I belong to a book club. We talk less about books than we do clubs (Cattle Baron’s, Brook Hollow, Garden), and it was here that I first heard about the madness that surrounds the University Park Methodist mother’s day out program. The lovely, rational women in my book club described sleeping overnight in their cars to vie for coveted classroom spots. They claimed nabbing the “right” days at UP Methodist was more taxing than the quest for Dallas Country Club membership, which merely requires sitting on a waitlist and getting a home-equity loan.
For those who are barren or who live outside the Bubble, some explanation might help. From what I can figure, the UP Methodist mother’s day out, like all other mother’s day out programs, amounts to church-sponsored baby-sitting. Parents drop off their pre-kindergarten kiddos at 8:30 am and pick them up at 11—unless the children are part of the “Lunch Bunch,” in which case pickup is at 2. The number of days per week varies according to age. A 3-year-old might go three days a week. If he’s in the “Lunch Bunch,” figure a yearly tuition of $3,300. Don’t forget: the program takes summers off.
According to my fellow book-clubbers, moms not only spend the night in the church’s parking lot before the annual registration day, they aren’t afraid to get personal with the other mothers. I heard tales of otherwise God-fearing, law-abiding mothers cutting in line, yelling cruel insults (e.g., “You’re poor!”), and even laying hands on one another—and not in the Methodist way. Dads were slightly more reverential, preferring to tailgate rather than tangle.
All of which sounded insane to me. So, the minute my best friend Lisa said she might possibly perhaps attempt the “stupid” sleepover thing, I volunteered to ride shotgun before she could finish her sentence full of qualifiers.
As a well-respected reporter, I know how to ask the hard questions. I called a mother’s-day-out sleepover veteran and asked, “Where do you go to the bathroom?”
The advice she offered—“dehydrate a little”—was hardly comforting and surely not healthy. She explained that, depending on the crowd, we could be punished for leaving even for a bathroom emergency. That led to my next round of questions: “Do we really have to stay all night? I mean, couldn’t we show up and then leave? Or get there late and pretend that we’ve been there all night? How will people know?”
“Oh, they know,” the veteran told me. “Everyone’s watching. And there’s a list. Which reminds me: bring a Sharpie so no one can scratch your name off.”
By the time Lisa’s silver Volvo SUV rolled into my driveway at 10 pm on that blustery January night, I was ready. I had ceased liquid intake four hours earlier. My bag was packed with blankets, Sharpies (red and black, just to be safe), and fine literature, including Us and InTouch.
You’ve driven past the church a million times on your way to Preston Center. The brick cathedral lies on the corner of Caruth Boulevard and Preston Road. Caruth is lined with parking spots that allow cars to park nose-first, at an angle, side by side, facing the church. The layout was perhaps designed on the theory that if one can view one’s $70,000 vehicle from the sanctuary, one will tithe more honestly.
We pulled into a space next to a huge Chevy Yukon, one of 14 cars already parked and waiting, some with engines idling. A host of headlights blazed in the direction of a lone pillar, on top of which sat a sheet of paper, weighted down with a rock. It flapped in the wind. We followed two dads into the spotlight to have a closer look. Earlier arrivals had written on the notebook paper their names, children’s names, class preferences, and arrival times.
When it was our turn to sign in, we noted with dismay that we were No. 18 on the list. People had begun arriving at 8:30 pm. As the dads walked away, one shouted over the wind, “Don’t scratch my name off the list.”
And then it was back to the car for what seemed like a month of waiting. The last time I was awake in a parked car in the middle of the night, I was necking. This was decidedly less exciting. The headlights kept the list illuminated, at least for the first few hours, so we could see people sign in. We admired the woman who brought her German shepherd. We debated whether men in general, and a certain man in particular, should wear tracksuits. As the wind picked up, we laughed at the prospect of the list blowing away and how superior we’d feel as everyone but us jumped out of their cars to chase it down.
Unfortunately, the cold weather prevented any tailgating. Lisa and I were reluctant to consume water, let alone beer, because we were still unsure about where and how to use the bathroom. So, when watching the pillar grew tiresome we read trashy magazines, talked badly about friends, and watched Little Miss Sunshine.
Around 3 am, we decided we should turn off the engine for a spell. We counted 11 more cars. We watched as wives drove up to relieve their husbands, and vice versa. We noted the television glow in the rear of a few SUVs, but a surprising number were dark. We realized that during a mom-dad switch, both could take off and leave a dark, vacant car, very much like the Yukon next to us. And though I had been amused by the prospect of the list blowing away a few hours before, the idea of a potentially vacant car right beside us enraged me. Twice I got out of the car and braved the cold to peek in the window and confirm that the Yukon was still occupied.
That’s when I realized I’d gone over to the dark side. It took a few hours of shivering in the cold, staring at the list, but I came to understand why someone might be compelled to throw a punch or key a car. Maybe it was the exhaustion or the now-throbbing bladder, but it became paramount that since we were following the rules, everyone else needed to obey them, too.
Even as late as 4:30 am, people continued to arrive. We knew in advance that there were only 30 spots for the most coveted class—and seven of those had been promised to church members. By this late in the game, there was no way these people could score a spot unless we all left for the bathroom at once or someone found a pen stronger than a Sharpie to delete names. Lisa and I took turns re-checking the list just to make sure the latter hadn’t happened.
Finally 6:45 am rolled around. Car doors opened, and everyone walked stiffly toward the school entrance. We were a sad bunch, chewing gum to fight horrible breath, hair disheveled, clothes wrinkled, and sore backs exacerbated by the cold. People nodded hello, smiled. But our shared suffering was drawing to an end. A handsome white-haired dad retrieved the list and began reading the names, and we, like second-graders, formed a line accordingly. This was where, I’d been told, things typically go wrong. The list is not sanctioned by the school. It’s totally parent-driven. Someone could just take a place anywhere in line and refuse to move.
And, just so, I espied a woman ahead of us in line who I knew for a fact had arrived after us. “That lady cut,” I hissed to Lisa. “Should I say something to her?”
“God, no,” Lisa said. “I have to see these people again. You don’t.”
“There were fights last year,” offered a pleasant brunette from two spots behind us.
“Oh, there are fights every year,” said a handsome, fratty dad.
Another woman gestured toward a fellow behind us. “He has five kids,” she said. “He and a buddy drink beer every year.”
One woman confided that it was the best night of sleep she’d had in a long time.
A portly guy in a Dallas Cowboys jersey walked up and said, “What a bunch of idiots.” Clearly he was kidding. He claimed his rightful spot in line, ahead of us.
“I need to use the bathroom,” Lisa said.
The brunette asked, “You held it all night? The building was open. I wondered why no one was ever in there.”
Before I could unleash a host of unholy words on church property, the doors opened and we piled in for registration. The inside reminded me of my nursery school: bad carpet, bad children’s art on the wall, tiny tables and chairs, play centers, and the whole thing manned by really sweet ladies. One of them told me, “We used to let the parents spend the night in the gym, but the church balked at the electricity bill. And people wouldn’t stop drinking.”
I want to have a baby, just so I can send her here. These are my people.