When our first child was born a year and a half ago, we figured we’d be able to mostly handle taking care of her ourselves. Where I come from (North Carolina), families help out. Here in Brooklyn, New York, my wife and I had lots of friends who said they’d love to babysit. We had relatives giddy at the thought of us having a baby. Besides, we hated the idea of hiring anyone to do anything in our little apartment. That whole idea of having staff, my wife and I whispered, just smacked off spoiled-bratism and lazy-assism. Neither of us grew up with “hired help” of any sort, so the word “nanny” conjured images of posh British estates and plantation life.
Well, we got over our nanny-angst real fast. Within a couple of months, we were sleepless and wrecked and needed to get work done. Our daughter was collicky, and we’d taken off all the time we could. We were also, most days and nights, alone. Our friends and family visited, sure, but we realized very quickly that in the city, there is no village to raise your child. There is only you and whomever you can afford.
That sounds cynical, I know. Before having a baby, I would have dismissed the snotty bearer of such tidings, but now I know that it’s true. Certainly, family and friends offer to help. “If you ever need anything . . .” they say. “I may take you up on that,” you say. “Anytime!” they say. They rarely call up and say, ‘How about we help out tomorrow?’ And when you call them and ask: They’re too busy. They say yes and show up late. They pitch in for a few hours, realize how hard it is, and never offer again. And the worst part is this: you can’t get mad at them because they are doing you a favor. You’ve just got to be grateful for whatever help they’re giving you, however little help it actually is.
My incredible mother-in-law offered to pitch in on a regular basis and actually showed up. She has driven into town to take care of our daughter two days a week, saving us tons of money and spoiling our daughter silly with rapt attention. My mother-in-law is phenomenal, and I don’t know what we’d do without her, but still, I am not, in any way, her boss. If she wants to take a three-week vacation, or miss a few days at the last minute, I can’t complain. I have no claim. My wife and I just cancel our plans and cover.
Hired help, on the other hand, I can get set rules for, make demands on, get mad at. I can even fire them. We interviewed twenty or so sitters and hired one who seemed lovely, but she turned out to be terrible. Our daughter hated her. It was like she broke out in some kind of allergic reaction every time she saw the sitter, only with screams instead of rashes. The nanny started missing days, so we fired her. It felt, oddly, good. The transaction was clean. Nobody’s feelings got hurt. She was supposed to show up and be good with our daughter. We were supposed to pay her $12/hour. If either of us broke that bond, we could terminate the relationship. And we did.
I sometimes fantasize about firing my friends. Because, when your friends say they would “love to sit!” for you one Saturday night so you can go out to dinner, there is no such contract. There is only good will and a level of commitment you can only determine when the friend either does or does not show up on time and you do or do not miss the movie you’d been looking forward to all week. It’s nice when it happens, sure, but you can’t count on it.
I can count on my nanny more than the relatives who love my daughter more than life itself. We have friends whose mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters promised round-the-clock babysitting for the first year, two-days-a-week, three-days-a-week, weekend babysitting, the occasional evening. I have a friend who missed weeks of work because a mother-in-law promised to help out full-time, and then changed her mind right before the mother’s due date. Another friend of ours went to drop her six-month-old son off at her friends’ apartment after they’d cooed and promised to watch him so she could go to the theater. They said to drop him off at 6:45. She arrived on time to find nobody home, then sat in their stairwell with the baby until 7:30. When she got them on the phone, they cheerily said they were “running late, but on their way!” They finally got there, but she cried the whole way out to the theater, where she arrived late and depressed.
We have a new nanny now, who we love. She’s responsible, funny, bright and patient – all those buzzwords in the Craigslist ad were true. I respect her because she knows what she’s doing. I like her because she literally sings and dances with our daughter. I trust her because she’s got more experience taking care of children than I do. I adore her because, when our nanny opens the door in the morning, my daughter barks, “Bye-bye!” to me, like she can’t wait to see me go to work.
But I love my nanny because I pay her, which I’ve learned means I can count on her more than the relatives who love my daughter more than life itself. Aside from the rare doctor’s appointment or sick day, she’s here every day. And that’s not because she loves my daughter so very much, or because she wants to give us a hand, but because this is her job, she’s a responsible person, and she needs the money. She’s not doing us a favor, she’s providing a very valuable service – and we compensate her for it. As new parents, we’ve learned that, when it comes to childcare, money is a more powerful incentive than love.