Stand-Ins Wanted for Three Playful Boys: Working hard for the help when I’m working
Colin called me from his cell phone. “Make Brendan stop fighting with me.”
I was driving back to Chicago with my oldest son, Weldon, in July 2007 after his college freshman orientation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At 13 and 15, the two younger boys were at home fighting over who knows what, maybe the video controller, a bag of potato chips, air, arm muscles, a speck of dust, a burp, a punch line, an imaginary girl. I have learned that brother fighting is their version of vitamins or the adult equivalent of sex; they have to have a fight every day or they just didn’t feel right.
I solved the problem from afar — you go to your room, you stay downstairs — and asked Colin to put Evelyn,* the babysitter, on the phone.
“This is your job, Evelyn, I am not home to solve this, please take care of this.”
“You can’t tell me what to do,” she barked and hung up.
At that, she got in her ancient, rumbling green van and drove away, with Colin in his practice pads for football and three other boys on the team waiting on my front porch for her to give them a ride to practice.
When Colin called me back a few minutes later, I reassured him.
“She’ll be back, she probably went to get something,” I said.
“No, she just drove away. She’s gone.”
Evelyn had worked for me for three years. She was a few years older than me, the mother of my neighbor’s sitter, who pitched in after the sudden exodus of Sylvia, the previous sitter. It took some getting used to Evelyn’s verbal exuberance and habit of using about a cup of oil in every dish, along with a liberal use of jalapenos and chorizo.
She had a concrete way of looking at the world, but she was never late, never missed a day of work and stayed overnight when I traveled for business and made sponge cakes from scratch for the boys and me on our birthdays. She told the boys to put spider webs on their cuts and taught us how to pick a good avocado from the grocery store (you remove the stem and if it is bright green, it is good inside, if not, put it back in the bin).
She never called the boys or me our correct names. I was “Lady.”
But all was forgiven, always. I was working. I was a single parent. And I needed her.
Evelyn didn’t answer her cell phone that night, but appeared at my front door the following Saturday to give me back my house keys.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You really need me,” she announced.
I didn’t offer her back the job she had just quit. I figured it was about time; I didn’t need a stand-in anymore. Weldon at 17 could drive Brendan, 15, and Colin, 13, where they needed to go when I was at work. It saved money I needed for college tuition.
Like any working mother not soaking in the brine of denial, I acknowledged it was rough going at times for the sitters. It was rough going for me. I deliberately omit the less optimal anecdotes of their behavior — who threatened whom on the stairs, the broken cabinet doors, the flying fruit, the slamming doors, the testosterone tantrums, the shouting matches over the last scoop of ice cream, the fist fights over video games, the swearing, the shoving, the threats, the time the knob just fell off the door to Weldon’s room without anyone touching it, honest, those kinds of stories. But I had to work to support them. I had no choice.
I considered my cadre of sitters over the years to be my stand-ins. They could tapdance the routines and follow the script on the parenting stage for me when I needed to be somewhere else — and that was work.
One babysitter I hired when the boys were very small lasted two hours, my shortest stint. Luckily she quit on the dry-run day when I was home from work to show her the ropes.
“How do you expect me to get anything done with three boys under five?” she asked.
I don’t know, maybe because I do it every day for free?
From the time Weldon was six weeks old, I worked part time with part time help, and then immediately after my divorce in 1996, went to work full-time. I was given sole custody, so the boys were with me all the time.
At the time of my divorce, Weldon was in second grade, Brendan in kindergarten and Colin just 2. One person I hired to help in the house was cheaper than paying for three children in outside daycare. And simpler, or so I thought. I needed real day to day help, someone to get them to and from school, after-school practices, parties, study groups, everything while I was working. I needed an assistant, a half-wife, a clone, an understudy.
In 17 years, more than a dozen babysitters either adored the boys, tolerated them to collect weekly cash or were unfortunately a little mean, the last expression of spiky disinterest usually right before they left for another job. Most runs were a year or so. I was amazed at caretakers who stayed working for families and their children from birth to college. Boy, they must be well-paid or know all the family secrets.
Unlike many working mothers I know, my immediate family could not directly help. All three of my sisters were working mothers — Mary Pat a special education early childhood teacher of severely and profoundly disabled children, Maureen an insurance executive and Madeleine an attorney with her own firm.
My father died before my sons were born and my mother worked as a chief financial officer at the family manufacturing business until she broke several vertebrae in a fall in 1999 and had to stop. After multiple surgeries, in three bed-ridden years before she died in 2002, her osteoporosis had turned her bones into the consistency of dried hydrangeas and her extroversion to a sound byte. Her Auntie Mame life of St. John knit suits, symphony, opera and theater season tickets, elaborate dinner parties, business and pleasure trips to Europe, Russia, Asia and Canada had transformed into a Lilliputian existence.
So the cost-free family member childcare was never in my cards. I was always a little jealous of the friends I knew whose own mothers or mothers-in-law came to the house and watched the children so they could work, heck, so they could get a haircut. Before my mom was ill, she was at work in the days and would rather take us all out to breakfast after church or Sunday night dinner than sit and play Candyland with the boys.
