The Cure for the Working Parent: In Praise of Babysitters, au Pairs & Nannies

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMuch of the work we do as parents is unquantifiable.

It’s not measured in hours, initiatives or projects completed, as it’s done in the corporate world, but in conversations — time spent talking with and listening to the needs of our kids. The heavy lifting of parenthood is not necessarily done in the parking lot at Costco. We feel it when we’re straining to maintain an emotional relationship with our kids — all while serving our greater responsibility to them.

That greater, material responsibility means putting food on the table, and giving them everything they need to thrive. Fulfilling it requires that we work. For money. I’m not talking about ‘having it all’ here, but providing it all.

46% of the workforce is now female. Among the population of mothers with infants, 55% of them work.
The new reality is this: men work, women work, and children still need care.

When you’re a working parent you live in a permanent state of unanswered questions and half-completed thoughts; I returned the email to that client, didn’t I? I’ll get brown paper bags for tomorrow’s field trip on my way home…crap, did I just schedule that conference call on Alice’s half day?
There’s no way for a working parent to meet their obligations to work and family without help. Lots of help.

Alice’s first babysitter was the au-pair of a friend. She was still in college and looking to earn extra money. Hubby worked full-time and I was working freelance. Agata, from Poland, came once a week for four hours to care for my one and half year-old girl. Agata may have been ten years younger than me and not yet a mother herself, but I was the novice. I learned much from her.

As my work increased so did our need for childcare. Enter Sharlene. A mother of one eight year old boy, she watched over Alice, now two, and my good friend’s son, in the boys’ house, three days a week. Of Indian descent and born in Trinidad, Sharlene was beautiful and warm, smart in the ways of babies and toddlers, and an excellent cook. Alice was well cared for while I built my business. My daughter loved her and so did I. I’ll always be indebted to her.

Next, came the wonderful Miss Kathy. I don’t remember the impetus for our new childcare arrangement, but we found ourselves in a new nanny-share, this time with Haley and her lovely family — including Bart the German shepherd. Kathy was also from Trinidad and as warm and loving as Sharlene. That situation lasted about a year and half until we both put our girls in daycare.
Daycare and then public school became my primary childcare, but I still needed help after school.

So, came our next angel, named appropriately enough; Angel.

Smart, funny, a vivacious mother of an older girl and boy, she was an expert with kids of all ages. And mothers of all ages and stages. Angel reminded me daily to love my work and skip the mommy-guilt. She loved her job, and my kid, and we loved her. (Still do.)

Gina is the most recent babysitter in our lives, another share, this time with my best friend’s family. Another godsend. She’s a fabulous cook and incredibly patient, and present.

The remarkable thing is that we had zero bad experiences. No bad babysitters, in either skills or attitude. I know many families who were not as lucky. But, as lucky as we were and as good as each woman was for our daughter, it was still hard work.

It was hard work finding these women in the first place, and then it was hard work establishing a good relationship with each one, all while I worked, all while I watched and worried over their relationship with my daughter. There were cultural differences to negotiate. Different opinions about snacks, or gum chewing. Uncomfortable conversations (for me) about hourly pay and time off.

I was never sure if I had sent enough diapers, blankets, or clean clothes. Was never entirely comfortable sharing my house or my daughter so intimately with women I barely had the time to get to know. Or leaving my little girl all day in the loving care of someone else, someone who might get to see her many “firsts”.

I was still learning to be a mother and not ready to be an employer. As Alice’s needs changed and our financial situation evolved, we had to find new arrangements. All very stressful, but made doable by the loving and skilled women who cared for my kid. We stay in touch with most of her babysitters, some via Facebook, some via welcome, spontaneous meetings with them while we are out shopping or eating in town.

As your kids grow, the kind of help you need will grow and change right alongside them. And as the roles of moms and dads continue to evolve, the relationship to our caregivers will too.

I could not have continued to work and then build a business, without these capable, caring women in our life. For me, these experiences demonstrated the limitless love and help that is available to working parents but also the difficulties — economic and otherwise — to be negotiated, while building and navigating our very modern villages.

Lisa Duggan

Lisa Duggan is the Founder and CEO of The Modern Village, and publisher of TheParentduJour.com and TheMotherHoodBlog.com.

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