My husband pointed to the band of broken blood vessels on my shoulder.
“Lifting too much weight at the gym?”
“No, that’s from carrying groceries while holding the baby.”
Since we had our son a year ago, a majority of the work has fallen on my shoulders. Before I got pregnant, we agreed that, because I had a flexible work schedule as a writer and taught at the university on weekends, I’d be a work-at-home mom, eliminating the need for babysitters.
Besides, I came highly recommended from three different families.
Until I was four months pregnant, I had been a nanny for seven years. With my help, other parents could work, attend PTA meetings, get haircuts, go on date nights and rest when they were sick. I thought I’d seen it all. There was the time when the two-year-old had an accident at the diner on the long communal bench and her urine trailed its way toward the folks sitting next to her. Or that time when her small palm found its way onto the canvas of a Degas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a nanny, I took great pride in thriving under pressure. An accident became a bathroom adventure to change into our “next costume.” A lesson on not touching paintings morphed into a game of how many ballerinas we could point out in the gallery. When I forgot to take the stroller to the library and a certain someone didn’t want to walk home in a blizzard, I transformed into a train car zipping down the snowy streets with a toddler on my caboose.
I figured mothering would be easier than nannying—after all, I’d be the one making the decisions and the rules. What I’d yet to realize was that, when I was getting paid to do housework and negotiate tantrums, I had a ready and renewable source of patience. When my back ached from carrying a toddler who refused to walk, I got to go home, sit on my kid-free couch and watch television with a beer or, better yet, meet my friends for happy hour. I had time to miss the kids I’d grown to love in the hours we were separated. Each morning, after a fully undisturbed night’s sleep, I was ready for whatever and wherever the day brought us. My life was evenly compartmentalized into caring for kids, going to school, writing, teaching and having a full social calendar. I soon learned that there were no such compartments in parenthood.
In a way, my time as a nanny was a teaser trailer for motherhood—a tough day was randomly scattered between so many fun, rewarding ones. I had the experience but never the full responsibility of child care, which created a false sense of confidence when we brought our son home from the hospital. When I was the mom without outside help, I resented spending all my hours catering to a tiny human who lacked the language (but not the lung capacity) to communicate what he wanted. While I was constantly busy with a newborn, I was also lonely, exhausted, hopelessly bored and missing an income for tasks I still did in surplus.
As a nanny, I felt appreciated in the profuse thanks that parents showered on me after a night out and in the way that the kids ran and cheered “Samantha’s here” each time I came over. On the motherhood side, no one was waiting behind the door to pat my back after a long day of attending to infant cries and scrubbing explosive diarrhea from Baby Gap jeans. No one was funding my tolerance for 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. wake-ups each morning. If my son chose to skip his nap that day, I couldn’t work, clean or eat a meal that wasn’t hummus and crackers.
But then, somewhere between the swap from infant to toddler clothes, our son’s need for me became a want for me, too. It began with a succession of calls for “mama” whenever he was upset and graduated to kisses for me each morning. After one long day of teething, I poured myself a drink. Out of nowhere, my 12-month-old shouted “Cheers” and raised his sippy cup with a grin beside me in his highchair. His personality shone through when I scolded the dog for jumping on the couch. “No, Da-Did,” my son said, looking back at me for praise. It didn’t matter that no one else in the world knew that “No, David” was the line from his favourite book we read at bedtime because, as his mother, I understood, and that was all that mattered to him. When I’m having a particularly rough day now, I ask him what the train says—his favourite—and his sweet, high-pitched “choo-choo” can turn it all around.
More and more, I find myself leaning on those skills that worked with the other kids to get my son through grocery shopping, long car rides and days stuck indoors. It’s in those moments—the ones made possible only by spending day in and day out together—that I value the gift of what that work brings.
After a long year in which we hired just one babysitter for three hours, my husband and I decided to take a four-night trip out of the country to celebrate our 30th birthdays. It was the first time we had left our son away from home with family. He was spoiled with quality grandparent time, and we stood at the foot of a geyser, walked behind waterfalls, scaled a glacier and watched the northern lights form in the night sky. While I was away from my son, I felt a deeper appreciation for being able to wipe my own ass—and my ass only. But when I got him back in my arms, I marvelled over how much he grew and how different he seemed in our short time apart. I have never missed someone more.
Parenting is an immense sacrifice, whether you’re home or hiring help, but it’s also a unique privilege to watch your child grow with part of your heart beating in his chest. I was there to celebrate the milestones of the children I minded, but nothing beats the look on your own kid’s face when he spots you across the room. Perhaps the most meaningful part of my babysitting tenure was realizing that allowing your child the opportunity to be cared for by others only expands his village. It took becoming a mom for me to truly understand that you’re not cheating your kid by needing help with child care; you’re inviting more love and support into their lives. I feel empowered when I do it all on my own, but I’ve learned that it’s not such a bad thing to ask for help, especially with the heavy lifting.