Before I met A, our 20-month-old son’s full-time caregiver, I could scarcely imagine having a virtual stranger spend every day in our home while my husband and I were at work. Of all the things to worry about when choosing somebody to look after your beloved child, this is the shit that kept running through my head: This person would not only be spending hours each day with our son, she’d also be sitting on our sofa, leafing through our magazines, eating off our dishes. We’d have no privacy. My anxiety hit an all-time high when I realized we’d have to give this as-yet-unknown caregiver a set of keys to our apartment. “It’ll be like having a house guest all the time,” I told G, my husband. “We need somebody that we’d feel comfortable having over every day. Someone who feels like a family member.”
“What we need is somebody who knows how to care for an infant,” he replied. “It may take us a while to feel comfortable with the arrangement.”
He was right, of course. But I felt like he was short-shrifting the interpersonal aspect of the hiring process. Which is to say, the chemistry—that elusive quality that makes all of us gravitate toward this person, rather than that one, as a friend, a lover, a business partner. I wanted our caregiver to have a loving, stable, intimate relationship with our son, and by extension, us too. I came to think of the setup as an arranged marriage. We were hiring an extra spouse. Our household’s third parent.
So then. The interviews, a.k.a. speed-dating. When I tried to stick to the how-to-screen-a-caregiver script—something G did easily—I felt phony and awkward. I couldn’t bring myself to probe these experienced, confident caregivers on how they’d handle childcare tasks at which I was vastly less experienced and less confident. I was much more comfortable asking about their families, their backgrounds, their hobbies. It made the screening process feel less impersonal.
A month went by, and I didn’t hire anybody. G reminded me about what he’d said earlier. “You might not click with her right off the bat, but you’ll warm up to each other,” he said. (There was never any question that our extra spouse would be a she; to date, I know exactly zero paid caregivers who are men.) His was sensible advice—after all, G and I hadn’t fallen head over heels when we met—but it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. What I wanted was to fall in love. To feel that immediate bond and sense of trust with this unimaginable person. I believed feeling this way was the only thing that would spare me from having panic attacks when I went back to work.
Finally, a week before my maternity leave was to end, I met A at our local park. It was a glorious late-summer day, less hot than it had been all season. As my son napped in his stroller, we chatted about our neighborhood (she’d grown up there and still lived nearby), her family (they were working-class immigrants, just like my grandparents), and her long-term goals (she was putting herself through college at night, was thinking about getting her teaching certificate). “Let’s set up a time for you to meet my husband,” I told her. What I told him that night: “I met The One.” He knew better than to question me.
More than a year later, A is still The One, and I can speak at length about the benefits of having a third adult in a household with two working parents. I never knew how true the cliche “it takes a village” was until I had a baby. Never mind the emotional intensity of child-rearing—the work is physically demanding and exhausting. The more able-bodied people you’ve got around to pitch in, the better. A is 15 years younger than my husband and me, which makes her a lot more suited for the stooping, lifting, and picking-up-of-crap that life with a little one entails. And our household runs more smoothly because there’s an extra set of hands to do things like laundry and cooking. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about how fortunate we are that we can afford her help.
Though I’ve described her as our extra spouse—certainly she plays the role of a traditional stay-at-home wife in our household—the way I feel about A more closely resembles the protective affection one has for a younger sister, or niece, or cousin. Despite her maturity and poise, she’s got the bling-covered cell phone case and flower-decaled manicure of a younger girl, traits I find endearing. I feel like I could be a role model to her; not that she should make the same choices as I’ve made, but that I have something to teach her about being a woman, a spouse, a mother, an employee, in ways that she hasn’t been exposed to yet. We pay her well, but I’ll never think it’s enough for the hugely undervalued work of raising a child, or for the peace of mind she gives me.
I used to think that since A and I act like comrades-in-arms with my son’s care and otherwise—we talk much more about our families and personal lives—my husband might feel left out of or disconnected from the relationship. I’ve come to realize he doesn’t value this connection nearly as much as I do. He likes her very much, but I think he’s relieved not to feel pressured to be close to her. That means he’s free to treat her like, well, our paid caregiver.
In general, G’s relationship with A is much more transactional. He’s more comfortable than I am asking her to run an errand or stay the occasional late night. On the other hand, I’m sure that if asked, A would describe me as her boss and G as the person who’s married to her boss. And if G happens to relieve her in the evening instead of me, he rarely inquires about our son’s day. When did he go down for his nap? I’ll ask him when I get home. “Um, at noon?” How long did he nap? “Um, an hour?” What did he eat? Did they go outside? No answers. G trusts her so much that he figures, why bother with the details?
Whereas, I’m all about those details. I’m firmly in the trust-but-verify camp—mostly so I can guide A’s caregiving, and so she can guide mine. She’s often the one who notices first when he’s teething, or outgrowing his clothes, or saying a new word. Though I wish I were around to make all these observations, I’m grateful for her attentiveness. And much to my surprise, I’m not at all envious of A’s unique relationship with my son. I’m just glad that he has an additional caring, loving adult in his daily life, aside from his father and me.
Which brings me to my present conundrum, which is, broadly speaking, this: Our extra spouse has worked out so well that I have a very hard time picturing our lives without her. It’s a little embarrassing to admit this. Though I’ve told people for months now that I’d prefer working part-time (which will require changing jobs), I feel guilty about the thought of taking full-time work away from A, and dread the idea of having to find a new caregiver, in case she’s unable or unwilling to get a second job to make up for the lost income. I’ve let my fear of losing her overwhelm my desire to move my life in a direction that better suits my needs.
But no matter what happens with my career, at some point I’ll have to face the music. Our son will go to school, and we won’t need a hired caregiver as much, if at all. Have I done him a disservice by bringing A into his life, only to have her leave at a time when he’ll recognize—and, I imagine, sorely miss—her absence? If we have to hire another caregiver, will he adjust to her as well as he has to A? Will G and I like her as much? It’s useless and self-defeating to worry about these questions, but I do anyway.
I look back at the time when my greatest anxiety was having a caregiver in our home all day. I now recognize this worry as a proxy for deeper concerns about the right balance of work and parenting for me, my marriage, our household. And I know now that, despite how wonderful A is, I really want to spend more time parenting if we can find a way to swing it financially. I’m not sure I’d have achieved this clarity if I’d never had her help, which affords me time to reflect on all this as I commute to work or eat my lunch. So even though I’m aiming for a change in our circumstances that might cause A to leave us, I’m finally ready to be OK with letting her go.
Deborah Glenn is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York.