In the 21 years I have been a mother, I have employed five babysitters for my three boys. Our first babysitter broke her shoulder in our Brooklyn apartment and threatened to sue us. Our second babysitter was rushed by my husband to the hospital for emergency gallbladder surgery after we came home to find her lying on the floor. Our third babysitter got married, got divorced, got pregnant. Our fourth babysitter got pregnant too. Actually, each of our first four babysitters got pregnant while caring for our children. Is that because our Wild Kingdom--esque, chaotic, testosterone-filled household made family life look so ... appealing? Regardless, it seemed like some kind of weird human-resources record.
Until Renata, that is. Renata didn't get pregnant. Or have emergency surgery or even almost sue us. But she did change the way I think about family and parenting and what "good enough" actually means.
Hiring someone else to take care of your children feels, on good days, like a beautiful act of faith and, on bad days, like every single thing in your life is broken. When Hillary Clinton announced that quality, affordable child care is part of her platform, I thought, Well, finally! Any working parent knows that nothing--and I mean nothing--affects her state of mind like the state of her child care. Why do you think the Obamas had Grandma move into the White House?
When my children were small, I read a magazine article about good-enough parenting. It wasn't so much an article as it was a gigantic permission slip: I nearly had it tattooed across my forehead. For years, it gave me permission to believe that imperfect and perfect child rearing were not that far apart in terms of outcome. That absent some spectacular parenting or babysitting failure, my sons would turn out O.K.
I'm extremely lucky that I'm able to afford a babysitter who comes to my house to take care of my kids. It's a luxury many working parents cannot afford. This setup does not eliminate the worry, however, or complications, both logistical and emotional. In my experience, a relationship with a caregiver is a constant seesaw between worship and resentment, with gratitude as the fulcrum. In each case, I worshipped my babysitter because she did what I couldn't while I was at work: pour cereal, supervise cello practice, play Boggle. I resented her because part of me believed I should have been playing Boggle rather than sitting in a work meeting, and dumb little things like the fact that she left the cello in the car at the end of the day made me quietly enraged, not because I cared where the cello spent the night but because she was not me and I was not there, and the combination of guilt and loss of control made me feel like both the angriest and the pettiest person in the world.
I had to remind myself: A cello is just a cello. Good enough is good enough. And that meant I stayed detached, because a film of resentment was always there, a force field between my heart and my babysitter.
But then came Renata. Over the years, friends would say of their caregivers, "She is just like family!" I'd nod in response, but inside I'd think, a) Don't lie to me, and b) I must be 75% robot. Because I had never, ever felt that way: our babysitter was always Other. Not part of our Wild Kingdom pack. But while my heart wasn't paying attention, Renata became just like family. Was it because she once rescued my anxious, sleepless son from a sleepover at 2 a.m. because I had turned off my phone and he could only reach her? Or made me a surprise cake with sliced strawberries on top that spelled out Happy Birthday Kristin? Or brought my husband a sandwich every day after his ACL surgery, knowing it was impossible for him to simultaneously manage crutches and lunch?
No. The reason the resentment force field dissolved and gratitude turned to love was that Renata--who arrived five years ago, when my youngest was 4--was so much more than good enough. She was like my sister: funny, kind, interesting, occasionally bossy, consistently reliable and always, always on our side. Which might explain why, before Renata left us recently, my stoic mother sent me an email that said, "When I think about Renata leaving, I feel like I'm going to cry."
Finally, Renata was a better babysitter than I am a parent. I will always miss her, and I will miss the way I used to think. Because now I know that when it comes to parenting and babysitters and children and love, good enough is good enough. But extraordinary will change your family forever.
Van Ogtrop is the editor of Real Simple