(Originally published May 6, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)
Obviously this Sunday is Mothers’ Day. Or, as a friend of mine calls it, Mother-In-Law Day. Certainly, you’d think that as a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a mother to three children, and a bona-fide blah-ger I’d have lots to say on the subject. Let’s just call it a Sunday and move forward.
Or backwards as the case may be – to Saturday. Because this Saturday is in fact National Babysitter’s Day. Now there’s a subject near and dear to me. It would be easy to write a tribute to all the gals – and a handful of guys – I’ve gladly paid so that I could work, go to meetings, grocery shop, eat dinner out, or even, I’ll admit, sit in my bedroom and read.
But I won’t. Instead, because this is a “blog,” let’s talk about me. And what I think. And I think that knowing a babysitter, having a babysitter, and paying a babysitter is a thrillingly, freeing milestone of parenting.
There are many, many parenting landmarks that I have been or will be slow to reach. Affording myself the confidence and luxury to hire a sitter has not been one of them. And I mean this in all seriousness.
Certainly with a baby, hiring a sitter is an absolute necessity. After enough weeks at home with an infant, the visiting grandparents leave and the sun stops rising and setting over the weigh-in at the pediatrician’s office. At some point, it’s time to put on actual clothes and leave the baby behind.
Early on – and to this day – that act of handing my baby or my children over to someone else for a few hours says a number of significant things. Perhaps most importantly to me, it means that my circle is large enough that I actually know people who babysit – or at least I know people who know people.
As a mother at home, it thrills me to count in my company high schoolers, college kids, part time cafe workers, grad students, and the neighbor’s boyfriend’s sister. And each of these individuals makes my children’s world larger and more textured as well. My kids will ask for the sitter who helps them make music mixes, or teaches them to string a lacrosse stick, or brings her beading supplies to share, or is king of basement floor hockey.
It’s also useful to have in my back pocket that one sitter I know they fear. “No, no not her! She just does her homework and yells at us. We promise we’ll be good. Anybody but her.” Obligingly, I call the favorite sitter who runs the family room dance contest, and harmony reigns for all.
I know for many parents having a babysitter creates more anxiety than it seems to be worth. And some put babysitters through “dress rehearsals” while they are still at home before they consider leaving them to do the job alone. There are also plenty of parents who will only leave their children with family members – no outside sitters allowed.
Granted, you can only do what you are comfortable with as a parent. But, to me, such a policy drastically limits your options for freedom, and it also seems to foster a distrust and anxiety about the outside world. Parenting is difficult enough without having to fear every tree nut, legume, shellfish and individual outside the family.
When our firstborn was several weeks old, the momentous occasion had arrived. It was time to leave our only child with an outside sitter. As we drove away and headed to the movies, Slim asked if I knew our babysitter’s last name. I told him I was pretty sure her first name was Kelly.
When we became parents, I had the supreme luxury of having a cousin majoring in nursing at a nearby college. Her roommates, also nurses-in-training, were the cutest, most enthusiastic bunch you could dream up – just ask my husband. And with one call, I’d take anyone – we couldn’t go wrong.
Leaving my child with someone else meant that I had the self-confidence to admit that babies and motherhood were not all consuming and that I still had other ways to spend my time. Paying a sitter is also the best way to free yourself from the guilt and the debilitating notion that you are the only one who can do it. I have indeed left my children in the hands of capable 12-year-olds.
Hiring an outside sitter also serves as a much needed shot of praise and approval for a mother at any stage. It seems to be part of the babysitter protocol to tell parents how great the kids are at the end of the job. Yes, I’m usually handing over a small stack of tens and twenties at this point, but I choose to believe they are sincere every time. (Note: those who use family to babysit have assured me that this endorsement of one’s mothering is in no way part of the evening’s transaction.)
It is only after you’ve had a sitter a good many months and you tell her that you are writing an article for Parents Magazine about putting your baby on a schedule that she feels comfortable enough to burst out laughing. It is at this point that you remind your sitter that she was the one who just waxed her eyebrows using your microwave.
My male babysitters bring their own special gifts and delights as well. I’ve come home to a room of sweaty, shirtless boys lying on the floor giddily watching Tom & Jerry – including the 17-year-old sitter. One summer night, my sitter asked if I needed him the next day because he’d be back anyway to find the shoes he lost outside in a game of Manhunt. My youngest declared one boy “the best babysitter ever” because he taught him how to shoot marbles out of his nose. And I’m quite certain I paid forty dollars for that skill to be passed on to my children.
The actual transaction of paying a babysitter is no small issue either. Every time I hire a sitter to watch my children, I know that my family is economically fortunate. Not everyone has such luxury. (Strangely, I’m discovering that a lot of my parenting satisfaction comes from that notion of, “it could be worse.”)
It also means that it is a service that my husband and I both feel has real financial worth. Every time we pay someone, the unspoken message is, this is valued work that someone is paid to do.
Granted, I’m not paid to do it, but the understanding is that if I weren’t caring for our kids we would need to pay someone else to do it. And when the subject of money and babysitters comes up in our house, I point out to Slim that there is actually a direct correlation between the number of sitter hours we pay for and his happiness. I assure him this is not a threat or, more importantly, it is not a promise. It is just an observation.
To observe National Babysitter’s Day I will simply acknowledge to myself the value my sitters have added to the peace, richness, and life of my family. I will not actually be having a babysitter this Saturday, however, because my mother-in-law is coming to town. We’ve both agreed to head into Mother’s Day with low expectations and hope to be surprised on the upside.
And so, a happy National Babysitter’s Day to me and the individuals who’ve cared for my children. A thank you for giving me respite to breathe, for telling me I was doing a good job at valuable work, and, of course, for teaching my children to blow marbles out of their noses: Ali, Alison, Amanda, Andrew, Andrew, Angelica, Anna, Ashley, Becca, Beth, Betsy, Bobby, Caroline, Caroline, Carolyn, Chloe, Christine, Christina, Claire, Claire, Courtney, Eliza, Emily, Erin, Haley, Hannah, Hannah, Hannah, Honore, Hope, Janine, Jen, Jesse, Johanna, John, Julie, Karen, Katie, Katie, Katie, Katie, Kelly, Kelsey, Kristin, Lauren, Liam, Liam, Maddie, Maddie, Maggie, Mary, Mary, Meg, Megan, Meghan, Mikaela, Miranda, Naomi, Nicole, Patty, Ray, Rose, Ryan, Sarah, Sydney, Tara, Tayler, Taylor, Tory, Tucker, Will, and Will.