When my sister and I were in elementary school, my parents were in way over their heads when it came to juggling all their responsibilities. They met, married, and had kids at a pretty young age relative to their peers. My mom was still finishing up her doctorate from Harvard and to this end had temporarily bowed out of the workforce—rarely was she not sitting in front of her gigantic Gateway mainframe typing away. Meanwhile, my dad was working all hours to support us financially. When it came to finding a babysitter, they were in a tight squeeze, in terms of both money and time. Which is why, when they met Angela, I guess they didn’t notice the warning signs.
At first, my sister and I were fooled as well. Angela was a mother of two, had a warm, bubbly personality and, as a first generation Italian immigrant, more than knew her way around the kitchen. To this day I look back fondly upon those first few months, when she would make us homemade rainbow cookies from scratch and take us on would-be field trips to the park where we’d run rampant with the other kids.
Not too long after we’d gotten settled into our afterschool routine, however, “stuff” hit the fan. At the time I didn’t really process what was going on, though I’ve come to realize Angela was having pretty serious domestic issues. In order to make ends meet she took on far more charges than she could handle—the ten or more of us essentially put on a clown car act unloading from her minivan every afternoon. To say it was an unhealthy environment would be generous. Her two sons, who were both mid-adolescence and dealing with their parents’ disintegrating relationship and financial troubles, were basically put in charge of taking care of us older kids, and you can imagine how much they respected that power. I distinctly remember the time Angela fed some of the younger kids the dinner my parents had packed for us and instead gave us spaghetti with butter, possibly the most vile concoction I’ve ever had the misfortune of eating.
By this time she’d already established a rapport with my parents, who knew how desperately she needed their business and also, I suspect, wanted to see the best in her due to her hourly rates. My sister and I were conscious of what a bind they were in, so we minimized the issue, gritted our teeth and bared it. At least we had each other to commiserate with and form an alliance against Angela’s sons. When my sister hit her tweens, though, our code of silence snapped—we put our foot down and demanded independence, and my horrified parents caved pretty easily. On the bright side, I credit my thick skin, self-sufficiency and obsessive budgeting skills to my time both at Angela’s and subsequently as a latchkey kid. Plus, four years later, the experience made for great college essay writing material.
All in all, kids are a lot more resilient than you may think. If you’re struggling to balance being the best parent, employee and partner, you’re not alone. It’s okay if some things slip through the cracks—even some relatively big things. Not that I’d recommend taking the process of selecting a caregiver for your kiddos lightly. At all.