It’s Not All Mary Poppins

It’s Your Child, It’s My Life, part 2 (updated with picture)

“How was his day?” Laughing Mommy asks. I like this woman. She’s cheerful, upbeat, sensible. She loves her children, but doesn’t idolize them, nor has she made herself their servant.

A few weeks back we discussed a neighbourhood school whose parents, every year, line up from mid-afternoon the day before to register their children for kindergarten. Laughing Mommy’s little boy will be starting Jr. Kindergarten in the fall, and they’re considering which of the neighbourhood school to send him to. So, there’s this school five blocks away, and it’s supposed to be a good one; in fact, it’s so very good, that all the Earnest and Anal Mommies and Daddies, who want to make sure their wee ones are solidly on the Ivy League track when they’re three, line up OVERNIGHT to get first dibs on the spots. Let me explain that this is a public school. If you live in the cachment area, your child WILL get in. Guaranteed. If they have to hire another teacher, that’s what they do, but they don’t turn kids away.

But these aggressive, intense parents line up, nonetheless. Overnight – 18, 22, 26 hours. In FEBRUARY, people! February in Ottawa, it gets COLD overnight. All this just to make sure their precious baby gets into MORNING kindergarten, and, better yet, MORNING kindergarten with the RIGHT teacher, oh, and maybe in FRENCH IMMERSION. I have always thought these people were nuts, but my parents, tending to be an Earnest bunch all in all, don’t necessarily see it quite like that. “I wouldn’t do it,” they say, “but you can see why some people do.” Um, no. We’re talking KINDERGARTEN here, and JUNIOR KINDERGARTEN. It will not make a life-long different. It really won’t. (And I did, briefly, teach kindergarten, so this isn’t disrespect. Just facts.)

Laughing Mommy, though, said, “Those people are NUTS! Like it can make that much difference. As I was saying to HirsuteDad last night, ‘I really don’t think they have any axe-murderers on staff’.”

Well, exactly.

A happy, sensible momma. Relaxed. Grounded. So when I answer her by saying, among other things, that I’d had my final physiotherapist appointment that afternoon, and that an adult friend had sat with the kids during nap/quiet time for an hour and a half, I had no idea I was dropping a bomb.

That night I get a phone call. She wanted to let me know that she was concerned that I’d done that. She didn’t feel comfortable with anyone but me caring for the children.

I reminded her that this option is in the contract. She’d forgotten. I informed her that I’ve done this before. She was surprised. (I don’t always mention it to the parents when I’ve been out – it’s not something their child did, and often I don’t think of it during the buzz of hometime, which is more focussed on how Junior ate and slept and diapered, and whether she’s bitten anyone again, and how the potty training is going, and how good he’s getting at sharing, and all the new words she’s learning… That kind of stuff.) Still, her son has been with me close to three years. I’ve popped out during that time, and I must have told her at least a couple of times.

“Well, I’m okay with you leaving someone else for a short time.” Oh, phew. I was beginning to worry a bit. This sounds more like the sensible mom I know and love. “Like if your husband watches them while you take out the garbage.” Hello? Do YOU hire a sitter to take out the garbage if YOUR husband isn’t home? Oh, dear. Perhaps not as sensible and grounded as I’d thought. However, professionalism doesn’t allow me to snort at something a client says, and her feelings are real and sincere. It is not for me to mock her. (To her face, anyway. I ask you, Internet, do you hire a sitter when you’re alone and need to take out the garbage? Remembering that we are city folk, and it’s probably a 30-foot round trip.)

We resolve this issue with a compromise. She allows me my right to arrange suitable back-up when necessary; I agree that I will let her know in advance so that she has the option of keeping him home at that time. She’s happy with this. I’m all right with it, too. I’m surprised that it was an issue for this mother in particular, but we’ve come to an agreement that accommodates her needs and doesn’t discommode me.

