Our Slipshod Past

When a president-elect is putting together his new cabinet, I always think of Zoe Baird.  She was Bill Clinton’s nominee for attorney general in 1993, one of those unfortunates who went down because of hiring illegal aliens and not paying their social security taxes.  After that, a number of other nominees for other positions — most of them women — bit the political dust for similar reasons.  Naturally, it was called Nannygate.

I don’t want to defend people who hire illegal aliens and cheat on their taxes, but I do think the whole brouhaha ignored the reality of working couples’ lives.  If you and your spouse both work, as my husband and I did, you spend much of your lives patching together makeshift plans for your kids’ care.  We were fortunate enough to have excellent daycare for our two children — but that didn’t address what happens when they go to school and need after-school care.  Or the holidays that seemed to pop up constantly on school schedules but not on our work schedules.  Or the long, hot summers.

We used neighborhood babysitters.  Babysitters found through agencies.  We advertised, we interviewed, we went quietly and desperately nuts.  With this kind of hysteria going on, it wouldn’t be surprising if you ended up with an occasional illegal person.  As long as the babysitter wasn’t a serial killer or a drug dealer, who cared about smaller legal niceties, especially when you were panting to get out the door, already late for your job?  (Why was it that most of my supervisors didn’t have kids and hadn’t the slightest comprehension for how hard it was to keep body and soul together?  Or that women of my era were loath to ever mention how precarious this kind of juggling was?  You kept your home life and your office life separate.  Kvetching about kids was the surest track to being marginalized at work.)

And occasionally getting out on the weekends — it was a nightmare.  I can still remember our desire to go somewhere one night, calling everybody we knew or were willing to meet on short notice.  My husband ended up talking to a answering machine owned by a graduate student, trying to force her to pick up the phone.  “I know you’re there, Rhonda!” he screamed.  “Answer!”  Desperation yields bad behavior like that.  

It all turned out well for us — and I know we were lucky.  These days, when I walk down the street, I realize something else: Half the world is populated by our former babysitters.  We run into them all the time, hear from them by email.  “Remember me?  I was your daughter’s nanny,” a young woman told my husband a couple of years ago.  Since we never called anybody a nanny, that was kind of startling, but I’m sure she was right.  We vaguely remembered her from one of those summers in the 80s, but her hair color had changed in the meantime.

With this kind of slipshod past, no wonder no one’s been in touch with my husband or me about assuming an important position in the Obama administration.  I couldn’t pick out half our old babysitters in a police lineup — much less tell you their citizenship status.  I bet that kind of non-answer would go over like gangbusters these days.  If they call, I plan to just say no.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

5 comments… add one
  • As yes, I remember it well — the constant hassle to find trustworthy babysitters. And don’t forget the ever-present guilt — guilt at leaving your child with someone who was feeding him “mystery meat” (I still don’t know what the hell that was!); guilt at the fact that he was walking the quarter mile from school to sitter’s house on his own; guilt over the quality time with him that you were missing — it just went on and on. Those were not the good old days.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Amen.  That I don’t miss at all.  Also: why are women the ones who feel guilty?

  • I lived for many years with the childcare problem.  There are 2 interesting questions here.  One is the whole business about “vetting” candidates for high office.  It’s not really about getting the best person for the job.  It’s about avoiding any possible embarrassment for the people doing the appointing.  The other is the question of childcare for working mothers.  Although I was always on a tight budget when I was working (a Ph.D. isn’t worth much money) at least I could afford reasonably good child care.  But that isn’t true for large numbers of poor and near poor women.  This is not talked about much anymore, but good childcare is a huge economic and social problem.  It affects not only the hard working mother, but also the growth and development of the kids.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I agree.  It’s time we faced this child-care problem, instead of assuming everyone has options for good care and can afford it.  Other countries — like France, for example — are far ahead of the US on this.

  • We’ve all had our share of babysitter agony;  I can recall times we’d do anything to get a decent sitter or daycare lined up.  We were so young and dumb that we left our five-year-old daughter with sitters and daycare centers where I would never, now, leave our five-year-old granddaughter. Because now I’m way more paranoid.

    I  also seem to remember there was the time you joined the local Methodist church (the same one George and Laura Bush belonged to, come to think of it) just so you could enroll your kids in their daycare program.  Desperate times call for desperate measures!

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