Sunday, February 20, 2011

Overtaxed in the nanny state

You don’t have to be a parent to understand. Even if your babies are dogs, cats or something else non-human, you can probably appreciate the perils of seeking quality childcare. Just think of leaving what you value most in all the world to a total stranger—or, worse, a politician.

I’m not exactly looking for childcare at this point. No, not with daughter Katie finishing college and son Andrew beginning his own college planning. But something about sending out the last check for Katie’s tuition has gotten me looking back to…those days.

It surely didn’t help that we knew many people who’d found one nanny early on in their first child’s infancy, loved her dearly and kept her on till their kids started getting their Social Security checks. Elena, back then, was working full-time; I was freelancing with a fairly steady workload. And no matter where or how we looked, we invariably unearthed the same form of critter.

Oh, a few seemed very kind and might have worked out. One who came close, Madeline, was a 50-ish mother who said all the right things. Everything, that is, till we asked her how she would get to our place, then an apartment, when we needed her. And everything changed. “Well, you want me here by nine, so I would…I’ll get up at five and see if my husband could drive me. Or I could take the bus—oh, but the bus doesn’t go to…. No, the train! Oh, but I would need to take it to White Plains—oh, but no, it doesn’t go there. I would need to get off in Tarrytown, and then probably a bus across the county to White Plains, and then—oh, but maybe my husband could…but on the days he works, he…mmmmmm, and I have a friend who might be able…oh, but—”

The candidates got more entertaining from there. One fine fellow called about the position and, with all earnestness, told us he qualified because of his past experience. In a childcare setting, perhaps? No such luck; he’d been a zookeeper. (I wanted to call back and explain she wasn’t yet a teenager.) We still talk about the woman who phoned and, to our answering machine, detailed why she was right for the position. In the background as she spoke, a brawl was in full swing. (Crash!) My favorite, though, might have been the man who apparently needed to consult the ad again, twice, during the message he left. “Haalloo…I am calling because I want to…take care of your…of your keed.”

One we did like, a older woman named Eva, told us over tea about her many children plus countless others she’d watched over the decades. But for all her vast experience, she must have misunderstood the notion of a day’s probation. Elena walked with Eva, Katie close to asleep in the stroller, as they strolled around the building’s parking lot. Everything was going fine, no concerns, until Katie yawned and let her pacifier fall to the asphalt. No problem, Elena thought, we had a couple of spares to use till we could wash this one. But before she could get another out, Eva picked up the pacifier, coated in grit where it had touched the pavement, and plunged it toward Katie’s waiting mouth. It was inches away when my wife stopped her. Incredulous, Elena clearly told her we did not do that.

Anyone can make a mistake, right? It’s quite possible that her many children had immune systems of steel…if not tar. But we’re no monsters. It wasn’t that particular gesture that dissolved our arrangement. It was what happened, minutes later, when the pacifier fell again. Eva picked it up from the ground. Without blinking, she aimed it home once again.

By the time Andrew showed up, we’d nearly had our fill of nannies. And yes, those days are now distant memories. Why, sometime in the next ten years or so, we might be enlisted again ourselves.

I suppose I can find our way over from the zoo, where I’ll be volunteering in my retirement. I can probably, by then, stay out of fistfights. And once I’m done forgetting everything I ever learned about sterilizing bottles and pacifiers, I’d be more than happy to help take care…of our keeds’ keeds.