Ten days later, my son is home during exams. There are only three children here, and they’re all napping. “I’m going to pop out and get myself a coffee,” I tell Adam, almost 17, and, what with having grown up living in a daycare, a boy with more baby experience than most first-time parents. “You mind keeping an ear open for the kids? I’ll be back in twenty minutes.” And out I go.

Mine is an isolating job. You know how much effort it can be to get out with one child. Imagine how much more constrained you’d be with five. My parents can all have one or two coffee breaks a day – coffee breaks where they can leave their office and stretch their legs, and get a bit of fresh air. I’m lucky – very lucky – to do this once a month. I don’t think I’ve ever done it twice in one month. (Without the kids, I mean. I take the kids to coffee shops all the time…) So here I have an opportunity to take my once-in-four-to-six weeks coffee break! Wahoo!!

Halfway to the coffee shop, I realize, “I’m out of the house, and I didn’t call Laughing Mom!” Damn! Thank God she works in a suburb way to the west. But now I’m all tense and nervous. Jumpy. “What if she calls while I’m out? What if one of her friends sees me?” This was supposed to be a little treat! Now it’s a subversive venture, fraught with peril. I then realize, “This alerting her to my every absence is a pain in the butt!”

This is why it’s in the contract. From time to time, I will have necessity, or simply, as in this case, opportunity, to be out of the house during daycare hours. I put it in the contract that I may arrange substitute for myself at my discretion so that it can be done easily. Yes, they hired me, and trust me to care for their child. They did not hire anyone else. But, I reply, they hired me and trust me. This could – should?? – reasonably include trusting my judgment as to appropriate back-up, trusting me not to endanger their child.

If I allow them input, then I will be stuck wrangling who is appropriate, and for how long, and how much notice do they need, and can Mary sneak out for a coffee during naptime… This would be running my business by committee, and you know, you just know, that in every bunch of parents, there’s going to be one neurotic, over-protective parent who would have me chained to their child, interacting, stimulating, soothing, educating, at all times. Even though I, the queen of benign neglect, believe that’s actively bad for a child. I’ve never much liked committees.

This is one of the many reasons I’m self-employed.

So now I’m in a bit of a bind. Do I go back to Laughing Mommy and renegotiate (or perhaps it’s only “clarify”) the terms of our agreement, or do I say, “Nuts to this!” and pop out for a coffee when I have opportunity?

If she were going to be with me for another year, I’d talk to her for sure. However, she’s only going to be with me for another three and a half months. So we’re talking, at most, three coffee breaks. I’m not sure it’s worth potentially upsetting her. Do we have the conversation, and risk upsetting her? (It’s only three months.) Do I say nothing and just go? (It’s only three months.) Do I pretend I thought our agreement only meant longer outings? (Because I’m not entirely sure about this. But no. The woman who thinks I should have back-up for a trip to the curb with the garbage probably hasn’t even considered a quick trip to the coffee shop – even with a sitter.) Course, if I go and I’m caught, that will definitely upset her.

These are the horns of my dilemma.

Related posts:
It’s Your Child, It’s My Life;
Holiday Hassles, Boundary Disputes.

February 18, 2006 - Posted by | controversy, daycare, parents, power struggle, the dark side


  1. Mary your experience and questions spoke to me in so many directions. As a parent who has managed three single-handedly for long strethes of time (24/7) I really hear how ISOLATING a task you have. I have run to the store on the corner at 10pm when the kiddies are in bed to get milk for breakfast. I did leave them in their beds for 10 whole minutes alone. Would I leave them when they are awake? No. Thats why I did this at night.

    Laughing mommy may not have ever had the experience of juggling 2+ children over long periods of time. Therefore she might not GET the issue of being able to leave. You are not a daycare, and have someone all lined up in the event of illness or needing to make an appointment.

