At one time or another, most of us feel guilty about leaving our kids in someone else's care. Maybe you work and drop your child at daycare. Drop-offs can be wrenching, I know. You get back to your car, crank up the radio, and wonder if your child is splashing at the water table or spewing mucus bubbles through his nose in a state of permanent caterwaul. Or maybe you're just stealing away for dinner and happen to look back toward your house ... only to see sad eyes peeping through the blinds. Horror stories like the one about Aisling McCarthy Brady, the Quincy nanny who allegedly beat her infant charge to death, don't help. It's a piercing reminder that, yes, leaving your child with a stranger really is a leap of faith. Yesterday morning, I was on NECN offering up my tips for feeling better about your choice.
I learned from experience. Andrew now goes to a school that we absolutely love, with just the right amount of structure for a toddler. We get daily activity reports, and the Shutterfly albums we're sent each week are my favorite way to procrastinate. There's also an open-door policy, so we can drop in whenever we like, which is important (if a school or daycare center frowns on this, you have to wonder what they're afraid of). Before this, he went to a home daycare where we felt secure. However: Before that, while he was still a little cozy boy in utero, we went through a slew of nanny interviews in the hopes of securing a nanny share with another couple. We met some very nice people; we also met a woman who was apparently a stripper. Eventually we pulled the plug on our search: I felt like I was going through all sorts of contortions to get myself to like someone. I told myself that this was just part of the process and that I wouldn't be happy with anyone. But, in the end, I had to trust my gut. We called off the nanny search, and we're still friends with the other couple. The only reason I was able to pull the plug, though, was because I'd thought ahead to reserve a place for Andy at a daycare, just in case. If not, I probably would've settled with a not-quite-right nanny, because I had to go back to work.
We escaped relatively unscathed. Other friends have shared stories about marijuana-lovin' babysitters, detached and cell-phone-addicted nannies, and worse. Yes, most caregivers are wonderful, and I can't stress that enough. However, there are some wacky ones out there, too, and this hits home every time we read a horrible headline like the one this week. And even the most diligent Care.com search, or the most J. Edgar Hoover-like background check, can't compensate for intuition.
Here are the search tips I gave yesterday morning:
1. Word of mouth is more valuable than any website with background-checking services, like Care.com or Sittercity. These sites are good jumping-off points. But they're just the beginning. Make sure you get references from people you trust. If at all possible, meet with these references in person. Maybe you'll instantly connect with the reference. Maybe you'll realize that you wouldn't trust this person to pick out your Spotify playlist, let alone your child's caregiver. Snap judgments aren't always fair, but in this case, they can be helpful.
2. A sneaky nanny can provide the phone number of a "reference" who is actually a friend. If meeting in person isn't possible, ask for a work number or a landline number, not a cell phone, which is harder to trace.
3. Use social media to your advantage. There is shame looking for your college boyfriend on Facebook. There is no shame in prowling for a prospective nanny. Social media profiles can be revealing. The nanny who presents herself as wholesome might also Tweet about being asleep all day recovering from a hangover...on a daily basis.
4. Young kids don't have a filter; they say just what's on their minds. Take cues from their behavior, and listen closely when your child recounts his or her day. As for babies: If they're acting cranky, displaying changes in sleep and eating patterns, etc. take note. Don't chalk it up to simple adjustment. Look to your caregiver for answers.
5. Please: Trust your instincts. Often working parents feel so guilty leaving their child with someone else that they're skeptical of every potential caregiver. A bit of healthy skepticism and separation anxiety is natural. But, if you have nagging feelings about this person that won't subside, don't deny them. Instinct is more valuable than any number of glowing references. And don't be afraid of hurting the caregiver's feelings. Best to end a relationship forthrightly instead of dragging things out. It's your child; you pay the bills, and you're the one in control.
6. Pay your nanny or sitter over the table! I know, I know. Many people pay under the table for a whole host of reasons, but your nanny/caregiver should be willing to be paid legally, unless she's the teenager down the street who babysits every two hours once a month. If your nanny isn't willing, you need to look for reasons why. It's a red flag.
7. Stop home unannounced every so often, or drop into your child's daycare just to say "hi." Yes, doing this all the time disrupts your child's routine and increases separation issues. But once in awhile? Totally justified. It keeps caregivers on their toes and lets them know that you're interested. Be skeptical of any daycare that discourages drop-in visits for whatever reason.
8. Most of all: Don't apologize when it comes to your screening techniques. In this case, there's no such thing as too many interview questions, too many references, or too much concern. Yes, eventually you'll need to make peace with your choice and leave your child, whether it's for the office or the movies. But remember: No measure is too drastic when it comes to protecting your kids. No, most nannies are not going to be cuddly grandmothers who look like Mary Poppins and smell like chocolate-chip cookies and Tide. But they should be articulate, proactive, responsive to your questions, and show actual connection with your child from the get-go. Most of all, your kids should seem happy in their care (at least most of the time).
Anyway, here's the spot. Let me know if you have any other tips! And, on a far lighter note and speaking of things gone terribly awry: Please ignore my hair. It was early!
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