The author with her family. (Photo: Louise Gleeson)
When I found out I was pregnant with our fourth baby in seven years, I was quite sure I had it figured out. The kids were seven, five and three. It wasn’t perfect, but I was good at juggling the needs of our family, while my husband worked long hours so I could be home with the kids.
Then I went into pre-term labour at twenty-six weeks, and was placed on restricted bed rest and then modified bed rest. My husband did what any reasonable and responsible parent would do: He told me I needed help.
I can still remember how I bristled at his words. I wasn’t the kind of parent who needed someone to help me in my own home—hadn’t I proven that? As a stay-at-home mom, a nanny felt indulgent.
A mother’s helper, he said. Someone to do the heavy lifting around the house and get to know our kids and their routines, so I had backup care. There was a concern I’d go into labour again. He reminded me that two days a week, he worked three hours away from home, and that both sets of grandparents lived out of town. I shrugged, overwhelmed by guilt at the cost.
Or at least that’s what I told myself.
In truth, I wasn't uncomfortable about the money. I was struggling with my preconceived ideas about parents who get extra help with child care. I worried what people would think, and I felt like a stay-at-home fraud.
Eventually, I realized how scary it was for my husband to leave me on my own every day, and I let him convince me.
Our mother’s helper, Tina, would come a few afternoons a week to tackle the laundry, tidy the house, feed my preschooler her lunch, walk her to school, and start dinner before she picked all the kids up again and packed the school lunches for the following day. I tried to rest and hang out with the kids while she was there. I could see that she was making an effort to get to know them, and I felt her genuine concern for my wellbeing.
Just before dawn one morning, when I was 36 weeks pregnant, my water broke. The baby was coming a month early, the pregnancy was high-risk, and we needed to get to the hospital right away.
We called Tina.
She came—on her day off—without hesitation, to be with our kids. I got through my labour and delivery without worrying about them. And my sister, who came to relieve Tina later that day, told me she walked into our house to see her throwing the kids a dance party.
You’re lucky to have her, she said.
When we were released from the hospital a week later, during a ferocious snowstorm, we were advised by the hospital doctor to protect our premature baby from the cold weather and any germs at the extra-curricular activities our older kids attended.
You’re going to need to get some help, she told us.
Tina stayed with us a while longer. She continued to come two afternoons a week and an extra day here and there to keep up the routines that had been in place before our daughter was born.
But she also did a lot more. In the weeks following our daughter’s birth, she would climb the stairs to my room to assure me she had everything under control. She would cluck and fuss over both of us and remind me to get rest and skin-to-skin time. The baby’s laundry was folded and neatly stacked beside the bassinet each week. And because I was setting an alarm every two hours so I could pump breast milk to give our five-and-a-half pound newborn extra calories (on top of the frequent nursing sessions), Tina made sure there was a steady supply of clean bottles and snacks ready for me. She lavished attention on the other kids and threw many more dance parties in our family room.
Each time I looked at her face, as she gently pulled my door closed after checking on me, I would see the shine of tears in her eyes.
One afternoon, she was unable to keep the tears from falling and I asked her why she was crying. “You are so lucky to have this time with your baby,” she whispered, as she watched me nursing her. “I am happy to help you.” She’d had family support when she had her own daughter, and she reminisced about how much it had helped her.
It was my turn to let the tears fall. I held my new baby to my chest, and I thought about the many gifts Tina had given me. When she was there, I was able to focus completely on my baby—a baby I knew would be our last. I had time to notice the tiny details and enjoy the quiet moments that I would never experience again.
And when my husband returned from work, exhausted, he had time to play with the older kids, hold our newborn, and catch up on sleep. Tina helped with school projects, baked birthday cakes, and eventually cared for the baby at home while I headed out in winter weather to get the kids to their activities.
I learned to understand my limits and to ask for help without guilt. I was more patient with my older kids and kinder to my husband, and we were all able to enjoy our last baby because of it. Tina gave me those gifts.
The weather eventually got warmer and the baby got stronger. When Tina saw that I was back on my feet and juggling everything with ease again, she was the one who told me it was time for her to go.
In the short time she was part of our family, she taught me that parents thrive when they are supported. Some of us need it more than others, whether by circumstance or by personality, and that’s OK. The first time I proudly posted a photo of Tina with my kids on social media, I knew I had finally moved past the shame and guilt.
I now believe that this is how we are meant to raise children—with the support of our extended family, our community or, yes, even a nanny.
Both my sister and Tina had been right: I was so lucky.