    Being the parent, who thinks she may have felt uncomfortable in the same scenario you describe…I think I would be satified just to be introduced to the hired back-up. Just knowing who it is, and I would not feel compelled to need to know the details of when this person would be needed. I think this is a matter of control. Laughing mommy put you in control, but feels the need to exerise that at all times. Understandable perhaps, but workable in a real-life situation no.

    I think the meet and greet would be a compromise…

    ah…work place politics is not justan offie thing!

    Comment by Heather | February 18, 2006 | Reply

  2. I’m still giggling about getting the sitter to come while you take out the garbage. Seriously, does this woman think you tie the children to your waist for the ENTIRE work day? Perhaps you should have a sitter for those inevitable trips to the bathroom. Oh, wait, you probably have all five kids in there with you anyway, yes?

    I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but it irks me when I hear parents articulate impossibly high standards for childcare providers. I stay home with my children, and quite often I let them go out in the yard alone. My yard is completely kid safe and fenced, and I can see them from the kitchen window. But occasionally, I need to make a phone call or fold some laundry or have a cup of tea without answering four million questions about Harry Potter. And the boys need to play on their own, without me to intervene.

    I am always fascinated by parents who expect a caregiver to be MORE devoted to their little darlings than they are and to never ever need a break–for coffee, or a phone call, or a doctor’s appointment–even though every parent knows that these breaks are essential to good parenting. So yes go, get a coffee! Go to the doctor! Because the rest of the day, you are singing and dancing and doing craft projects and serving snacks and changing diapers and taking walks and . . .

    And what’s with the camping out for pre-K? Good lord.

    That is all.

    Comment by Susan | February 18, 2006 | Reply

  3. Hi Mary,

    I see your point and I see Laughing Mommy’s point. Perhaps it’s time for a refresher on the contract for all of the parents. They may or may not realize that there will be alternates as necessary at your discretion. I think they would appreciate the chance to know who the alternates may be.

    My son’s childcare provider gave us a “head’s up” when she was able, for doc. appointments and such, and let us know who the alternate would be. I only surprised by an alternate once, but I knew her already, so felt comfortable.

    Comment by Andie D. | February 18, 2006 | Reply

  4. Hello, all: Thanks for the input. Your responses make it clear I should have explained that all my parents have met my back-up. Sophie is a fellow-caregiver, now doing something else for a living, but who I met weekly all last spring and summer at a local park. The parents would frequently pick the kids up from the park, and chat with both of us.

    Secondly, I was at home this time when the parents came. I just happened to mention in passing to this one parent that Sophie had been by for a bit in the afternoon. If I hadn’t said anything, she’d never have known, because all the children were sleeping.

    Susan: You hit it on the head: this is something I run into regularly – parents whose expectations of me are higher than their expectations of themselves. Because I’m the mystical, magical, superhuman daycare lady!

    It amuses me to know, when parents say to me, “I don’t know how you do it!”, that, well, really I don’t! Because it’s not humanly possible. Mostly I let the impression go uncontested, though: it’s simpler that way… 🙂 Besides, when I try, they just think I’m being charmingly modest. And of course I am – charming. Utterly.

    Comment by Mary P. | February 18, 2006 | Reply

  5. I take out the garbage all by myself all the time! And my two kids plus the little girl I babysit stand at the top of the stairs bellowing at me, but no one dies.
    I wouldn’t take the chance of just going without telling her. You just know you will run into her, or her husband, or someone. Plus it will take all the joy out of the coffee trip! I’d pretend that you thought the agreement was for longer, planned outings.

    Comment by AverageMom | February 18, 2006 | Reply

  6. You have no email on your profile, Averagemom! How can I sent you an email when you comment?? I can send you a gmail invitation, if you like. You can be averagemom at gmail dot com. Cool, huh??

    Oh. I can’t send you a gmail invitation, because I don’t have your email address. Never mind. That was silly…

    Anyway, I had something like that in mind as a possible strategy. Tell her about longer, planned outings, but don’t ruffle her anxious feathers by suggesting the coffee break possibility. Should I run into her (highly unlikely, given where I live and she works) I’d play dumb and say I only thought it applied to longer outings.

