Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Socialist Euro-Style Free Daycare in America: Just go to IKEA!

There are days when you go shopping in a strip mall near an airport, buy absolutely nothing, and call it time well spent.

Even though I spent the entirety of Saturday by myself (I did Mom's Day a day early), Sunday proved that I needed more time out from Crabtot. We'd gone out en famille in search of a washer-dryer. Crabtot had half-spun and half-sobbed in her car-seat for the duration of the car trip out to the delightful strip mall that houses Best Buy. I'd thought that, unlike her parents, she'd quite enjoy an examination of front and top-loading washer-dryers for her Sunday outing; after all, these are the things that kids get sort of tickled over, right? But she grew quickly bored and threw herself up and down the aisles, complaining and demanding strawberries and such.

After a spell, Crabhubby and I looked at each other over the Maytags and Whirlpools. "IKEA," I said. "It's a good day for IKEA."

And he said, "Let's go."

Some of you may be confused. Why add a cavernous self-serve homewares depot to an already overburdened family shopping trip? But you are merely the uninitiated or foreigners in an inhumane country that does not offer the splendor of a Scando-warehouse called IKEA. Which is oh so very much more than merely half-cooked cheap furnishings made by people with names like Gunnar Bjirkelund (no doubt the pseudonym of one Jeffrey Weiner of Brooklyn? ...Does IKEA give you Swedish avatars when they hire you, I wonder?) Back to the point, Until moving to Crabcity I had lived a half-life, without IKEA. But Crabcity is more civilized. And the chief sign of that is the presence of IKEA. With its free childcare. That's right, Crabtown friends: free.

When we first spotted IKEA's free childcare room, "Småland," we thought we might be seeing things. Crabtot smashed her nose to the glass in wonder, as children frolicked inside a giant clog. Yes, a giant clog. Which sounds a tad absurd now, but when you are at IKEA it just makes sense, like lingonberries with Swedish meatballs.

For those sadly in the dark, Småland is a "magical forest" where children play like bunny rabbits while their parents argue over whether to get the Malm series of bureau or the Snordgegrone (okay, I made up the last). Småland is where forest fairies bewitch each other inside IKEA children's room products while Mom tries to convince Dad that there's nothing wrong with a $1 towel, and Dad tries to convince Mom that there's nothing wrong with a bedroom that consists entirely of birch-veneered furniture. When did Småland come to be? I don't recall ever seeing it in other IKEAs that I have visited. Mind you, I haven't been to an IKEA in years and back when I last trotted through a Nordic habitat in search of a futon cover or lava lamp or whatever-all I bought in those carefree days, I wasn't even thinking about having children, much less thinking about how to palm them off on others.

"Yay, Small Land!" Crabtot said when we dropped her off, signing a perfunctory info sheet, and attaching an ID sticker to her back. Then we thrust her through a trapdoor that led to that Magic Forest and we bailed...past the Marketplace (where you get big furnishings), through the habitats (where tranquil modern living is simulated in an otherwise tense environment of beleaguered families making what appear to be major life decisions), and made straight for the restaurant. Which basically just rocks. Except that the strudel is frozen. "What time is it?" I asked Crabhub. "Check your phone." You see, at Småland you get only one hour of childcare. Then they buzz you with a pager.

The first time Crabhubby and I did the IKEA date, we felt very pleased with ourselves. Drinking $1 coffee out of china cups, stashed in a pleasing booth beside paper screens stretched with Marimekko-ripoff fabric, we looked out the windows and sipped on freedom. The view was gorgeous. Okay, so the view is basically just the back of the strip mall with the airport parking lot nearby but when you've got one hour of child-free time on the weekend, all childless views are good views.

Our most recent IKEA date was a touch more fraught. We'd just prior to the outing drunk fifty barrels of coffee and so decided to nix sitting and sipping for some random shopping. Except there was nothing we could think of buying. "Napkins," I said firmly to Crabhubby when he expressed reservations over the whole thing and posited that we nix IKEA altogether and go home to clean the house. "I need napkins. And a small white frame."

