Published on July 28th, 2017 | by Caroline Horwitz3
Pauline was my first, though I have no memory of her. I started going to her house at eight weeks old, when my mother’s maternity leave ended.
“I cried,” my mother told me. “The whole way to work that first morning, I cried.” She was single but earned a successful living in investments.
Pauline and her husband were in their seventies and retired. I went to their home every work day until I was two. By that time, her health was failing from diabetes. She passed away a few years later.
“She loved you so much,” my mother said. “It had been a while since she’d sat for an infant. She actually called 911 once when she trimmed your fingernails and made you bleed a little bit.”
Peggy was a stay-at-home mom with four-year-old twin boys. One son was sweet to me; the other found me annoying.
I have dream-like snippets of memories of the days spent with them. One emerges more clearly than the others, though—when one of the boys, the sweet one, pushed me down their basement stairs.
I remember him kneeling before the open door. I remember crouching down to join him. I remember clutching my ALF stuffed animal. I remember exchanging a few words, but I don’t remember any tension in them. Then he shoved me.
I somersaulted down to the bottom, ALF under my arm the whole time. I don’t remember the pain.
“I couldn’t believe it was Chad when Peggy told me about it,” my mother said. “He was always so good to you.”
But she knew why, she said. His parents’ marriage was in trouble. They were fighting all the time, Peggy told her. Her husband was having an affair. She later admitted to my mother that she’d taken to strapping all of us kids in the car and following him on his lunch hour.
That’s why my mom stopped employing her. What if there was a confrontation? What if it became violent? What if her obsession just overrode her ability to drive safely?
Peggy wasn’t offended. She understood she shouldn’t be hauling her own kids around to spy on her husband, let alone someone else’s child. But she couldn’t help it, she said. She was too angry. We parted with Peggy and the boys on amicable terms, my mother wishing her luck with everything.
I have no idea if her marriage was salvaged or not.
Sarah was my next sitter. Blips of her appearance and personality appear to me: a middle-aged woman, dark-haired, bespectacled, heavy, and gruff. She watched other children whom I don’t recall aside from their faceless presence. I certainly don’t think she cared much for any of us. These are feelings I remember, though, not words. My senses resurrect Sarah’s pinched facial expressions and impatient tones and a teenage daughter in the background with whom she seemed to constantly argue.
I associated her with the loss or at least temporary separation from my beloved stuffed animals. I always brought one or two along from home, but they’d go straight on the top shelf of her entertainment center once my mother was gone. No personal toys: that was her most strictly enforced rule. Did she once chastise me for trying to climb the shelving to reach them? I distantly remember this, but perhaps it’s an exaggeration of my helplessness bred by imagination and fallible memory.
Sarah couldn’t be expected to deal with her charges fighting over each other’s toys, she explained to my mom after I finally told her of my plush friends’ daily exile high above. My mom didn’t know what to do. She knew my stuffed animals were my most constant source of play, of security when out of her presence. But what choice did she have? She had to go to work, and finding a new sitter was no easy task.
Fortunately, Sarah provided a reference for a new one without realizing it.
Sarah went out of town one week and put my mother in contact with Ella, an acquaintance of hers who also watched children.
I don’t remember my first week there, but at the end of it, I told my mother I’d rather go to Ella’s than Sarah’s. Ella had a big, warm presence. She had a sprawling backyard, no rules about toys from home, and a son my age named Adam with whom I spent most of my time.
Ella agreed to take me on permanently, and upon Sarah’s return, my mother informed her in person that we were switching. Sarah protested. She wanted to know why. My mom dignified her request with the truth.
“You’re not nice to my kid,” she said.
Sarah cursed at her.
Many years later I asked my mom why she didn’t give Sarah a few weeks’ notice.
“If you ever have to fire a babysitter, do it after the last time they’ve watched your child,” she said. “Not before.”
My days at Ella’s ran happily into one another. She was kind but no-nonsense. Her son Adam became one of my best friends. Aside from our occasional philosophical rows over whether girls or boys were “better,” and his disappointment over my disinterest in video games, we thrived in each other’s company. The next year, we spent kindergarten in the same class. He refused to enter the classroom until I arrived to accompany him.
Shortly before my seventh birthday, my mom received a job offer in the same city as most of our family. She loved the prospect of raising me close to my scads of aunts, uncles, and cousins and less than an hour from my grandparents. “Close to” was an understatement, really—she purchased a house on the same street as three of her siblings and their families.
Best of all, she didn’t have to vet anyone for the next sitter position. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I spent at my Aunt Debbie’s, climbing trees with her four children, while Tuesdays and Thursdays I dwelt at my Aunt Kim’s, playing dolls and Barbies with her daughter. My cousins and I spent our summer days on our bikes or at the neighborhood pool, and our evenings playing Ghost in the Graveyard and attending family potlucks and slumber parties at each other’s homes. When my mom finally dubbed me “old enough” at age twelve or thirteen to come home alone after school, family was only a few houses’ walk away for company.
Lucky doesn’t begin to describe it.
At work one day in my early twenties, when I was childless still, I saw a co-worker crying in her office. She had returned that morning from a four-month maternity leave. I told her I was sorry. I told her my mom cried, too.
She told me it wasn’t only that she missed her daughter, but that her daycare center had just called.
“They said she won’t stop crying,” she sobbed. “They asked me if I had any tips on how to calm her down. People who work in a daycare! Don’t they know this is already one of the worst days of my life?”
Aside from two mornings a week at preschool, my son stays home with me.
This was never the plan. I was always going to be a full-time working mother like my own. I didn’t count on moving to a city with a lackluster and underpaying job market that could barely justify the annual cost of daycare, nor did I count on a husband whose work shifts and weekends would hardly ever line up with my own.
First-world problems, truly. I don’t delude myself into thinking I am anything but fortunate to have the support and finances to spend these days with my son, even if it’s not how my twenty-two-year-old self pictured her future. If circumstances had necessitated I work despite anemic paychecks and nonparallel schedules, our family would have muscled through, like anyone’s does. We would have found a cheaper sitter or daycare center we could trust and hoped our son would have more happy hours there than unhappy ones.
“You don’t know how glad I am you can stay at home with him,” my mom tells me now. “How I wish I could have with you, even though I know it’s not easy.”
“Mom,” I laugh, “you were a single working mother. You have the market cornered on ‘not easy’.”
She’s right, though. Sometimes it’s not easy, even if it feels indulgent to admit. I miss all the things most stay-at-home parents do: the paycheck, the professional wardrobe, the adult conversations, the sense of a more perceptible contribution to society.
The only sitter my son has is a “date night” one: an energetic nurse in her thirties who comes to our home once a month so my husband and I can eat at a restaurant without kids’ menus and catch a movie or a show.
“Ooh,” our son pipes up when he sees us wearing anything dressier than jeans or shorts, “Erica’s coming over!”