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Image: Jack Dylan

It was 7:30 a.m. on a Wednesday and I was sweating in my pajamas. Registration for the music class opened at 6 a.m., and I had forgotten to set an alarm; now only one spot remained. I typed in my info and hit send, but there was an error. Registration code? I texted a friend. “What’s the code?!?!?!?” Thanks to her quick response and my dedication (and ability to pay $160), I now have the honor of sitting in a church basement once a week, playing bongos and singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with my 2-year-old.

It’s a gauntlet experienced by many parents: the exhausting and often byzantine problem of getting kids into stuff. That music class is nothing. It’s cutthroat out there for the after-school care and summer activities that let parents get to work—especially the more affordable city-run programs. Even for Portland Parks & Recreation swim lessons, my children landed on the futile “wish list” two summers in a row. If they’re landlocked until college, I blame the city.   

“Portland is growing at a pace that is difficult to keep up with,” PP&R spokesperson Mark Ross told me. Offerings at Sellwood and Peninsula Park Community Centers are especially jammed.

The country is already set up poorly for families (see: no mandatory paid parental leave, child care that often costs the same as the mortgage). Now zoom in to PDX, which has gained more than 56,000 residents since 2010. Many of our programs are stretched. It sounds like a minor gripe, but for many lower- and middle-income families, class and child care scarcity is a serious roadblock.

The most extreme story I’ve heard: the competition to get into before- and after-school care at my public elementary school. For the last few years, the registration line has started forming at 3 a.m. (yes, in the morning) because parents are so desperate to get a spot. (The program director is working on a new registration system.)

After those two failed summers, I finally enrolled my kids in swim lessons at the aquatic park in Milwaukie. Registration opened at 9 a.m. I sat at my computer calm and smug, ready to claim my kids’ spots. Missing alarm? Ha. That’s child’s play.    

Rachel Saslow is a local freelance writer.
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