    The only reason why I’m not being direct is because it’s only for another three months, then he’s off for the summer and on to junior kindergarten in the fall. I’m leaning towards the “what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her” approach to this.

    Good idea? Practical? Or dumb idea? Too risky?

    Comment by Mary P. | February 18, 2006 | Reply

  7. I always have a sitter for when I want to take out the garbage. In fact, I have 3 or 4 regular backups just in case I need to run out to the garage or pick up mail. I just keep them in the closet when I don’t need them.

    I think the “what she doesn’t know” approach would probably be fine. She obviously had great peace-of-mind for the three years she was with you, and she has peace-of-mind now that you’ve talked; and that’s probably the most important thing. You shouldn’t have to “wrangle” your daily life around further constrictions. You obviously take very good care of these kids; and one of the ways to continue providing good care is to take care of yourself too. And that includes an unsupervised coffee break now and again. Just my two cents.

    Comment by the weirdgirl | February 18, 2006 | Reply

  8. I vote for, “What she doesn`t know won`t hurt her.”

    I`d say, 99% of the time, since mother/childcare giver relationships are based on trust, “When in doubt, tell the parent” holds true.

    But if it really is three 20-minute coffee breaks over 3 and a half months, this falls into the other 1%.

    Comment by L. | February 18, 2006 | Reply

  9. I think Susan hit the nail on the head: “parents who expect a caregiver to be MORE devoted to their little darlings than they are”. I have a friend who was incredibly upset that her caregiver wasn’t doing as many little art projects and workbook stuff as she had been doing in the past. I asked her, “Are these things you would be doing at home on a regular basis, if you were home full-time?” She said no, but she still didn’t get it. She really expected the caregiver to be focused on the kids 100% of their waking hours.


    Comment by Candace | February 18, 2006 | Reply

  10. I advised a friend making their first childcare choice a little while ago the following.. When push comes to shove the only thing that matters is that you trust your caregiver to do their best for your child.

    You can’t contract for that sort of stuff. So you’ll be making a call here about what belongs in the mutual trust of the relationship. Still, as someone who sometimes sleeps rather close to a lawyer … my gut says that you got it right when you say the contract says your discretion. Remind her of that and be done with it. Let her shelve her mistrust for the 3 mos. remaining and don’t let any of this interfere with the great job you are doing thanks to being a vibrant human being.

    or maybe stay indoors, with all the drapes shut.. wash everything with bleach, including the children and start scouring the internet for unforeseen risks in your home and neighbourhood. would that work for everyone?

    Comment by mo-wo | February 19, 2006 | Reply

  11. Weirdgirl: The closet! Why didn’t I think of that??

    I think only someone who has been at home for extended periods of time with a child or two or more (or someone who’s been very ill for a long time, probably) can understand how soul-feeding it can be just to get out, on your own.

    L: It really is only three over three and a half months. It’s not something I often have opportunity to do. That trust thing, though: it’s big.

    Candace: I run into this all the time. It’s because I’m PAID for it; I’m a professional. And I am, on both counts! In some people’s minds, the fact that I do this for a living requires me to do ever so much more than they expect of themselves, they who are only doing it for… love?

    Mo-wo: I’m thinking I might punch up that bit in the contract. I haven’t tweaked the thing in a couple of years – I thought I’d covered everything after ten years of annual tweaking!

    You’re right. It’s about trust. Her trusting her choice in me, her trusting my judgment, and me making sure I don’t jeopardize the trust.

    All: So here’s where I’m at.

    I will:
    – make sure all parents have met any backups before they are used, whenever possible.
    – let all parents know about scheduled, longer outings in advance.

