When my daughter was born ten years ago, we hired a live-in nanny. It was a perfect arrangement at the time; I needed help with the baby and the housework, and having someone there all the time gave me the freedom to work from home, or run out to the market while my daughter napped, or have a date night with my husband.
When my son was born, it meant that I could take my daughter to music class without having to schlep him along, or I could pick her up from school during his naptime. She didn’t drive, but I didn’t need to her to. Our preschool was down the street, and she could easily walk there to pick up my kids when I couldn’t.
As time went on, she began to feel like a part of our family. My kids adored her, my dog got all excited when she would come back after her days off, and I appreciated having another person around who thought my kids were as great as I did, and who shared with me all of the adorable things they did when I was at work. And in the years that she’s worked for us, we’ve been through a lot together.
She was there when my father died, and we were there when she lost her son. We’ve been together through house renovations and through preschool graduations, through her divorce from her husband, through colds and flus, and larger health scares.
So while my childcare needs have completely changed now that my kids aren’t babies anymore – what I really need is someone who drives and can help with homework – there’s just no chance that I could ever let her go. My husband and I have told her that she’s got a job with us for as long as she wants it.
That said, I know it makes her anxious to feel like we don’t really need her anymore. She’s the hardest working person I’ve ever met, and if she has nothing to do while my kids are at school all day, she’ll organize the pantry or empty the freezer or polish my grandmother’s silver that I use once every three years. And then when my kids do get home from school, she tries to make herself useful by picking up after them the second they walk in the door.
And therein lies the problem. In trying to teach my children how to be responsible for themselves, I have a built-in competing interest in the form of our housekeeper. In the mornings, I expect my children to make their beds before we leave for school. But nine times out of ten, she’ll swoop in and do it first, before my kids have even finished brushing their teeth. Emptying the dishwasher is supposed to be my daughter’s job, but most days, it’s already empty by the time she gets home from school. And when my kids are home, and they leave their clothes and shoes lying around on the floor, or leave their after-school snack trash lying on the table, it all somehow magically disappears before I can even get out the words, hey, guys, please pick up your things.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught her, mid-swoop, and have had to ask her to please leave it, so that my kids can pick it up themselves.
I’ve tried having conversations with her. Almost weekly, I tell her that they need to have chores, and that she’s not doing them any favors by doing everything for them. I tell her that it’s okay if she lets a mess sit around until they get to it, I won’t think she’s slacking off. I tell her that it’s important to me that they do things for themselves. She nods and smiles at me and says okay, okay, but not two hours later I’ll catch her clearing their dishes, or picking their wet towels up off the floor. It’s exasperating.
Every year around this time, however, she goes on a two week vacation to visit her family in El Salvador. And as much as it sucks for me – throw laundry and vacuuming and floor mopping and toilet-bowl cleaning on top of my already jam-packed days – I look forward to it as a kind of chore boot camp for my kids.
Without our housekeeper around, I’ve got them washing dishes and sorting laundry and feeding the dog and wiping down the table. I’ve got them changing their sheets and emptying their trash cans and straightening up the kitchen and den before they go to bed at night.
My daughter the other day looked at me and joked, now I know what Cinderella must have felt like. But I told her that that was exactly the point. Because if Cinderella were ever to find herself without her prince one day, she’ll be really glad that she knows how to get by on her own.