"Pity they don't let you leave for an hour," Crabhub said. We peered across the strip mall wondering if we'd get caught if we made a break for it and hit the grass island strips adjacent to the cars, to loll upon the lawn and take a nap. Yes, unfortunately there is one major rule of Småland and it's for parents: no leaving the premises. I wondered if my pager would work if we spent the hour upon the grassy knoll near the edge of the IKEA parking lot. But in the end, I'm not a rebel. I can't break laws. The closest I've ever been to law-breaking was an attempt at bathroom graffiti in grad school. With a Pilot Varsity fountain pen that wrote in turquoise ink. (I was getting my Master's in Writing people. Leave me alone.) So it was napkins over naps on strip-mall lawns. We really did need napkins.

But napkin-shopping just isn't the whale of a time it should be when your bloody Småland pager keeps vibrating in your pocket.

Now, first, a word about the IKEA childminders. If you want me to tell you they look perfectly wonderful and beautifully trained and wildly knowledgeable about children, I will. Because to me any warm body looks to be that way of a Sunday afternoon when one's preschooler is preschooling all over you. That said, the grownups in the Magic Forest have more of a desultory look, more of a teenage look, more of a low-slung pants, dyed hair, ipod's-on-shuffle sort of look. They say only two things to you when you drop your child off. "Is she potty trained?" and "Is she over 34" tall?" And you say yes and yes and then stuff her through a trapdoor and Bob's your uncle. Which is why you might actually get a tad nervous when the pager goes off prematurely. Maybe the tot got hurt?! Maybe some bloody bruiser of a boy mashed her delicate leg in the clog?

So Crabmommy sprinted for that Magic Forest. Not so easy to find at IKEA. You're going against the stream, working backwards through habitats: bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, office, patio...When I get to the Forest my eyes roam frantically for a small creature with a puff of uncombed hair and unmatching socks, quite possibly crying or injured near a giant clog. But Crabtot's happy, up a magical woodland climbing wall, oblivious. "Sorry," one of the teens says. 'The pager's just malfunctioning." She gives me a new one.

I race back to Crabhubby. Patio, office, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom. Mostly we've been wandering without purpose or enjoyment. And now I can't find him. And now I have only forty minutes left.

"What about this for the living room?" he asks when I capture him beneath a pallet of wool rugs designed by Sigrid Olafsen and made by children in Guam. We discuss the rug. For about thirty minutes. Oh, how we can discuss a rug! And just when we've reached an agreement on the tone and weave and quality of rug, the pager jiggles again. Off I go. Bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, office, patio. Småland. And I see Crabtot, or rather just her hair. She is DROWNING IN A SEA OF PLASTIC BALLS. "Excuse me!" I say to the teen up front as I point wildly at the ball pit from behind glass (parents can't go into Småland). "I don't think my child can breathe!!" But the teen just smiles as Crabtot stands up and I see the ocean of plastic balls is only about twelve inches deep. To be sure, my child was quite fine, but my pager was not.

"Again?" The teen rolls her eyes. "Sor-ree!" she says to me and hands me another, snapping her gum.

"I can't get much shopping done this way," I say, all huffy, as though I'd come to IKEA to actually shop.

"I'll give you another half-hour then," she says. Score!

Patio, office, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom. Rugs. Crabhusband and I discuss and rationalize the rug for the remainder of the Småland time. This activity is perhaps not quite as peachy-fun as some things (especially since we ended up not buying the rug, or napkins for that matter). Then again, there are other Sunday experiences that make arguing over a rug at a mall on an off-ramp near the airport as bloody fantastic as sharing a pot of Beluga caviar with Javier Bardem.
And so after coming all the way out to a strip mall near the airport of a Sunday, we left Best Buy with no washer/dryer and then we left IKEA empty-handed too. But at IKEA at least, we'd got what we came for. To be empty-handed: that's what we'd really wanted.

Anyone else been to Småland? I think we might go back this weekend. It really is a total all around family win-win-win activity. Or win-times-18 if you're those fundamentalist idiots who are about to have an eighteenth baby.

