I am, like many parents, ambivalent about day care. It was a non-negotiable for us — having chosen lives of service means our paychecks are much too small for one of us not to work. I love my career and was totally unprepared for how much I would not want to return to it. Olive is full of surprises, the most shocking of all for me being that she is consistently wonderful to be around and hard to leave. Watching her get cuter by the day is fun, but also produced an interesting fear in my heart. “She’s too cute. Someone is going to steal her when the nanny takes her and the other girl she watches to the park.” I started dressing Olive in sort of ugly cast-off clothes on the days she was going to day care. Truth be told, we have a wonderful nanny and a great share-care situation with another family. And when I thought back on my childhood experience with day care, I see how remarkable it really is.
My parents also chose lives of service and had small paychecks. Therefore they had very little extra cash for childcare. It seems our day care situation was constantly changing, and there were very few babysitters that I enjoyed being with. I complained, loudly and consistently, about some of them, but somehow those were the ones that stuck around the longest. My most-coveted babysitter, Laura, starting sitting for my sister and I when she was 12 and I was just a baby, so she was more like an older sister and watching us could only be a part-time job for her. She would bake cookies with us, invite over her fabulous friends who dressed straight out of Madonna videos, and build forts out of couch cushions. We became very close with her and are still in touch with her and her family to this day.
So that was the good. But the rest? Almost hilarious in how bad they were. I was discussing this with my mom last year and mentioned one of our earliest nannies, Maureen. “I liked her, but she always seemed so sad,” I told my mom. “Oh, yes, she was very sweet. She had just gotten out of the Institute of Living and no one would hire her. She loved you kids.” Wait wait wait, back up. “The Institute of LIVING? The mental institution?!” “Yes, she was severely depressed. Lovely woman, though.” This baffles me to this day. I love mentally ill folks, I work with them for a living, I give them a lot of credit. I may hire a person straight out of a mental institution to cut my lawn, clean my house, walk my (non-existant) dog. But watch my children? Um, no. This was a theme in the people my parents would hire — they felt best about hiring someone if they were also doing that person a favor. We constantly had folks who were “trying to get back on their feet” from some addiction, breakdown, or run in with the law helping us out. They may come back and steal our car radio or show up having fallen off the wagon and scare the bejesus out of us, but that was all a part of being in a community of recovery. I both totally respect this in my parents and am still a little shocked by it.
Another charity-case-cum-childcare-worker was Zaiga Kibbens, the 40 year old Latvian woman who lived across the street from us in an old-folks home with her mother. Her appearance was totally jarring and wildly embarrassing when we had to be seen with her — she had stringy black hair, droopy bloodhound eyes on a round, wart-riddled face, and was invariably clad in double polyester. Basically, to a child, she looked like the illustrations of Baba Yaga in the Fairy Tale books. She was decidedly No Fun and I hated her in the way only a child truly can hate someone — I had very little compassion for her and would often run upstairs to get away from her, since she was also grossly overweight and it took her a very long time to climb stairs. She had a creepy crush on my father, which both of my parents just thought was hilarious and she would stay after her shift to chat with him whenever he would let her. She smelled like hard boiled eggs and had a low, stratchy voice that I once immortalized in one of the songs we’d make up while waiting for the schoolbus, “I hear a bus a-rumbing, or is it Zaiga grumbling?” Her only redemption was that she brought us Archie comics, which were definitely a bribe but they worked. I remember once she made fun of my sister and I was simply not having that shit. I kicked her as hard as my scrawny legs could, straight in her shins, and then I ran away from her howls and climbed a tree. I was in monumental trouble, but looking back, I’m still sort of pissed about that. She made fun of my sister! Not cool. If an adult is cruel to Olive I hope she has someone to stick up for her, too. Obviously kicking her was not the best solution but no one fucks with my sister.
My favorite Zaiga story, hands-down, is a bit of an epilogue. Zaiga and her mother eventually moved away, and by then thank God we were old enough to watch ourselves after school and didn’t get any more bizarre childcare situations. Anyway, Zaiga’s mother died, and she called to let us know. She asked my father if she should send a picture, and, when giving him the option of in the coffin or out, my dad, ever the joker, said “oh, in the coffin, of course.” He seriously thought she was kidding. Zaiga never had much of a sense of humor, and sure enough, a few days later we had a picture of her dead mother in the mailbox. My dad thought it was so hilarious that he posted it on the fridge, where it stayed for quite some time. It’s gallows humor, I know, but it still makes me laugh.
I’m glad my last post was all about how loved I felt as a child, so you can see that I really don’t feel scarred for life by any of this. It’s just one piece of a rather quirky upbringing that has made me into a resiliant and multi-faceted person today. But I’m not one of those people who says “I ate lead paint chips and my parents let me play on roofs and I am FINE today, repost if your parents left you in a burning house and you are awesome now.” If Olive says she doesn’t like a babysitter, that’s their last day on the job. And I need to make her a sibling at some point, so she has someone to weather the storm with, and kick a few shins if need be.