Can Your Gym Give You Triplets

I thought I had two children. As it turns out, when I’m at 24 Hour Fitness, I have four and a half.

The 24 Hour Fitness at McLoughlin and Holgate is decent. The machines work. There are usually towels, roughed up by cheap detergent. There was that problem with theft in the locker room. There’s hair in the sinks. But the staff are friendly and helpful and seem to earnestly want to do a good job for their company.

Still, knowing my ability to work out there hinged on the gym’s childcare, called Kids Club, I didn’t join until my little love was three. Until then, I didn’t feel comfortable leaving either of my children in an environment where I couldn’t control what they would see, hear, and, especially, watch.

This was even more important to me because my younger love has Down syndrome. Especially in the years before preschool, we logged hours a day at home on her physical, cognitive, occupational, speech and language, psychoemotionalsociomusicaleconomicreligious development. Plus peek-a-boo. I had heard from moms who used 24 Hour’s Kids Club and knew the screen ran nearly constantly. I couldn’t work out worrying that my daughter’s coaching was going down the Sponge Bob drain.

By the time she was three and half, she’d done a year of preschool, she’d met milestones, she could ride a trike, she could count and do letters, she could carry a tune and talk to me and tell me what she was thinking and feeling. I felt more comfortable leaving her–for an hour–to young women in red polo shirts who slap a white sticker on her back with a number on it. My darling little love: #11.

When I get to the glass door to pick up my kids, sure enough Disney is blaring and children are glassy-eyed in front of the screen. And I’m relieved to see that, far across the spacious and comfortable room, my kids are happily climbing the jungle gym. A staff member tells me how cute my kids are. “The most polite children in here,” she says. Once again, it seems like mom’s new exercise endeavor is working. Mom is going to be able to do something that nourishes her, that helps her mood, that lets her feel a little like herself again, and the kids are going to be fine. Relief. Happiness. More relief.

So it’s unexpected when the next gal checks us out, lowers her voice and says, “Just so you know, when a child has special needs, we count them as more than one person.”

Ever quick-witted, I say: “Oh.”

As a parent, I’ve heard myself form sentences I never thought I would use. “Dump trucks are for playing, not for eating” or “Is the itchiness in the crack or around the hole?”

Now I had a new one. “Um,” I ask, “how many children is she?”

“Three and a half,” she says. So my daughter is not just the 11th child in the facility, as denoted on her sticker. She’s the 11th, 12th, and 13th child. And part of the 14th.

“Three and a half,” I say. I picture a pair of torso-less legs racing around in pink high tops.

“Is that okay with you?” she asks. I sense it will make her life easier if it is.

I do not say, wow, she’s so many people, no wonder I’m tired all the time.

I do not ask if I will need to pay triple.

I do not ask if there’s a menu. How many people are children who are hyperactive? Obese? How much for smart-mouths?

How many children are the ones who were here earlier when I dropped off my kids – the two amped siblings whipping toys back and forth while a staff person chased them and said, “Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

Is this okay with me? Do I have a choice? Do I say I won’t take a penny less than three and three-quarters? Do I say I’m outraged and offended? I may be a huge disappointment to the disability world, but I’m not outraged. And offended is not quite it either. At this moment, I am curious, confused, and kind of amused. Alice in Athletic Wonderland.

Moreover, I’m not proud to admit, I’m also thinking 1) I want to keep working out here 2) when my kids are here they’re get a lower staff-child ratio and 3) don’t tick off people who determine the order children exit in case of fire.

And didn’t I tell the staff when I originally signed my daughter up that she had Down syndrome. I mean, I guess I felt a sense of safety in having them know this about her. I checked the box. I made her different.

So should I be surprised at the gym’s response? Impersonal and inch-deep as it is.

Is this okay with me? I give my answer. “Sure.”

Did I sell out? Was I supposed to make a big stride for disability awareness? Did I miss my moment? Am I letting down my daughter? Do I make a crappy advocate?

I decide I do need to speak my truth, even though it’s simple and not deep and not profound.

I say, “But I think that’s really funny.”

She doesn’t say anything. This can’t be her favorite part of the job. I gather my four and one-half children and take them home.

