Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How to replace an irreplaceable gem?

I have what fair minds could describe as a high class problem. Our beloved regular sitter, M., is leaving next week. I knew this day would come. She was here in Boston because of her scientist husband's research. He has wrapped up his multi-year project, and they're understandably eager to return back to their real lives, their own home and their extended families, in Brazil.

I'm not sure who's going to be more shattered next week, me or the Grape.

I understand that countless children grow attached to their paid care givers. I also understand and appreciate that the ability to hire any private care giver is a luxury not available to the vast majority of American mothers.

But I swear on all that's holy that M. is special. First of all, she holds an advanced degree in social work and child development. At home, she manages the adoption program at a large orphanage. She has two teenage kids of her own. She possesses an inimitable grace and serenity, and a seemingly endless reservoir of patience. Her mere presence brings calm to the chaos of our household. She's worldly, charming and for lack of a less loaded word, classy.

To say she's overqualified to watch my kid is not unlike saying that a space shuttle pilot is overqualified to drive a city bus.

She's spent 15 to 20 hours a week with the Grape since he was eight weeks old. They Skype on weekends. He tells me, when she returns him from a day packed with adventures, "It was so fun with M." He asks when she's coming to see him next. To put it bluntly, I believe he's in better hands than my own when he's with her. She's really that fabulous.

When I tried to explain that she will leave on a big trip soon, he ran up to the bedroom closet and used all the strength his little body could summon to haul out a large suitcase. He wheeled it down the hall to his room and started assembling his toys. And diapers. He told me, over and over, that he was going to go on an airplane with M. I don't blame him. It's been a privilege to know her.

I've been slowly, reluctantly, seeking a replacement.

The candidates seem to fall in two camps: earnest, sweet girls recently graduated from college and looking to earn extra money for a year or so, while they figure out what to be when they grow up; and grandmotherly types, mainly recent immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America, who have no significant education to fall back on, and who desperately need the income, because they struggle every week to make ends meet.

I see pros and cons to both types. The college girls tend to have tons of energy, but they often lack experience in being out and about with a toddler. Their babysitting experience tends to be of the watch-the-kids-in-the-living-room variety. They tend not to have kids of their own, and therefore are understandably at a disadvantage in dealing with all the setbacks in a toddler's day: nonsensical tantrums, sandbox scuffles, hunger strikes. From what I've seen at the playground, many young sitters are uncomfortable setting boundaries or making rules. Another issue is availability: if they're also in grad school, their schedules may not mesh with my needs.

On the plus side, they tend to have varied interests and talents they could share with my child. From what I've seen, they also tend not to mind Lila the Eighty Pound Slobbery Dog. On the minus side, more than one newly minted twenty-something has flinched upon hearing that the Grape watches zero television. Presumably that cuts into Facebook time.

Sadly, hiring some clever and lovely student to watch the Grape while I supervise doesn't work for me, because I work from a desk at home and because I believe that the Grape should get as much fresh air and exercise as possible. Sure, many of these candidates would be up for expeditions, but it seems clear that I would need to plan and manage each day's activities - something I never thought about with M. She found all the great parks and the best fountains, and she knew about all the kid centric community sponsored activities. She knew when he needed to eat, or have quiet time, or chase after other kids.

On the other side of the spectrum, the grandma types have decades of experience, but I worry that many of the women I've met lack the physical stamina needed to keep up with a two-year-old, particularly outdoors. The Grape isn't a rowdy boy, but when he runs, he runs fast. He's also a little monkey - he'll climb anything remotely inviting and he's not intimidated by playground equipment designed for the late elementary set. It's inevitable that his sitter will need to run after him, physically stop him from running into streets, muscle his protesting form into his stroller, and perhaps fetch him from high heights when he climbs too close to the sky.

On the plus side, it would be nice for the Grape to have daily interaction with an older person, especially since neither grandmother lives in Boston.

But it's also not a stretch to hypothesize that many women with twenty-years-plus of child minding experience are set in their ways. They have expectations of how the Grape should behave that might not always mesh with mine. One candidate remarked that he holds his fork incorrectly. I told her to not interfere - he was eating - something he hadn't done for most of the day.

What I love most about M. is that she lets the Grape be himself, and when he's with her, his only task is to have fun and be a little kid. I hadn't thought about it before I met M., but this Mediterranean/Latin American view of children (basically that little kids should be able to play and do whatever they want, within reason, because life is short and there will be too much structured time in their not so distant futures) appeals to me.

M. and I share a distrust of overly regimented schedules. The Grape's nap and mealtimes fluctuate and nobody makes a big fuss over it. We cheer when he shares, finishes his spinach, or puts his toys away, and we don't sweat it when he acts like a typical two-year-old.

If I'm being completely honest, however, I will concede that letting kids just be kids at all times is another luxury of the upper classes, and it's therefore somewhat foreign to sitters who desperately need that paycheck to eat. Where I see joie de vivre, they might see indulged precocious brat.

I'm also wary of those who seek to accelerate the Grape's natural learning curve. Regular readers know I'm not a fan of "educational" toys or gimmicks, and I'm not interested in over scheduling my kid. (He goes to one hour of music a week, a revelation met by a stern frown from one candidate, who thought a child of two years of age would benefit from at least two structured group experiences a day.)

So where does this leave me?

R. keeps telling me that nobody will ever measure up to M. And I agree it's unlikely I'll find anyone half as wonderful. M. herself suggested I enroll the Grape in play school or day care a few mornings a week. That's not a realistic option, because I should have been on the wait lists eighteen months ago.

R. half jokingly suggested I just decide whom I'd prefer to fire first (for the unpardonable sin of not being M).

I hope it won't come to that. All transitions are stressful, and I'd like to make this one, unavoidable change and have it stick until the Grape goes to nursery school, probably in another year. Maybe the Grape and I need a week or two without M. to regroup, to get used to life without her reassuring, quietly smiling presence.

Maybe when I get nothing accomplished, the applicant pool's perceived flaws will start to look less consequential.

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