My relationships have always had easy to define boundaries (all of my post-middle school relationships, at least). My friends and family are the people I trust implicitly. They’re the people I’ll greet with a hug and confide unflattering truths. We support each other emotionally. Those relationships differ from the ones I’ve had with employees and colleagues and deviate even more from my relationships with hairstylists or the neighborhood barista.
Then there’s the woman who takes care of my son.
She runs the in-home center he attends along with, at most, four other children. For us, this has been a best-of-both-worlds setup: He gets the personalized attention he’d get from a nanny while having other kids to pal around with.
When people ask about her, I struggle to describe who she is. I stammer a bit before I hear the words “childcare provider” or “caregiver” come out of my mouth, which feel so general and clinical. But she’s not our nanny, and she’s not exactly a daycare worker.
However, her official title is probably the least complicated aspect of our relationship.
It feels incredibly intimate in many ways. She’s known my son since we were still counting his age in weeks, and as much as I hate to admit it, she probably spends as many waking hours with him as I do. She’s witnessed — and honestly, should probably take credit for — some of my son’s biggest milestones. She’s the one who deciphered his first word (apparently osssay = outside) and taught him how to wash his hands. She beams with grandmother-like pride when she talks about him, and he enthusiastically toddles to the front door when we tell him it’s time to go to her house in the morning.
And yet, this relationship is transactional, too.
I’m reminded of this every time I sign her checks. An act that twists my penny-pinching soul each month. A year of my toddler’s care is about the same as the price of in-state college tuition, and believe me, we feel it. If she were providing any other service, I might be tempted to haggle or look elsewhere for a bargain.
Though once I finish clutching my wallet, I recognize what we pay her is simultaneously an insufficient amount. Leaving your child in someone else’s care, especially when they’re so young and fragile, is excruciatingly difficult, but I know my son is in good hands. Can you put a price on peace of mind?
I’ve found myself mentally calculating her salary. I sometimes worry it’s not enough for her to live as comfortably as she’d like. It’s not lost on me that no matter how unaffordable childcare feels to parents, childcare providers often struggle to make ends meet. It would stretch us to pay more, and yet I feel like we should be emptying our pockets.
I don’t do this mental dance with anyone else I pay.
There are other parts of our relationship that are more businesslike as well. The first day I dropped my son off, I did so with a typed, multi-page document of my expectations. And no matter how fond of her I grow, I have to be willing to put my foot down if I think she’s doing something that’s not in my son’s best interest. I understand the reverse is true too. She must make decisions with her business in mind, like enforcing a penalty fee if we show up late.
Sometimes I feel awkward navigating this blurry space. Am I her client, or is she a grandmotherly figure to my son? When I pepper her with questions about her weekend plans, am I like an annoying boss trying to insert myself into an employee’s personal life? Or, on the flip side, was I rude for not inviting her to my son’s birthday dinner?
I walk this tightrope that stretches between the personal and professional, wavering between the two, unsure of exactly where I should land.
More and more, I find myself teetering toward the personal.
Recently she revealed to me that she’d suffered a loss. It didn’t come up right away. Earlier in the day, she’d put on a brave face as she greeted my son with the same warmth that always makes his eyes light up. But that evening when I came for pick-up, her shoulders sagged. I could see the pain on her face. With some gentle prodding, she told me what had happened.
Without a second thought, I put my arms around her. I hugged her tightly as she cried on my shoulder, and tears welled up in my own eyes. At that moment, I didn’t think about money exchanging hands or question whether or not I had breached the boundaries of our professional relationship. I didn’t have to assign her a title. I just knew I wanted to do anything I could to make her feel better.
We stood there, locked in an embrace on the sidewalk for a full minute or two, as my son, blissfully unaware of the tender moment unfolding in front of him, chattered about cars and buses from his stroller. A few passersby cast curious stares.
Later, I wondered what they must have thought. Did they assume that this was my mother or aunt? Maybe they thought we were family friends. Who did they think she was in relation to me?
If they’d stopped to ask, I wouldn’t have had a concise answer.
I’m coming to terms with the fact that this relationship may never be fully defined. But as long as we’re united in doing what’s best for my son and share mutual respect and empathy for one another, I believe we can co-exist in this ambiguous space.
I still don’t know what to call her, but “childcare provider” doesn’t quite cover it.
I just know that she cares for my son, and I care about her.
Maybe that’s as succinct as it gets.