Last week, nanny Yoselyn Ortega was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the brutal 2012 murder of Leo and Lucia Krim, ages 2 and 6, who were in her care at the Krim’s Manhattan home.
The story is a gut-wrencher; it haunted me endlessly when it happened back in 2012. Everything about the case was horrific, from the violence of the crime, to the senselessness of it all, to how it touched on such a raw nerve for parents everywhere who leave our children in someone else’s hands.
Because, in our modern society — in which 61 percent of married couples with children have both parents employed — an overwhelming number of parents do entrust their children to non-relatives for care. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, “the reality in the United States is that half of the children born in 2001 were in some form of regular non-parental child care by 9 months of age…26 percent of these children were in relative care, 15 percent in non-relative care, and 9 percent in center-based care.” Whether for the occasional date night or appointment, or on a more regular basis for work or other obligations, people do resort to hiring people to take care of their children.
The murders of the Krim children are ultimate worst-case scenario: you leave your child with someone, and that someone takes their life. The reason it sticks in the mind so vividly is because it is so horrible, so irrevocable — and, it must be said, so unlikely. Nevertheless, almost any parent leaving their child with someone else does so with lots of worries, whether it’s if the sitter would know when and how to use the EpiPen in case of an emergency; if she’ll forget to turn off the oven after making fish sticks; or whether he will pay more attention to his iPhone than your child.
Our fears about what will become of our children in someone else’s hands are perhaps particularly guilt-inducing because so many of us feel so guilty about childcare in the first place. Parents also tend to not mention or show their sitters on social media. A New York Times piece, “Where Are All The Nannies on Instagram?,” made this observation: “When oversharing parents omit nannies on Instagram or Facebook, it can indeed be intended to shape perception of their own characters. ‘I think many of us on social media, probably subconsciously, want to perpetuate this idea that we’re doing it all on our own,’ said Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an associate professor of history at the New School and a mother of two.”
Because the fact is, we do leave our children, whether to make a living, or to go to the supermarket without schlepping infant twins in the rain. And in order to do that, we rely on putting a piece of our hearts in someone else’s hands. I mean, I can’t even write this piece right now without a sitter taking care of a healthy number of my multiple kids. And there will always be part of me that feels bad about it.
So what are ways that you can rest — or work, or have a night out — easier, knowing that your child is in good hands? Bearing in mind that there’s never a way to be absolutely sure about anyone, there are things that can give you more peace of mind.
Background check and references. I really believe in only hiring people I know personally, or who have worked for people I know. (Thankfully, because I have a lot of kids, I know a lot of people.) But there are times that I have gone beyond those parameters. In those cases, I have hired people on sites like Care.com, or from a summer camp near me that do a full background check on their staff. But I have to say, even background checks aren’t foolproof in terms of whether the person in question will be a good fit for you and your family. Generally, I am not a fan of stranger references, because I have no way of knowing if that person’s expectations are in line with mine. It’s also hard to know that references are who they say they are and not, say, family members of a sitter. And yes, that happened to me — I figured it out when the people on the phone said they lived in my town, but “couldn’t remember” their address.
Rapport with your kids. Obviously, if the person doesn’t get along with your kids at the initial interview, that’s a dead giveaway that the relationship isn’t going to work out. It’s a Venn diagram of sorts: the sitter getting along with your kids at that first meeting is not necessarily indicative that the relationship will be successful. However, the sitter NOT getting along with your kids at that first meeting is dispositive: it’s a no-go.
If something strikes you as weird? It is. What it all comes down to is that it’s your house and your family. If you’re not comfortable with something — no matter how small — that is enough reason to not have a person in your home, especially not on a regular basis. For example, does it seem weird to you that your new sitter is on the couch asleep, holding your child who is wide awake and watching TV? It is weird. (Also, that’s not just you.). Does it seem weird to you that there are some charges on your credit card at Lululemon that you didn’t make, and your sitter shows up wearing an adorable new athleisure outfit that’s entirely by Lululemon? It’s probably weird. (And, sadly, a true story.) Does it seem weird to you that your sitter shows up on a Saturday morning in full Friday-night date wear, complete with high heels, and rants to you about how you need to invest in more expensive kitchenware? It is weird. (And also a true story, but that one was only a prospective sitter. She did not get the job.).
These things won’t make the guilt go away, but they will help you to know that your child is in good hands — and that will in turn reinforce the idea that more hands can be good, even if the other hands aren’t yours (or your partner’s). And when your child expresses love and affection for your babysitter — even though the guilt from that might hit you in the solar plexus — please take a moment to remind yourself that it’s actually a good thing: They are confirming that your choice was a good one, and that their heart has connected with someone else’s. And the wonderful thing about love is that there’s not a finite amount of it. There’s enough for everyone.