Thanks to Oakland, CA mom of three Chantal Laurie Below for this guest essay about discovering what really matters in a nanny.
As first-time parents, we hired a nanny with no understanding of what we needed. Sure, we wanted someone loving and CPR-certified; the ability to drive was a plus. But, we’d been parents for a whopping three months.
Our inexperience, combined with sustained sleep deprivation, meant we were under-qualified to choose diaper rash ointments let alone make an important hiring decision. So, we put complete faith and trust in references we’d never met and hired Alia.
My last day of maternity leave, I cried. The tears represented loss; the loss of uninterrupted time with my daughter (most enjoyable after my recovery from mastitis), the camaraderie of an artificially created (and fairly random but supportive nonetheless) mom’s group, and mid-day walks through the neighborhood (frequently cut short by blowouts). The tears also represented guilt and confusion.
Having been raised by a stay-at-home mom, I couldn’t shake the notion that hiring someone to watch my infant felt incongruous with my understanding of how one “should” parent. But, the taunting voice of mortgage payments and my need for a strong professional identity lured me into an office and lured Alia into our home.
It’s now my last day of maternity leave with baby #3. As I hand my third baby over to Alia’s care, I now know what we need.
We need a coach. As parents, we’re only vaguely sure of what we’re doing. Alia’s cared for children for over twenty years and is raising her own mature and respectful adolescents. We trust the loving and direct advice she offers about how to curb a hitting habit or wean a baby from a bottle, and we envy her limitless patience. Alia is our nanny deity who we turn to, in those frequent moments of parenting paralysis, and ask: “WWAD, What Would Alia Do?”
We need a sports enthusiast — and an equipment manager. We’ve got a two-year old son who pulls his socks up high to look like Hunter Pence and who’s still lamenting Panda’s trade to the Sox. Alia indulges his passion by pitching enough balls to induce carpel tunnel and never leaving home without his batting helmet and gloves. She doesn’t bore of his baseball obsession but instead revels in his joy and seizes on the chance to build connection with a toddler she loves.
We need a role model. Alia embraces a culture that isn’t her own (and revels in the trashiness of fine American shows like Nashville). And, she fights to ensure her children value and know their native language and cultural identity. When Alia proudly illuminates for my children the gifts of Mexico (by making a mean pozole and joyfully singing Dale, Dale, Dale at the countless park birthday parties that sport a piÃ±ata), she shows our kids the confidence that comes from defending your traditions and values, especially when a dominant culture denies their import.
We need a party animal. When my daughter turned one, I didn’t invite Alia “after work hours” to her birthday party; I wanted to respect Alia’s personal time. The Monday after the event, Alia let me know of her disappointment. What I viewed as respectful, she experienced as exclusionary. Alia has never defined her role as caring for our children during a 40-hour work week. She’s defined her role as being a crucial part of their lives; she wants and deserves to celebrate the milestones that shape who our kids are.
We need an advocate. Alia engaged in a tough negotiation when we hired her; she stuck to her guns about her needs and got them. She helps our children do the same. When my son turns to a playmate at the park who is twice his age and informs his peer that grabbing his shovel is, “Not okay,” I credit Alia. When my daughter, in a calm and commanding voice tells her brother, “I don’t like that,” when he’s screaming in her face, I thank Alia. Alia has equipped our children with the tools they need to have confidence and agency over their needs.
We need a brave outdoorswoman. Alia’s an adventurer. She won’t shy away from carting two kids in a Double Bob Stroller on two buses and BART to get to the zoo. She’s also an organizer. A few years ago, she convinced multiple families to pool money together and buy a parachute so she could create a Gymboree-like class at the park. Then, she distributed Mexican children’s song lyrics among parents and caretakers so the whole park gang could sing together. Alia’s actions show our kids that being a passive bystander in life isn’t nearly as fulfilling as rolling up your sleeves and engaging fully.
We need a comedian. And a teddy bear. Few interruptions do I welcome more in my home office than the uninhibited belly laugh I hear from Alia when my son, with fierce abandon, pretends to ”˜run the bases’ after hitting an imaginary home run. Few sights do I treasure more than, in his rare moments of quiet, seeing my son and Alia snuggle on the couch. And, at the end of the day, few routines do I appreciate more than the “I love you,” Alia offers each of my kids before she heads home.
Five years ago, I thought a nanny was a second tier option to me being at home with my little one. I now see Alia’s presence in our life very differently. She has informed and clarified our parenting values and has surfaced for our whole family what matters most: being passionate, courageous, and loving. I see that my children are happier and more confident because of her influence. I see that I’m a more patient and deliberate mom because of her.
Five years ago, I couldn’t articulate what we needed from a caregiver. Now, I recognize that Alia has shown us what we need by being what we need.
A few years from now, my youngest child will go to preschool. At that time, I will likely be the unknown but trusted reference who will articulate the gift that is Alia to a family looking for childcare. I will hope that the family she chooses appreciates that she is more than they need and everything they want. And, at the transition point when Alia leaves our family, I will, without a doubt, cry over loss.
Thanks, Chantal, for sharing your love for Alia in our space today. Hiring a nanny with only two months of parenthood under my belt is one of the toughest challenges I’ve faced as well.