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Living with our choices in child care

Here's one.

I'm trying on dresses at a Carrollwood shop this past weekend, and I overhear the following conversation between a shopper and the manager. Forgive the cheap source of material. And I'll probably get some words wrong in the quotes, since I wasn't taking notes.

But here goes:

The shopper, who has a baby with her, tells the manager (or maybe she was the store's owner), "My nanny shops here. You might have seen her this week."

The manager responds, "Don't you worry about having a nanny, after that story about the other one?"

She means, of course, Louise Woodward, the au pair convicted of shaking and slamming an 8-month-old baby to death. In case you didn't know, it is now open season on all nannies and all parents (i.e., mothers) who hire nannies.

The shopper tries to cull together a polite response. "Yes, I've thought about it," she says. "At least I have a happy baby. I don't know what I would do if she cried all the time. If she had colic. . ."

Then her voice seems to trail off.

Because how do you finish that sentence? If my baby had colic, I wouldn't hire a nanny? I'd stop being a lawyer, or banker, or whatever I am? I trust an outsider to care for this innocent child that I love so dearly, only because she is well-behaved and would never give anyone a moment's frustration?

How do you answer?

Now, let me say right here that I have asked more than my share of stupid questions. I once walked up to a baby with a hematoma and asked, "what happened to your face?" Yes, I can be Queen Idiot.

Nor is it the stupidest thing I ever heard a salesperson say. I often tell the story about the time I went shopping for a wedding gown in Brandon. I said I wanted something simple because I am only 5 feet tall. The saleswoman pulled a suit off the rack and said, "this is nice for a second marriage."

No, the nanny remark doesn't come close.

Still, it came off like a you-bad-mother-you remark, the kind you often hear in Carrollwood. And it didn't seem to matter that the recipient was standing, probably half-naked, with a walletful of money to spend in the store.

For those who don't understand why the question is inappropriate, I will now talk real slow.

All mothers worry about their children. That goes for those who stay home, those who use day care and those who hire nannies. We don't need some freak in Massachusetts to make us start worrying.

I can safely speak for All Mothers when I say parenting is a never-ending series of tough decisions that we second-guess _ and that others second-guess for us. And perhaps the single most wrenching is who should care for our children when they are little.

A privileged minority can ditch their jobs, with no hardship on the family whatsoever.

But most of us either a) have no choice or b) must weigh the consequences. And I'm not talking about a second Rolex here. Who among us has never met a housewife on anti-depressants? Or a couple whose marriage collapsed, at least in part, because of money troubles?

Those who elect, or are forced, to work outside the home must choose among alternatives that are never, never perfect. Do we entrust a child _ who cannot even talk _ to an outsider, in a setting with no witnesses? Or do we subject that child to group care, with assorted strangers in charge, not to mention every cold and flu germ in the universe?

My husband and I are pleased with our children's day-care center.

But it is always a trade-off. We weigh the thought of our children waiting for their juice and running around with their shoelaces untied against the many benefits _ friendships they have formed and creative teachers who have shown them everything from how to carve a pumpkin to how to greet a friend's parents in Spanish.

For a long time I was afraid of day care. I heard horribly condescending things come out of my mouth, like "call me if he runs a fever," and "you're going to cut those grapes in half, aren't you?"

Strangely, it was the Oklahoma City bombing that broke me of my fear. That day in Tampa, as I walked through the door of our day care, the teachers were crying. I realized then, at a gut level, that they were people, and not the enemy.

So we make hard choices and then we come to terms with them. And it's not because everything is wonderful. It's because you have to make yourself feel secure, so your children can feel secure.

And because there is no end to the things that can make you crazy. Nobody has it perfect; I don't care if you're Madonna.

I have a neighbor who stays home with her young children. I envy her ability to walk them to the park at 10 a.m. Maybe she envies my ability to spring for a spur-of-the-moment trip to Disney World. Who knows? Each of us made our life choices. Each of us lives with them, though we are forever tallying up the plus and minus columns.

All mothers are sickened by the nanny story, just as we are sickened by the rash of child abuse deaths right here in Florida. Seven were reported in less than two months. I work for this newspaper, and I don't even have the stomach to read it any more.

Most of these children were being cared for by family acquaintances _ typically, the mother's boyfriend. I doubt they had much exposure to nannies, except maybe Mary Poppins.

So, please. Unless you have walked in our shoes, and especially if you have, don't try and make us worry even more than we do (if that were possible) about leaving our children while we work. We know the risks. We know that, ultimately, we're rolling the dice.

Better to mourn those young lives who were taken so brutally and so soon.

And realize we are all just trying to do our best in an imperfect world.

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