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COLUMNS

Misplaced Mommy: The Value of a Dollar

I live in the poorest state in the Union. We're a town of paycheck loan joints, pawn shops, and dollar stores. The family-money folks stick out like a sore thumb amidst military personnel and McDonald's drive-thru workers. Antique car tags are handed out to anyone driving anything older than a 1985 Datsun, regardless of the car's condition, and folks wait in line every week at the post office to pay their bills via money orders and prepaid stamped envelopes.

Parenting in a poor town has its challenges. While we are on the higher end of the income level, even with only one major household salary, I have found it hard to find not just the higher end necessities (Kate Spade diaper bag not included), but even the seemingly typical items, like a box of jumbo shells and some pierogies, found in any other place in the country. Thanks to online shopping, the world is at our fingertips, but even so, it's nice to be able to hold things in your hand, give them a good sniff, and try them on before you lay down your hard-earned cash.

Since my daughter reached toddlerdom, I have attempted to involve her in various toddler-specific activities. I have days where I feel as though my daughter has grown tired of staring at my rapidly wrinkling mug and needs more stimulation than the same puzzles, books, and Muppets videos can provide. Or perhaps it is I who requires more stimulation. In either case, my search for said mommy-and-me programs has been exhausting. I've asked several establishments if they would be interested in offering such classes, including baby-swim classes, or even a toddler art program, but they all mysteriously refuse. In a town with a number of stay-at-home mothers, largely due to our resident air force base, one would expect a plethora of art-gymbo-music-kinder-dance type classes. But that is not the case.

While I have found several excellent programs being offered, including the Music Together classes I teach, I am constantly stunned by the seeming lack of interest by the public. I have signed up and paid for at least three different classes only for them to be cancelled due to poor registration. The parents that do sign up represent either the very wealthy families in our town, or a few military families who perhaps share the same beliefs regarding the global benefits of these classes for our children. And chances are, like me, they are dying to get out the house and interact with adults, even if it is through singing songs about flying chickens or making fruit loop and licorice bracelets.

So, my mama curiosity took over and I wanted to know what the heck was going on. I certainly understand the issues of ethnicity and class as it relates to this particular issue, as many parents of the lower income families are working and not only cannot attend these classes but may or may not be able to afford them. I am constantly frustrated by this issue as growing up in an extremely homogenous area of the country where I, the very white-looking, half-Asian girl, represented the extent of cultural diversity in my town. I want to provide my daughter with a different experience, one in which she has the opportunity to enjoy the company of persons from a variety of cultures. But being as the only people who take the music classes represent one specific ethnic and religious group, I'm not sure how I can make that happen.

Other than that overwhelming issue, I found out that about 40 kids were headed over to the free library music program held weekly at the same time as one of our music classes. These children are covered in monogrammed Gymboree and Gapkids and arrive in fancy SUVs and designer strollers. Ironically, these families, for the most part, are my military counterparts, who, when asked by me why they attend the library music program, simply say, "because they're free."

I'm not quite sure what bothers me most about this issue, but I know that it really gets under my skin. Perhaps it's their lack of interest due to not fully understanding the benefits of developmental parent/toddler courses. Or maybe it's the idea that they seemingly spend large amounts of money on clothing but prefer to attend a free library music program instead of a well-researched and nationally known one. Or maybe it's that I view the free program as being reserved for folks who may not be able to afford such classes.

Whatever their reason, I am frustrated because it inevitably affects my experience as a parent in this town. While I want my child to interact with other children, I also want her to be able to engage in educational activities that I can't provide her at home—maybe it's a fun gym class or a toddler art group. And although I know we live in a poor town, I see folks with obvious resources but little interest in the types of programming I'm seeking.

Growing up in a wealthy family, I was afforded a plethora of opportunities and material items. But it wasn't until I hit college when I realized the value of life experiences over stuff. Clothes, shoes, and toys could be taken away, but my memories and experiences would always be mine. So, I choose classes and groups for my daughter over fancy shoes and dresses. And I hope she adopts the same values that took me so long to figure out.

So, perhaps we need more education about the value of these programs for the local families. Or maybe I need to seek out other like-minded parents and attempt to form our own groups. But until I can figure out a resolution, I will hold her tight, in her Old Navy blue jeans and JCPenney sandals, and sing songs about flying horses and draw pictures of pretty purple blobs without hesitation. My hope is that those memories will be of more value to her growth as a person than any pretty outfit or bow I could dress her in.

column added on 2006-05-13 :: ::

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Kristen M. Chase
COLUMNIST PHOTO

Kristen took the plunge into motherhood via a surprise pregnancy, now a blossoming 19-month old toddler, and provides the diversity on her block as an Asian American Yankee in the Deep South. As a former college professor, published textbook author, musician, and diversity advocate, Kristen's a proverbial "fish out of water," trying to find her way in a place that time has clearly forgotten and desperately trying to balance her roles as mother and military wife while not losing her sense of self (including a hankering for heels and a good martini).

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