Judy Batalion's child was barely six months old when she started getting peppered with questions about preschool admissions.
It was a shock to the Canadian native, a writer, and her British husband when their New York friends would ask if they had signed their daughter, Zee, up for preschool prep classes, if they were donating to a school's charity or if they had hired a pricey private counselor to guide them through the process.
"It was totally insane, but I live here, and I had to accept that it's part of the system if I wanted to send Zee to a private school," she said.
Private preschools have become an institution for Manhattan's wealthiest.
And the system is fraught with new parents panicking that if they don't get their baby Einsteins into top preschools, they will ruin their kids' chances at getting into Harvard before they can even say "Ivy League."
Tuition costs a pretty penny -- sometimes up to $40,000 per year -- just for a few hours of school each day, according to Karen Quinn, a former private school admissions consultant who's written books that advise parents on the process.
But just being able to foot the huge bill isn't enough. There's a limited number of spots in Manhattan's most elite private schools, which are thought to be feeders to the best colleges and universities in the country. And parents have bought into the narrative that if their child doesn't go to a good preschool, they won't have a shot at getting into one of the top secondary schools.
"You think college is bad? Try getting into preschool on the Upper East Side," said Amanda Uhry, president of Manhattan Private School Advisors, which charges between $15,000 and $35,000 to 1,500 clients each year to help their kids land a spot in private school. "Some of these preschools get 400 recommendations for 16 spots."
Batalion feels that a shortage of space in the city's public preschools has also pushed some New Yorkers of more modest means into the private school fray, further increasing the competition. "Preschool admissions is not just an elite concern but a real problem for many people in New York, even those of us not in the 1%," she says, "who are faced with steep fees and limited spots in both private and public schools."
To make their child stand out, Uhry said she's seen parents try it all. Some put their kids in socialization classes. One father claimed his 2-year-old was a violin virtuoso. And at least ten of Uhry's clients have asked President Clinton for recommendations. One client even requested a recommendation from the Pope.
"I've seen people tell the school they're Navaho, when they're like 1/36th," she said. "It's a nuthouse."
What does all that money and anxiety buy you? Batalion said that when she started touring schools, she was floored by what they offered. The schools had science labs, pottery studios, sustainable garden roofs and yoga corners for every kid in the class. Some of the schools, she said, were nicer than her house. She wanted to spend her days there.
So she and her husband went through the regimented process -- touring schools, filling out applications (one of which was 13 pages long) that ask about parenting philosophy and your child's most shining attributes, taking Zee in for what they call "play dates," or assessments of whether or not your child would be a good fit.
There's also a parent interview. At one group interview Batalion said that parents were asked to go around and say one word that described their child and a sentence of why they were a good fit.
"I got so freaked out that I didn't have an elevator pitch for my daughter," she said.
Batalion and her husband ended up applying to 8 preschools, and settling on one that she said felt down to earth and most comfortable. Zee, now 2 and a half, starts in the fall. Batalion chronicled her preschool admissions experience for the New York Times Motherlode blog, and is publishing a memoir about motherhood with New American Library/Penguin.
But not all parents are driven by their intuition, says Uhry.
"There are many parents who are just so concerned that if your kid doesn't get into a top school, you're a bad parent and people will begin to look at your kid differently," she said. "For them, [preschools] are a caste system."