    And then we come to that damned coffee break issue. I considered not having any at all until he’s gone. I hate to rock the boat unnecessarily, but I hate to be sneaky almost as much. (Almost. LOL)

    Much as I’d like to say nothing – and THANK YOU everyone who said that would be all right! – I think I’m going to address it with her. Otherwise, as someone wisely commented, I’ll be too nervous about being caught to enjoy my time out. Plus, it’s about trust.

    If she doesn’t like it, I will remind her of the “at my discretion” clause in the contract; remind her of our almost three years of good relationship; remind her that she knows all my back-ups, and hope for the best. I think she’ll take it. How graciously, I don’t know, but after all, it’s only three months.

    I’d hate to have a good relationship close on a sour note. I’m hoping that once it’s addressed and she’s had time to adjust to it, it won’t be a biggie.

    Keep your fingers crossed!

    Comment by Mary P. | February 19, 2006 | Reply

  12. Yeah sounds like a plan, MP. For context let me add this. In my recent daycare search I checked out a pretty nice place available with S. Now S. scared me a bit because when you read her contract you think you will be skating a full season with the Sen’s as a result… it is that thorough.

    She has overnight, rates, hourly, weekend/vacation. Big section on process for deposit, of course. She has escape clauses for absences 2 pages long… and she has a substitutes list. Plus she has ‘STAFF’, I found that a bit surprising as most family daycares her size can’t support staff on what cheapskates like me spend. I rationalized it.. must be just when she takes her older kids to school, or something….???

    In the end her program was not a fit for us and to be blunt I don’t think our toddler and her 4 year old would have been a match in heaven. que sera.

    About a week after I said no thanks, which was all quite amicable, I saw her at 9 am at my office. I work for the school board.. and guess what? So does she?!! Seems she is on-call in our substitutes office. Shifts there are 5 to 1 pm. I guess that’s how she supports her ‘staff’..?

    I wonder when she tells her parents about that for it sure ain’t in her big contract and she didn’t tell me in any of our two phone or one in person conversations.

    Comment by mo-wo | February 19, 2006 | Reply

  13. Holy moley. And here’s me agonizing about getting out for 20 minutes once a month!!

    There’s a woman here in town who runs a home daycare with staff. I cannot for the life of me imagine how she affords it. She’s part of my home daycare network, I see her at our monthly meetings quite routinely. I also see her out and about quite routinely during the work day – without kids! (???)

    It smacks of “scam”, but I can’t quite figure it out. Maybe it’s completely kosher, but it sure seems weird by me.

    Bet you’re glad you decided for another placement, hmm? There’s a lot to be said for the “gut instinct”, though I’m sure that wasn’t the only factor.

    Comment by Mary P. | February 19, 2006 | Reply

  14. p.s., Mo-wo: Any chance you have a copy of that mondo contract laying around? I’d love to see it. (Not to implement anything. I’m curious. TWO PAGES for absences? What could it possibly say?) This is a serious request.

    Comment by Mary P. | February 19, 2006 | Reply

  15. I’m coming in late here, but I admit I was concerned before I realized that laughing mom had met your backup. Personally, I would be uncomfortable if my caregiver left my kids with someone I didn’t know, and didn’t at least run it by me first. But it sounds like you actually did all of that – and I think your plan of going over the contract AGAIN with her is a good one. Also, the fact that she’s been with you for three years should have told her that you wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize her child…but like I said, as a mom, I would have been concerned if I’d thought it was somone I’d never met and hadn’t realized that was part of the original agreement. Even after a few years I suppose if you felt some new aspect of the agreement were presented in a surprise fashion, it would be a little disconcerting.

    However, it sounds like that wasn’t the case at all. How frustrating for you!

    Comment by Kristen | February 19, 2006 | Reply

  16. Don’t know if this is part of a micro-management issue that most women trap themselves with, or any other people within their radius of control.

    This just freaks everybody out. Scarier if they start calling you beyond working hours to discuss about your work. I hate this. Currently, I avoid discussing any process/method with my clients, to minimise interference and also so that it will not negatively affect the way my work progresses.

