bought me a plastic-wrapped four-pack of “Baking Potatoes” so very medium sized and uniform in physical presence that they were surely genetically modified and probably irradiated. I sent one to school.
“Hello, this is Waleed calling from Annika’s class…”
“Yeah, right, Waleed. I know who you are. Now what?”
“The potato that you sent to school didn’t have holes poked in it.”
“What?! Yes, it did! I poked the whole skin all over with a fork! That potato absolutely had holes in it.”
“Well,” he paused thoughtfully, “I guess the holes weren’t deep enough because the potato didn’t cook all the way through. Maybe you need to poke it harder next time.”
I stabbed the next potato from the genetically modified pack, which, incidentally, did not seem to have aged at all in the intervening week, with a sharp, pointy, paring knife, perhaps more violently than was strictly necessary. It went to school covered with little black dash marks.
“Hello, this is Wal….”
“What. Just. What, WaLEED?” I was aware of placing unnecessary emphasis on the final syllable in a way that made me sound less adult than might have been appropriate.
“The potato that you sent to school today for Spud Day didn’t have initials carved into it.”
“But it’s okay, because we carved an A into it ourselves. There are 30 children in the classroom so you are really supposed to carve initials into it your- self so that we can tell which potato belongs to which person.”
When I picked Annika up from school that day she said, “Mom, you don’t need to send a potato to school for Spud Day, anymore.”
What were the odds that I was the only parent failing at Spud Day? I might be making Waleed’s day with the regularity of my failures, but with the seriousness with which he undertook potato audits, surely I wasn’t the only one getting the calls.
I didn’t dare ask other parents.
I made a decision. I would no longer try to pretend that I was the kind of mom who could do the whole parenting gig solo and conform to the exacting standards of Spud Day. I didn’t know why this particular operation exposed my Achilles heel, but frankly I didn’t need the aggravation. It was affecting my self-esteem.
The truth was that I was keeping my head above water, but just barely. I was barely getting the garbage cans out on a regular basis. I was probably at about a 50 percent success rate if you counted the mornings that I heard the truck and came flying out of the house in my pajamas, barely controlling the wheeled can down my steep driveway toward the curb. Spud Day was clearly one potato over the line of what I could manage.
I sat my daughter down to ask her how she’d feel about just skipping the whole thing.
“You know, Mom,” she said, “I don’t really like potatoes much anyway.”
Author’s Note: I am pleased to report that Annika, now headed into her sophomore year of (public) high school, shows no permanent signs of trauma from her mother’s Spud Day shortcomings. When asked if she’d like to contribute to this postscript, she said “I think we all know that there were plenty of holes poked in those spuds. Waleed was kind of a tyrant.”
Beth Eakman teaches writing at St. Edward’s University and lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two teenagers who provide her simultaneously with inspiration and interruptions. Visit Beth at www.betheakman.com, or on Twitter @BethEakman.
Illustration by Casey Arden