In the days after, I’m still curious. I find out there was a situation at a 24 Hour Fitness with a three year old child who was asked to leave a Kids Club in Huntington Beach last spring because he had autism. This, even though he did not, according to news reports, seem to be doing anything other than playing with blocks in front of the slide. Not safe. But the staff person said they never would have taken him if they had known he had autism. I read this, thinking how lucky we’ve been to avoid this kind of sting.

Or so I thought. The next time we go to Kids Club, it’s pretty full. At check in, I hear a staff member say to another that they have room for one more child. And then: I know what’s going to happen.

“It won’t let me check her in right now,” the staff member says. The computer is counting.

She adds that they’ve called for an additional staff person. I ask if I can take my daughter to use their restroom while we wait, which I always do before I drop her off. And as we get to the bathroom and unlock the door, I turn and see them checking in another child. Apparently a child who is, one child.

Sting.

We come back from the bathroom and return to the check in desk. “Was she not allowed in because she’s three people?” They said yes. “Is that why that other child got to come in?” Hurriedly she says that the additional staff person had arrived, which allowed them to check in more children. It’s awkward.

Back home again, I try to get more answers. Calling the national member services number, a representative in Las Vegas has never heard of the one-child-counted-as-three rule. “I don’t believe that’s true,” he says. He suggests talking to someone at my local gym.

Which brings me to Shari in the McLoughlin Kids Club, whose name I have changed. I ask her about the one-child-as-three policy and find out some more. She reads me part of the policy that says 24 Hour Fitness will make every reasonable effort to accommodate children with special needs but are not staffed to provide individual or specialized attention.

She remembers my daughter and says they have “never had a problem” with her and that if I wanted, and since she has a history there we could probably reduce her to one child. I imagine a giant image of my daughter shrinking down like a deflating hot air balloon. It’s feeling Wonderlandish again.

I have some more questions. Can a child ever be more than three people? No. Not more than three. My devil mind tries to conjure the wickedest child who they would have no choice but to deem a four-fer. A child with fangs and a temper.

But I stay on track. If your child does not have a disability but you think they need extra attention can they have it? She says you would need to mark them as having special needs. Which immediately starts me wondering I could mark my son as special needs. (Could I mark myself–somewhere, for something–as special needs? Because I really do have a lot of needs. Ask my husband.) My son likes people to sit and listen to his Cheetah-Man stories. And he likes it quiet. I picture the Kids Club empty except for my two children and fifteen staff members doing their bidding.

And finally, remembering the rowdy boys I’d seen, the ones I’d had to duck around to keep my daughter from getting torpedoed with a Gumby, I ask if there is a similar policy for children with disciplinary needs. There isn’t. “We do have some children who are difficult,” she says. “These are children without disabilities?” I ask. Yes. “And they are counted as one child?” Yes.

I get the sense from her, as you often do from the people on the ground doing the actual work of a corporation, that she means to do her honest best. I don’t take anything else from her than that.

My third call, to the 24 Hour Fitness Corporate Office in San Ramon, is returned within the hour, not what I was expecting. This person does not want to be named or quoted, but shares something I didn’t know. These numbers relate to state laws on staff-child ratios. Infants and toddlers are generally considered more than one person. A six-month old infant, for example, is two and a half people. To be considered one and only one person, a child is generally three years or older. I’m thinking the generally part means if they don’t have a disability.

This person mentions that they look to parents to let them know about anything that can help staff look after their child. That it’s about staff building relationships with parents and children. Still, the word “situational” is used. Which also came up during my talk with my local staff. I’m also sensing from these conversations that people aren’t necessarily their most relaxed when talking about people with disabilities. But they’re still talking, which I appreciate.

Overall, I’m looking for the black and white answers, and finding gray. And aren’t I myself, the mother, hazy on this issue? Overall, considering my daughter–aspiring farmer, queen of the tea party– and how she behaves, I find this policy kind of hilarious. Anyone who knows her would find it funny. Except that my sister is outraged. And my mild-mannered husband thinks it’s BS.

So what’s wrong with me? Why aren’t I furious? Am I hiding behind detached amusement? Am I missing a chip? Did I use up all my energy on the treadmill? All I can do is laugh. People in a board room somewhere, making their earnest plan that will save them from lawsuits, based on what they think they know to be true, layers between them and the customers they seek, layers between their policies and the children the policies are about, children climbing and sliding and shooting the little basketballs into the little hoops–maybe one day they’ll pay their own monthly fee. For now, they’re having fun. In their gym. In ones, in twos, in threes.