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Welcome Meddleheads, to the advice column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.
We have a wonderful babysitter who has been with us for years. However, she's better with kids than with adults. If there are minor slip-ups in our household — and there always are — she sometimes casts blame on me.
“You should have picked up milk on the way home,” or “Why didn't you write yourself a note?” I've learned that explaining — “I had a busy day and wanted to get home to see the kids!” or even, “I forgot” — doesn't help. She counters with another reason I could have accomplished the task.
I dream of the perfect response: kind (I don't want to insult her) but also dignified and clear that her comments are inappropriate.
She doesn't say things like this often. When she does, I've learned that it's best to ignore her, or change the subject. But this doesn't seem the right approach, either. I don't like our kids hearing her talk that way to me. I dream of the perfect response: kind (I don't want to insult her) but also dignified and clear that her comments are inappropriate. I feel like this is an ideal opportunity to show our kids how to answer respectfully when people unfairly blame them or otherwise say uncourteous things.
But I haven't yet dreamed up that perfect answer. Please help!
A Bleary-Eyed Mom
Let me start by noting that I immediately ran this question by my wife, who deals with our babysitters more than I do. Nearly all of what follows comes from her. So.
Here’s the first thing to bear in mind: The dynamics between moms and their paid childcare providers are almost always fraught, often tinged with guilt and marked by an intimacy that makes it hard to maintain what should be a pretty clear-cut employer/employee relationship.
After all, B-EM, I have to imagine that you wouldn’t accept criticisms of the sort you describe from a plumber, or anyone else hired to perform another household task. The fact that this woman is a “wonderful” babysitter, responsible and trustworthy and great with the kids, makes her hugely important and valuable to you and your family. She also, presumably, has a close relationship with your children. This is the situation you want. But it also gives her a certain kind of leverage.
I mean by this that you clearly want to avoid any tension or ill will in your relationship. More so, there’s a good chance that the babysitter's criticisms of your “minor household slip-ups” probably feeds into the guilt many moms — especially those who work outside the home — feel about hiring others to perform household duties, child rearing especially. This, in turn, is because our culture sends women two contradictory messages simultaneously: that they should pursue worldly ambitions and be 100 percent devoted to their children. It’s not just a double standard (i.e., we never expect this of men) but also a double bind.
But what feels ... important is that you learn how to establish boundaries and maintain a professional relationship with a person whom you value deeply, and pay, to care for your children, not to critique your domestic performance.
So these are the reasons — again, I suspect — that you haven’t simply told this woman, “Your job is to take care of the kids, not to pass judgment on how I run my household. Period.”
You esteem her. You’re in some ways dependent on her. You don’t want to be in conflict with her. I can certainly understand your urge to model for your kids a graceful way to resolve this. But what feels even more important is that you learn how to establish boundaries and maintain a professional relationship with a person whom you value deeply, and pay, to care for your children, not to critique your domestic performance.
Given the pattern of interaction you describe, in which your babysitter doesn’t seem to accept your explanations, I suspect you need to have a private conversation with her, or even set down your concerns in writing. This will allow you to emphasize all the ways in which you value her, and appreciate her role in your family, before moving on to your concerns.
To be clear: Your babysitter is allowed to have feelings about you, even frustrations. But it’s not okay for her to disrespect you, any more than it would be okay for you to disrespect her. You shouldn’t have to absorb personal criticisms in order to secure good care for your children. Nor should you have to tiptoe around this babysitter's feelings, or be made to feel uncomfortable in your own home. Period.
So be respectful, compassionate and direct — both with yourself, and to her.
Author's note: As noted, my wife helped me navigate this one. But the very fact that I had to seek her counsel suggests how much of this question arises from patriarchal prerogative. I am going to guess that this babysitter does not criticize the father of her charges for forgetting milk on the way home. Think about that. And by all means send along your feedback, and/or counsel, in the comments section below. Send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, if you haven’t. Use this form, or send your questions via email. — S.A.
Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.
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