Sunday, October 3, 2010

The NannyMama Twist

This autumn is a fall of firsts for me. It's the first full school year for my little Plumtree Nursery School. It's the first time Kiddo's gone to preschool with a teacher besides myself, and it's the first time I've arranged to have regular child care for him so that I can finish my work day in relative peace. Even after my little group goes home with their parents, I have at least another hour or more of cleanup and prep to do for the next day. Last spring, having Kiddo home with me at that time was stressful for both of us. He wanted to play with me and I needed my focus to be elsewhere. This school year, Kiddo already has to entertain himself for an hour before his preschool day while I transform our home to a school space. Bookending his preschool day with my prep times would have been overly demanding and potentially disastrous, so we knew that child care was essential to family harmony.

To this end, we've been blessed with my dear friend's househusband, who I will call Ang (an acronym for Awesome Neighbor Guy). Ang picks Kiddo up from preschool everyday at one and keeps him for the afternoon. Kiddo loves Ang, and is a bit disappointed on Fridays when I am the one to come pick him up instead. He and Ang, and Ang's daughter, are buddies. They do the things in the afternoon that I would have done with him on my days off-- leisurely trips to Laurelhurst Park to watch the big machines cleaning out the algae-infested pond, trips to Portland Nursery to peruse fountains or long playtimes on the playground after Ang's daughter's kindergarten lets out. It's nice to have someone else in Kiddo's life who will ask him to quiet down at the library or tell him to finish his carrots from his lunchbox before we start getting out more food. I've had the good fortune of working with some wonderful male co-teachers at the daycares and caring, involved fathers in their homes, so I appreciate the more masculine caregiving style and see the potential for balance in Kiddo's life, as his other caregivers and teachers are all women.

It was 1993 when took my first nanny job. I was young and wondered why on earth the kids behaved so much worse for their own parents than they did for me. Fast forward a few years, and I began to see those family/caregiver situations as more nuanced. Children have an entirely different comfort level with their own parents than they do nearly anyone else, and this will sometimes show itself in the outbursts and boundary-testing that spring up when the child sees their parent at the end of the day. Having observed this dynamic time and again makes it easier to understand the differences in Kiddo's behavior when he's with Ang and with me. I understand that whole "I love you and now I'm going to try to get your attention in all the worst ways" sort of thing that goes on during the drop-off transition. As a nanny, I witnessed this almost every evening: Mom comes home from work and the whole place falls apart. The kids, who were holding it together, now come at her from all sides with demands, complaints and sorrows. It wasn't until the children were significantly older that this end-of-day time became less stressful for the family; instead, it was a transition time all around for most youngsters. So I know that my Kiddo is no exception.

It's also easy for working parents to believe that the nanny gets the best of their kids and the best parts of their child's day. I've read a few books about the complex relationships between mothers and nannies; most have been less than helpful, so I'm not naming titles here, but one thing's clear to me: there's a bit of resentment on the part of some mothers that the nanny is loved and trusted by the child. I find this to be a simplistic overglorification of the nanny-child relationship. The children might have loved and trusted me, but I was also privileged to their tantrums, meltdowns (both at home and in public) and other less-than-lovely disciplinary moments. There were a lot of fun days, sure, and there were also a lot of hard days when I stopped at the pub on the way home from work to decompress before making dinner, replaying that day's difficulties over in my head and wondering what could be done differently next time. So I'm not laboring under any delusions that Kiddo is all sweetness and light when he's with Ang. In fact, I'm sure that sometimes he's a handful and that some days, they are going to be tired of each other. It's just the way it is.

I'm glad I had the job before I became the client. In many ways, Ang has saved our bacon, and I do my best to show him that I value the time he spends with Kiddo. At the very beginning, Ang and I went to coffee and sketched out an agreement. We discussed what would work best for both of us, agreed on a reasonable rate of pay, then signed it as a contract. From past experience, I know that being very clear about expectations on both sides is crucial to having a good caregiver/parent partnership. And we have the liability waivers to back this up; being friends, we don't want to end up suing each other. We've taken what could have been a loose, informal agreement and professionalized it to a degree, and we both feel the better for it.

It's this last piece of the puzzle that makes me so value how much my life has changed. The shoe is on the other foot, and I know what that shoe looks like for Ang. I know how to be a good client, and I understand the reality of the entire situation. His job is hard, so while I might miss my son for a moment in the afternoons, I am not jealous or resentful of Ang. It's my choice to work, because it's vital for me to keep myself in the game. Teaching preschoolers is rich, meaningful work to me.Ang makes all of this so much easier because I know Kiddo's in good hands. Ang may be Kiddo's surrogate parent for several hours a week, but I'm not afraid of him replacing me in my son's affections. In a season of firsts, these new arrangements already feel so comfortable and friendly, they don't feel new at all. They just feel right.

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