Parenting is full of euphemisms. It all starts with the “baby bump,” then we get “nursing,” followed by “fussy” and “number two.”
I’ve now started using my own parenting euphemism: Sometimes I say my son has a “babysitter” instead of a “nanny.”
At a recent event for families with young children at our synagogue I was chatting with another mom who has a young son. I’m still in the dating-new-mommy-friends phase (you know, trying out new friendships, wondering if the other mom really likes you, hoping she will call or email you)–when you have to find someone who has the same work schedule, whose child naps and eats on a similar time table as your little one, etc. I didn’t want to further complicate matters by having this woman think I was a rich and spoiled diva. So instead of saying my son has a nanny during the week, I said he has a babysitter.
My son’s caregiver (another euphemism, natch) explicitly told me she prefers to be called a nanny. Being a nanny is her profession; being a “babysitter” conjures up high school students watching kids on nights and weekends. Still, I referred to her as a babysitter to a stranger and then felt guilty.
Why? Because to me–someone who didn’t grow up understanding the concept of a nanny–it sounds slightly snobbish. So I use the word selectively, depending on the social context and how well the person I am speaking with knows me.
I was prepared for the complications that might arise between me and the nanny over discipline, over sharing my home and child with someone, over my own guilt. This is fairly well-trodden territory. For example, I read the insightful book
The Purchase of Intimacy
in graduate school (in the pre-marriage, pre-baby days) by one of my advisors, Viviana Zelizer, in which she explains:
Historically, child-care workers have long been a part of American households as nurses, wet nurses, nannies, and governesses. During the later twentieth century, however, increasing employment of mothers away from home generated an urgent demand for paid child care. A great deal of that care now takes place outside of households, in day-care centers and schools. Still, a majority occurs within households… Child care by outsiders within households poses a series of delicate relational problems.
What I hadn’t anticipated was that those delicate relational problems would apply to my interactions with others. One mom who has a son a month older than mine told me bluntly that her son is in daycare because they can’t afford a nanny. Another mother told me she can afford not to work, so why would she want her children spending time with a nanny?
I suppose what makes me most uncomfortable is that these relational issues clearly boil down to class issues. And class in the US is extremely complicated and rocky terrain–as we learned in the recent presidential election. Combine that with mothering topics and you have a veritable minefield. Hence, why I sometimes say my son has a babysitter.
A few weeks after I told the fledgling mom friend that my son has a babysitter (note that despite my choice in nomenclature she never did email me), my son’s nanny suddenly fell ill with a condition so serious she could no longer work. As I called to cancel meetings and events explaining, “I’ve lost my childcare,” I noticed that people’s expressions and voices immediately changed when they heard why: “Oh,” they said, “I’m so sorry.”
It suddenly didn’t matter whether my son was in daycare or had a nanny, babysitter, or even an au pair. Everyone understands the chaos that ensues when you lose your childcare.
So there’s my new euphemism–“We have childcare”–and it’s probably the most appropriate one there is, because whoever spends the day with children is caring for them.
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