“I was happier when the babysitter was home with me!” my 15-year-old son told me recently in response to… frankly, I don’t remember what it was in response to.
Because of allergies, my son has a perennially stuffy nose. “If I don’t talk, I can’t breathe,” he helpfully explains. And because of an auditory processing disorder, “I have to say everything out loud to find out what I’m thinking.” (I really think he’s stretching it here. That is not any confirmed symptom I’ve ever come across.) The point is, he talks incessantly, and I cannot possibly be expected to hang onto his every word.
But this, I heard loud and clear. I don’t know what he was hoping to accomplish with his proclamation. All I know is… I don’t really care.
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I returned to office work when my son was 18 months old. At that time, our part-time babysitter became our full-time babysitter. My son adored her, and she him. (So did my daughter, born six years later. My middle child, on the other hand, took an instant dislike to her the day we brought him home from the hospital, which never went away. Then again, up until a few years ago, my middle son hated everybody.)
My oldest son and his sitter went on adventures together all over New York City. She took him to see the big Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center (yes, she asked my permission, first), to the Central Park Zoo, and to the Botanical Garden (it is because of her that my son literally still stops to smell the flowers). She dressed him up in cute, little outfits (I am fashion-challenged, and truly appreciated coming home to see the ensembles she’d put together). She bought him ice cream and treats I never would. Of course, she also took my son along while she went shopping for her own grown children. It’s thanks to her that he is intimately familiar with the indoor layouts of TJ Maxx, Filene’s Basement, and Mandee’s. He also refers to Western Union as the place where he got stickers.
My relationship with the sitter was a bit less rosy. While I had no doubt that she loved my son and took great care of him (when he fell out of his shoe(!) and needed to go to the hospital for an X-Ray, I told my mother, “He’ll survive–don’t know about the sitter, though,” because she was that overwrought), there were things she did that drove me crazy. I used to tell my husband I was suffering from reverse Stockholm Syndrome. I was supposedly the one in charge, but my daily mood was totally contingent on the mood my babysitter was in when she arrived at our house every morning.
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The situation was made worse by the fact that the sitter didn’t speak English, only Russian, which meant every issue my husband had with her (and there were many), had to be dealt with by me, the Russian-speaker. I did not enjoy being their go-between. My Russian is pretty good, but it’s not so great that I felt confident in verbally negotiating the nuances of language when conveying his criticism to her, without her getting upset.
Reams and reams of literal and virtual ink has been spilled on the subject of working mothers worrying that their children will love the nanny more than they love Mommy. I never gave it a second thought. Maybe it’s because of my oversize ego and the arrogance of not being able to imagine that anyone could find another person preferable to myself. Or maybe it’s due to my belief that a child can never be loved too much. I loved him, his father loved him, so did our extended families, and so did the babysitter. I always saw this as a good thing, not a contest between us. Besides, I’m awesome.
Whenever my son would misbehave around the babysitter, she would say to us, “I don’t understand. He never acts that way with me.”
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“Of course not,” my husband exploded (in English). “She lets him do whatever he wants!”
He’s right. The babysitter saw her job as keeping my son happy (a happy kid also made her job a lot easier). So when my now-teen was waxing poetic about the past (I let the sitter go when he was 10 and my youngest started preschool, giving me a few free hours to work from home), recalling those halcyon days of, “I was happier when the babysitter was home with me,” I told him, “I am absolutely sure that you were.”
Because I do not see it as my job to make my son happy. I see it as my job to raise an individual who will make the world a better place, be an asset to his profession, and an all-around mentsch to family and friends. And that requires periodically making him unhappy. It requires saying no, and forcing him to do things he doesn’t want to do (like chores for which I don’t even pay him, and letting–no, setting him up to–fail. That’s my job, not the sitter’s.
Him being unhappy just proves that I’m doing it right.