This is a thank you note, of sorts. It’s a note I could only have written with the beautiful gift of hindsight and the wonderful humility of parenthood. A note to a woman who trusted me with her children.
When we lived in Oslo I was without a job, without children, and with so much time. With the get-up and go of an unemployed overachiever and some very random ‘babysitting’ experience, I took a chance and answered an ad for a family looking for an English-speaking au pair.
I met S for the interview and was immediately impressed: she was smart, chic, friendly and clearly had her shit together. Or as together as a successful career-driven woman with two children ages 1.5 and 2.5 can be. She was just enough older than me to seem much smarter and fancier and more interesting, but she was close enough to my age that I could picture us having a glass of wine together.
The test meeting with her beautiful children went really well, which I was thrilled about because this was essentially a performance review conducted by two toddlers who could not understand a word I was saying. I distinctly remember fretting over my hair before I arrived at their home, which I now realize is only a concern of a woman who doesn’t understand toddlers (yet). I was hired, much to my relief, and I now realize, much to S’s as well.
At the time I obviously knew that finding a carer for your children was not a task taken lightly. I knew any parent would be choosy and have standards for any person they would leave with their most prized possessions. But I also thought I’d be the kind of person any parent would be happy to have found for the job. I am well-educated, experienced with kids, outgoing, not a criminal, young enough to seem energetic but old enough to seem sensible. I like early bedtimes and having basic cooking skills. I am the opposite of a risk taker. Who wouldn’t choose me?!
Now, of course, I realize it was not that easy. Everything in the above paragraph is true. And the reason S hired me can probably be found in some combination of those described traits and plus the strength of her gut feeling combined with the pressure she was under to hire help quickly. At the end of the day, she still had to take a leap. A huge, terrifying, leap of faith to meet a total stranger and turn her, virtually overnight, into someone who comes into your home and cares for your precious babies. She’s a hero.
I genuinely enjoyed working with the children. They were happy and had active imaginations and good appetites and they seemed to like my singing. I learned some Swedish words for snack foods and some French words for cuddling and sleeping. I learned about toddlers, about their incredible openness and their insane volatility. I learned about their picky eating and their fear of showers. I knew so much about S’s children, E and N, and I grew to love them. I knew which items N couldn’t sleep without, I knew which rhyme could distract E enough for me to wash her hair. I knew which toy train would cause them to fight, I knew which hat E thought was too tight.
S never seemed terribly stressed to me. She seemed busy, but together. She seemed to really enjoy her career, the travel she did for her job, the parties she attended with coworkers. But she was also incredibly devoted to her children. They lit up around her. She lit even more brightly around them.
At the time being part of their world for 8 months seemed like such a nice snapshot into the life of a loving family (and it was), but now I can also see it was one of the most intimate things a woman could have ever shared with me. And I’m so grateful for that.
I tended to her children when they were feverish and she was stuck in the airport returning from work. I know now, from personal experience, how hard that moment must have been for her.
I took them to nursery school and coaxed them from tears when they didn’t want to stay.
I took them to the park on the first warm day of spring. I did things that she surely did with them 1 million times over, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some part of her wishing she could have done them every single time herself.
Even on her best day at the office or on a lovely evening out, I know now from my own experience, part of her heart was always back at the house with N and E. Part of her heart was always outside her body, and she that part of her heart to me and trusted me to care for it.
When I think of that now I am truly struck. What a privilege.
The time I spent with them taught me so much. About siblings in an age that I can’t myself remember. About the way kids can be flexible when moving between countries and languages. About the choices families make every day to balance financial responsibility and emotional stability and personal fulfillment.
We face those choices now with our own family. And it’s hard.
I want to be with my children and share in their day, but I also want to grow my business and experience external gratification. I want to manage my household and fulfill their desires and make the world keep spinning, and sometimes I need some help to do that.
Finding that help is difficult, because I’m asking a young woman, often much younger than myself, to take on the weight of my most precious cargo for a few hours at a time.
I’m asking a woman, who doesn’t have children and certainly should not be expected to understand what it is like if you do, to see my children the way I do, as awe-inspiring maniacs who deserve love and safety every minute of every day.
I’m trusting someone who isn’t me, and anyone who isn’t me is somewhat suspect. FACT.
I’m saying yes to the idea of having it all by not being it all.
I’m saying yes to the village, to the benefit of new faces and different hands, to the joy of someone who sings songs I don’t know and fixes boo-boos in another way and who has a laugh different than mine.
I’m opening, just a crack, the steel bars I keep around my children, around my heart, and letting a teenager come in for a while. It’s terrifying. And liberating.
Thank you, S, for trusting me then and teaching me now.