Out of necessity, a parade of distinct personalities comprised my supporting cast. When Weldon was born and I was married, I hired Janet who worked about 15 hours a week so I could file my newspaper and magazine stories. After we moved back to the Chicago area, I hired Elizabeth who had the audacity to have a baby of her own and quit after about a year. I gave her the outgrown crib.
Father duty never seemed an option; first when we were married, my then-husband was in law school and then an associate at a law firm. He was gone all day, every day.
After Elizabeth left to have her own baby, when Brendan and Weldon were 5 and 3, there was Joan, with tattoos in several places I could see (I only imagine where I couldn’t) and a beeper that pre-empted the “errands” she took the boys on throughout the day. She liked to have the boys walk on her back while she lied on the floor. She quit in a terse phone message the January morning I brought a 36-hour-old Colin home from the hospital, all 21-inches and 9 pounds, 15-ounces of pinkish white flesh and blue-eyed boy.
“I’m sorry, I just can’t care for a baby, it’s too hard,” was her message.
Maria was Russian and insisted the three boys needed daily fresh air so she brought them outside each day for a walk — two in the double stroller stacked like piles of newly folded laundry, plus Weldon hanging onto the stroller handle. I argued that bringing an infant outside at 20 below zero was perhaps not really all that good for him, especially since the kitchen sink pipes were frozen solid. His little face would get cold, right?
Next I hired Fanny, not a great moniker for a sitter of young boys who would burst out laughing every time they said her name. She denied that she smoked in secret in the tiny green bathroom on the first floor, spraying a cloud of room freshener in the airplane restroom-sized space right before she exited. Fanny came home from the nearby park one day with only two of the boys. I was upstairs writing my newspaper column on deadline.
“I don’t know where Weldon went, he got away from me,” she said as if she had misplaced a handkerchief or a spare pair of glasses.
I was panicked and started planning my boy-hunt. Within minutes a neighbor from about six blocks away called to say she had Weldon, and he was fine. I didn’t fire Fanny then, but soon after that, I was on the lookout for someone new. Who would not lose them.
I found these women through carefully worded want ads I placed in the local weekly paper; “Loving sitter to three playful boys,” I wrote, figuring playful was a euphemism like spirited or independent, similar to the description of garden apartment to describe the basement. I sent out desperate pleas to other working women I found at the playgrounds or parking lots of preschool. I interviewed. I called references. I did background checks.
There were plenty I didn’t hire — the most bizarre case was likely the elderly black woman who explained in great militaristic detail about using the belt on her own sons and how they turned out fine because of it.
“Yes,” she answered, showing me precisely how she would spank them with a leather belt, motioning with a forceful swipe of her arm in the air.
I felt as if I was living a script for a movie like “The Yellow Rolls Royce,” or “The Red Violin,” stories centering on the dramatic vignettes of sequential owners of the car or the instrument. Mine would be “The Three Playful Boys.”
I understand the burdensome plight of working moms on our holy grail search for the perfect or even imperfect helper. I judged not one of us ever. We paid in cash, gave raises often, days off frequently, accommodated for borderline neurotic personal habits and refusals to do certain tasks, like sweeping the kitchen floor or putting her own dishes into the dishwasher.
Some would take the time to separate out my lone pink bra from the boys’ pile of cotton turtlenecks and jeans and leave it in the laundry basket, saying they would only do the children’s laundry. One pilfered laundry soap each week, one plastic baggie filled with Tide at a time. Another came drunk.
I was always understanding, remembering birthdays, giving extra time off on holidays, regular raises. I was grateful for the help and paid dearly for it. I was broke. For years I worked to pay the mortgage and childcare; childcare was more than the mortgage. I would pay college tuition when childcare ended.
Sometimes I felt blackmailed.
“She’s taking advantage of you, Mom,” Weldon would say. “You are way too nice.”
Their father was never an option to help. In the first years following our divorce, he was working and even on the every other weekend visitation schedule, he often failed to come through. I absolutely could not survive professionally without outside help.
So during the week when the phone rang early, I panicked; Post Traumatic Working Mother’s Syndrome I called it. The call meant my work day was obliterated if I couldn’t instantly set in motion Plan B. No matter what classes I had to teach more than an hour away on campus or what deadlines I had to meet for the newspaper, if there was no substitute for me, my day was cancelled. The kids still needed to be driven places, watched, picked up, taken to practice. Whatever I needed to do professionally took fourth place in the triage behind Weldon, Brendan and Colin’s needs.
Still, even with someone else in the house, the boys called me constantly at work. “Where is the peanut butter?” Colin asked.
You would think saying it was in the cupboard was as novel a response as saying it was buried in the backyard.
Jadwiga would rather clean the house and cook than talk to the boys. She also took every comment from me literally, like the children’s book character, Amelia Bedelia. After I asked her to make chocolate chip cookies, she painstakingly pressed a single chocolate chip into each cookie scoop of batter before baking. I learned to ask for “chocolate chips” cookies.