More giveaways of smashing toddler loveliness right here this Thursday. And Cookie sees new posts twice this week as ever, something about donuts and then Astromommy returns (plug, plug, what-eva, mon)...


Anonymous said...

We occasionally do the IKEA thing as well. We go early with our two little tots and have breakfast together at the restaurant - the breakfast is nothing to write home about but, hey, for 99 cents who can complain? We make sure to get a table near the play area in the restaurant so we can eat while the kids play with the toys, watch a movie and once in while wander back to the table to nosh. Then we send them to Smaland, pick up our pagers and wander around a bit. Sometimes, I confess, I just go back to the restaurant and drink coffee while reading a book. I can't stand IKEA furniture.

Emily L. said...

If my tot was tall enough I would go to IKEA every morning! Sit in the grass! Bring the dog! Watch people load their cars. Love the drive near the airport. It makes me feel like I'm leaving town!

Karen Stead Baigrie said...

oh yes,how we do love IKEA! My older child is old enough to go into the ballroom/ playrea (ours is not in the league of your Smaland, I think I need to complain!) but won't go alone and my toddler who would love nothing more than be dropped off is a few inches short of the height requirement. Needless to say we love IKEA. I give the boys pencils and tape measures and they run through the displays, climbing into beds, sitting on chairs and most recently, shutting themselves into a kitchen cupboard. Oh yes, they do draw on stuff but I try to keep it to a minimum. Our best ever use of IKEA was during a heatwave. We knew our paltry ac's were not going to cut it in the face of 105 degree NYC heat. We bundled all 4 of us into the car, drove to IKEA getting there for breakfast and spending the entire day between the cafeteria, nursing room (another reason why I LOVE IKEA) storage, bedding and the kids section. We got home to Brooklyn as the heat of the day subsided, cool and peachy.

On an entirely other note - Crabmommy I am so glad you mentioned the 18th baby freaks! Something about that bunch unnerves me and leaves me with all sorts of unanswered questions ie "how does she even hold them inside any more beyond 22 weeks?" or "how can she be about my age and already have birthed a kindergarten class worth of kids and still look remarkably young?". Lawd.

LizLSB said...

We didn't get an IKEA here until my kids were too old for "Small Land," but still a great idea. :) Sounds like a fun, adventurous day.

Mamma Sarah said...

We just got IKEA in our area (1/2 hr drive towards Cincy) and am looking forward to the day I will be able to drop kiddo's off in the area. :-)

Lina said...

My girl is too small for Smaland yet, but she does LOVE playing in the lockers. Hmmm...

Another good Ikea trick is lining a shopping cart with pillows and letting the small one nap while you shop. She loves it and so do the other shoppers when they see us. Of course I don't buy the pillows, just make use of them at the time. :D

Unknown said...

I love ikea, because I love cheap crap! lol. Much like my love for target. Anyhoo, I still have to stare longingly at the childcare center in ours, as my eldest(3)refuses to be potty trained(*groan*) and my younger one(21mo) is WAY too small! Dealing with them both in ikea is fun, too. My daughter(the eldest) never gets in ANYONE'S way, tries to run in the opposite direction or creates any kind of scene. Then those people come who hand me wads of cash and fine french pastries..wait, sorry I must have nodded off there sometime after the whole ikea being fun with two wee ones part.

Anonymous said...

Been there, done that, love it!

jennifer said...

oh, to live in a real city. sigh x 398234827487.

Gray Matter Matters said...

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. The idea, the writing, the meatballs.

grunnio corocotta said...

Not crazy about Ikea furniture but lord do they have them some tasty cheap grub. I believe I'm going to go microwave up a half-dozen Swedish meatballs right now (bought them in February and they're still going ...)

Anonymous said...

Portland, Seattle, and Salt Lake City. I plan vacations around an hour or two in Ikea. Strangely, I never buy anything.

Annette said...

As for the Duggars, to each his/her own. I only have 3 children, but if the Duggars want many more, and can raise them properly (as they seem to have done quiet well), I say God bless them.