Childcare, like many industries, is getting crushed by the current economic recession. Recent Wall Street Journal articles estimate that nanny hiring is down between ten to thirty percent in "When the Going Gets Tough, Some People Lay Off The Nanny " and that demand for daycare for young children is declining too, as reported in Sue Shellenbarger’s "Families Cut Back on Day Care As Costs -- and Worries – Rise " and in The Washington Post’s "Squeezed on All Sides, Parents Forego Day Care ."
Many of the cuts come from families where childcare is a luxury – albeit an important one that allows parents to delegate errands and household chores to allow greater quality time with children. But there are millions of moms (and dads) who know that you cannot go to work without someone you can trust (and afford) taking care of your children. That’s no luxury – that’s a necessity.
Which leads me to scratch my head at how badly some families treat their childcare providers. Forget the Mommy Wars. The real battles are the Nanny Wars.
I know firsthand how hard it is to get and keep good kid care. Most families I know treat their childcare providers like trusted partners. But if you are going through babysitters faster than soy milk, I wonder if it’s you who needs a performance review.
Some of the most ambitious women I know – moms who are justifiably proud of how hard they work – disdain their hardworking female childcare employees. They repeatedly sabotage family balance by treating their childcare providers poorly. At times it seems these smart, savvy women are blind when it comes to their childcare employees. These toughies would never tolerate a workplace filled with the kind of discrimination, low wages and unreasonable schedules they mete out regularly.
Now I’m no angel – I’ve made my mistakes and I’m sure my babysitters have a word or two on how I could improve. But over twelve years of motherhood, I’ve had longterm childcare providers, one for seven years straight. Some of my savviest friends, however, shock me with their reckless approach to childcare, the most critical foundation of work/family sanity.
Here are the most common blunders I see:
The Ruthless Negotiator
I had a boss once who bragged about how little he paid his immigrant nanny and mocked how happy she seemed to get up with the baby in the middle of the night. Another friend from business school with twin toddlers proudly used her MBA negotiating skills to hire a string of live-in nannies to work 12-hour days at below minimum wage. Insisting that after a long week of work, she needed a break on Saturdays, my friend only gave her employees Sundays off (and she was a stickler that they be back at 7 am Monday morning). Some of her nannies had young children they saw for less than one day a week. This friend is perenially frustrated she can’t keep a nanny for more than six months. (I think she is lucky they last that long.)
The Demanding Perfectionist
Another mom of tweens just sent me her umpteenth "help I need a new babysitter" blast email. Although her husband has a flexible work schedule, they require their live-in babysitter to rise at 6 am, get the children fed and dressed, drive carpool to school, and then do five hours of scheduling, errands and housework, pick up the kids after school, and then oversees sports lessons, playdates, homework and dinner until bedtime. Everything must be done exactly as the mom specifies – zero tolerance for a lost soccer cleat or a pb&j left in the minivan for two weeks. I’ve always wondered why Mom and Dad didn’t cut her some slack and maybe take over some responsibilities themselves – and then maybe they’d be able to keep a nanny for more than nine months. I’ve also wondered why, in all their complaints about the nannies quitting, they’ve never considered the negative effect the frequent, abrupt changes in trusted babysitters has on their children.
Although many lifelong friendships have started with au pair cultural exchanges, when my former neighbor hired an au pair I had a hunch the family saw "cheap childcare" in the au pair’s brown eyes . Sure enough, they started asking her to work extra hours outside of her au pair contract, without pay. A few months into the arrangement, the husband got a job in another state, the family sold their home and moved temporarily into a two bedroom apartment. The au pair had to sleep with the mother. On weekends when Dad came home, she had to find a place to crash despite the fact that she had few American friends. Yet the family was surprised that she returned home long before her year ended.
At left is my gnashed-teeth list I wish everyone observed.
No employee should be treated disparagingly. Especially not when the job is caring for young children. And particularly when the hours are long, the breaks few, and the work grueling and low paid.
Recession or not, we don’t have enough high-quality, affordable childcare options in this country. This is our fault. Treating nannies, babysitters and other childcare providers (even unpaid family members) with respect makes the job more desirable. Everyone – most especially our children -- will benefit when more patient, talented, loving employees flock to the profession.
Sure, you could take advantage of the current unemployment rates and get away with treating your babysitters like dirt. But consider the message you send to them, to your children, and to our society. People who care for children -- like children themselves -- are priceless.