When the boys told me it wasn’t so much fun with Jadwiga because she ignored them, I had to weigh my desire for a clean oven and a house that smelled like Pine-Sol with their desire to play that stupid plastic hippo game. She made chicken soup with real broth from a whole chicken she boiled all afternoon with celery and onions, and egg noodles she put in the last few minutes.
When they were old enough to all be in school, I switched to only before and after school help to get them to school — at one point three schools: elementary, middle and high school — pick up and drive to sports after school while I was at work. I cursed snow days, early dismissals, late arrivals and the holiday-inspiring presidents as well as random institute days — work days for me and free-for-alls for the boys.
“Don’t forget we have a half-day Friday,” the boys would say and it always gave me hives.
I cobbled together a complicated school day-off schedule by sharing sitters with mothers who didn’t work outside the house or worked different schedules than I did. I crossed my fingers. I bartered.
If any of the boys was sick enough to stay home, my day was shot unless I could fill in the in-betweens during school hours. It was too far a commute — more than an hour each way — for me to go and come back and go and come back. So you had to be really sick in our house to stay home — high fever, bleeding, vomiting, that kind of thing. Visible evidence. No vagaries, sore throats, mild headaches or “fakatitis” as my sister-in law Bernie called it.
Here, take the cold medicine. Wear the Band-Aid. You’ll be fine. Call me if you have a problem and I can get home in an hour.
Because most all of the mothers in the suburb where I lived did not work outside the house, the awards ceremonies, concerts, assemblies and events were held in the middle of the day, usually just after lunch, often a logistical impossibility for me. I did my best, but I was not always able to pull it off and go.
“You were the only mother in the whole school not there,” Brendan said.
Feeling guilty, I called my friend, Sue, a nurse, to see if she attended. She wasn’t there either.
The boys adored Nikola, a self-confident athletic sister to brothers, married to a trucker. In the summer she took the boys swimming at the local park district pool where we had a family pass. She cajoled them out of fighting. During her pregnancy, she continued watching the boys right up to the day before her delivery. When her daughter Nikoletta was born, Nikola worked for me for another two years. She brought Nikoletta to my house each day until they moved back to Slovakia to be with her ailing father.
Jen* arrived then; she worked for a shift as a caretaker for my mother, who lived a few blocks away and needed full time care after she was bedridden. Jen was amenable, sweet. So much so that she let my boys talk her into selling the Nintendo system and all their video games and controllers to Game Stop for a credit of $125 while I was at work. Never mind the replacement value was upwards of $2,000. I never replaced; a cautionary tale they said still stung.
“You can’t sell anything in the house, no matter what they say,” I told her. The silver place settings and my few pieces of real jewelry were off limits should the boys suddenly develop an emergency need to go to a pawn shop to pay for ice cream.
Nana was a J-Lo look alike who even if the weather was not quite warm enough, wore sports bras and short shorts to the delight of the other fathers picking up their children at school. She called the boys affectionate names — Weldoncito, Brendancito and Colincito. She was energetic and let them play whatever music they wanted in her car. But she had an exceptionally handsome boyfriend named John she later married and divorced, who liked to see Nana during her work hours.
“What did you do today after kindergarten?” I asked Colin when I got home from work.
“It was awful, I had to go to Nana’s apartment and sit and watch TV all afternoon while she and John took a nap in her bedroom.”
I braced myself. He’ll be the first child in kindergarten to have witnessed strangers having sex. “Did you see them sleeping?”
“No, I watched TV all day.”
That’s nice. When I asked her, she assured me that did not have sex in front of Colin.
I gave her two weeks notice the next day.
Sylvia was wonderful for a few years and brought her toddler son, Lenny, with her to work. As a working mom, I gladly accommodated the working moms who were working for me. The boys loved to play with him and Sylvia left when she found another job, I gather that was better paid and more glamorous.
I have always known the boys needed so much more than I could offer logistically and realistically, even if I gave them everything I had. I felt like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill trying to fill them up, answer every question, pre-empt every need. I wanted someone else to share the burden, to laugh when Brendan did something truly funny, tell me of a kind gesture from Weldon or call me to come upstairs to see how beautiful Colin looked as he slept.
I knew as a mother it couldn’t be me all the time, it was impossible. So I hoped whoever was around my children had good intentions, that the people near them would not fool them, disappoint them or violate their vulnerability. I prayed their lives would run smoothly, and it would all be well-organized and calm even if they had just one parent at home.
I knew every day was ripe with possibilities for parental failure even when I gave them absolutely every cell of love and good intention I possessed. And I knew that I had to fan the flames of my career if I was going to hold up the house and everyone in it.
All I ever wanted was someone or plenty of someones who adored them, could improve their lives in some way or at least could make a decent ham sandwich. I wanted someone in our house to have the boys as top priority. And I wanted the boys to venture out into lives filled with friends, secrets and triumphs I did not have to create.
Sometimes it worked out that way.