    It’s good you have the terms in the contract. It’s one up in examining issues in black and white during those non-objective moments for either party.

    All the best! 😉

    Comment by Queen Bee | February 20, 2006 | Reply

  17. Oh for heaven’s sake. Take your coffee break woman. You work in a daycare, not a prison.

    As I well know, you normally take these breaks during nap time. What are they going to do? All wake up at once, organize a rebellion, kill the replacement and take over the government?

    Mommies and Daddies who begrudge you a coffee once every three months when you spend all day every other day not strangling their children should trade places for you for a day and see how they like going a full day without communicating with more than 2 syllable words, much less 3 months.

    Comment by Haley | February 20, 2006 | Reply

  18. Mary,

    I am a child care provider in the US. I have been in the business for almost 13 years and so RARELY use a substitute. One reason being that it’s hard to find someone I trust fully, but another being fear of the parents’ reaction. Finally in the last couple of years, I decided that I just need to do this more often.

    None of my parents have met the substitute. I don’t want to inconvenience her by making her come at a time when the parents are here to “meet” her. She’s busy at pick up time taking care of her own family. And as I explained to my parents, all substitutes are required to be over 18 and have a background check (county licensing rules). Could you imagine a SCHOOl being required to introduce the substitute to all parents in a classroom before using her to teach?? That would be ridiculous. By pointing this out to my parents, they (sometimes grudgingly) see my point.

    However, I have to let you know that in my county in Minnesota in the U.S. I would not be allowed to leave anyone under 18 alone with the kids for ANY amount of time. AND I am not allowed to be outside while children under school age are inside… no mail collection and no garbage taking out. Also they just upped the requirements for daycare substitutes: now, not only do they need to be 18 and have a background check, they also need current CPR training, first aid, shaken baby syndrome AND SIDS training. Even if they are here for only 20 minutes when I’m not.

    Comment by Melissa | February 21, 2006 | Reply

  19. The substitute teacher analogy is a good one, especially when your substitutes are required, as they are in your jurisdiction, to have uniform credentials. Here, there’s essentially nothing: as long as you keep within the numbers, ANYONE can offer childcare.

    (Which is why I, with three children, a teaching degree, First Aid and CPR, and some ECE courses, often have a waiting list…)

    No one under 18? That’s ironic, since each and every one of my families have used my children as babysitters in their homes!. (I’m cautious: I’ve never left my younger two kids with any more than three of the tots at any one time. My oldest is twenty.)

    Not allowed out, even to the curb for garbage? That IS a prison. I can only say I’m glad that I don’t live in Minnesota! No insult to your fine state, but I couldn’t do this job under those circumstances. If I were that restricted, I’d have to go back to teaching.

    Comment by Mary P. | February 21, 2006 | Reply

  20. What Haley said.

    But what do I know? I let my kid run around the yard wearing a bear bell just so I can locate him.

    AND I use (gasp!) Thomas the Train to babysit while I shower or take out the garbage!!!

    Comment by Homestead | February 21, 2006 | Reply

  21. I think just letting her know that morning that you’ll be out for a couple of hours and have a fellow caregiver coming in to cover that time should do it. She’s probably just worried about who it is, and about whether this happens all the time, since it came up unbeknownst to her, so I think that would probably make her feel like she knew what was going on and who was looking after her kids. I would be a little taken aback if that came up out of the blue too, just because I’d feel like things weren’t what I thought they were, and it throws the trust relationship into question. That said, when discussing it in future if you eed to or when talking to the mom who takes her place when she goes, it might be worth just going over the clauses and mentioning casually that on rare occasions you do pop out for coffee if one of your kids or husband are home and you know they can handle it. At least then it’s not a surprise, and I’m sure any reasonable parent would be fine with it if it’s not a surprise.

    Comment by kittenpie | February 24, 2006 | Reply

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