By Innocent Chia, first published in Dunia Magazine print – issue 4
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love-child affair has sent reverberations the world over not only because it happened right under the nose of wife Maria Shriver with a trusted maid of over 20 years, but also because the drama highlights a contemporary challenge for spouses – babysitting and housekeeping.
Far from the melodrama in Hollywood, almost every family with kids in America confronts the difficult choices of finding affordable childcare for the family. Within immigrant communities the challenge of affordability is often compounded by nostalgic cultural affinities.
The Excitement and Urgency
When a friend invited me, and many others, to a welcome dinner for his mother-in-law who had arrived earlier that week from Africa, I could sense a feeling of reprieve and jubilation in his voice. His wife, a Registered Nurse and main income earner for the family, had had a difficult pregnancy – mandatory bed rest barely 20 weeks into the pregnancy. She especially knew to take the orders of her Doctor seriously because at age 38 they had already been through one miscarriage and she was very much conscious of the fact that her biological clock was on speed dial. Anxieties had heightened when she went into labor and was rushed to the hospital for delivery at 37 weeks… Brianna came three weeks early, but was just the adorable princess that the parents had hoped to have in a daughter. There were some little issues that the hospital had to monitor before letting the parents take her home. Four days later , baby Brianna was cleared to be taken home.
The good news was however, celebrated with a tinge of anxiety because grandma’s arrival was two months away, a couple of weeks past maternity leave for the wife. Although there were assurances from management that her position was secure, those guarantees, however, were not putting bread on the table or buying diapers. She needed to go back to work as soon as possible.
But thank God, the weeks had flown by and grandma had finally arrived! My friend and his family were about to have a one-of-a kind ride.
Maternal or Paternal Relative?
Most families I talked to for this piece expressed that they preferred having a grandma around than a grand auntie or other distant relation. Over 80 percent of the families preferred having the child’s maternal grandmother and only about 15 percent were equally excited about having the husband’s mother taking up the babysitting responsibilities – supposing that both maternal and paternal grandmas were still alive.
To satisfy my curiosity I asked several couples why there was greater consensus at having the wife’s mother than the mother of the husband. At best the wives smiled and husbands just shrugged their shoulders. No one was willing to go on the record to talk about tensions that brew between mothers and their daughter-in-laws.
There was also an unwillingness in entertaining the thought that grandma may not always have the necessary skill set needed to babysit that infant or toddler. But there are several factors that explain why raising kids in most immigrant cultures, especially African, does not translate to an ability to effectively babysit in the alien, complex and fast paced American culture.
Breastfeeding is not Babysitting, is it?
Most immigrants, particularly Africans below the age of 40, are from two-income homes with emancipated and empowered mothers. It is a fact that working mothers in Africa have much help from the entire community, particularly relatives who travel months in advance from the village to wait for the arrival of the baby. More often than not, therefore, the mother’s primary function is to breastfeed the child. There is someone who bathes the baby, lulls the baby to sleep, plays with the baby, changes the diapers and performs other household chores. In some cases, there are as many hands to help as there are chores to do!
Indeed, the post-delivery role of the mother is to feed herself well in order to fill up her breasts, rest and feed the baby. This is repeated throughout her childbearing years from the first born to the Benjamin of the family. There is help each time she turns around.
Then on her retirement, at 50 or 60 years of age, the grown up kids in America and elsewhere invite her to come and “help” with the “grandchild”… We can imagine how totally unprepared most mothers are when they find themselves babysitting and doing all those things that they had to do for their own kids who now need her help and expertise – caretaker, teacher, mentor, friend, playmate, cook…etc, etc.
First and foremost, Mom is no longer in her prime. The sun is setting for her; she is easily fatigued and could be on fire from hot flashes! To compound it all, she is often left alone at home with the baby. When she is taken to parties and other social events, she mostly is seen carrying the baby around while Mom and Dad gallivant.
To add insult to injury, there is a limit on how many beers or alcoholic beverages she can have in the course of a day or at a social evening…because it can impair her ability to watch the baby. This is totally not what Grandma left her husband and friends to come do. She does not like it one bit, and is beginning to ask how soon it is before you book her return flight. Things are falling apart and tensions are beginning to rise at home between daughter and mother. The husband is trying to stay as far away from it as he can, yet the wife is finding every means to pull him in on her side. The mother-in-law too is hoping that the son-in-law can step up to the plate and be a manly man!
Mother-in-laws are also generally known to always have higher expectations of their sons-in-law, generally preferring to have a son-in-law who can afford more than their daughters can spend.
A friend recently cracked me up with the story of how first lady Michelle Obama’s mother called in the daughter one night at the White House for a tete-a-tete. Michelle got into the kitchen and the mother asked her to have a sit, which the daughter did. Then, without missing a beat, the mother asked Michelle whether Barrack was the best she could do. “I am really disappointed in you, Michelle…”
Other Family Relations or recommended help …
The best thing about having Mom help out with babysitting is that there is hardly ever any discussion about compensation. No amount of money Mom receives can be completely dissociated from what would normally be given to her if she needed assistance. This is not true when there is no Mom or Mom cannot make it and you have to either bring in another family relation or acquaintance.
A friend told me that two years ago he came back home to a horde of police vehicles with strobe lights. Of course his heart sunk and he thought the worst, although he had no clue what had happened. He pulled to a stop a couple of houses away from his house to calm down his fast heartbeat. When he finally walked towards the cops in the direction of his house he discovered that the action was taking place at the neighbor’s house. Sigh of relief…then of curiosity.
What had happened?
Later, he finally caught up with his neighbor; he was told that their son’s babysitter had dialed 911 and reported that she was imprisoned in this home, was underfed, locked out of the kitchen and banned from making phone calls except when the owners were present. The babysitter, recommended by the father-in-law, had flown in a couple of months earlier from Africa.
“What was she thinking?” everyone wondered. She probably did not believe that the police would be out so fast. She did not plan on getting quizzed by the police when they rang the door bell and she opened up. The officer asked her whether she was home alone. The answer was yes. They asked her whether she had placed the call. Another yes. The officers asked her to show them to the kitchen. She did. The officer noted there was no lock on refrigerator. He asked her to show them to the pantry. Again, she opened the pantry, and there was food, including bread and croissants…
The fact of it is that sometimes acquaintances and family come to your assistance with ulterior motives. They care less about the welfare of your kids or family. You are a stepping stone for them, a sponsor to their dreams out of the funk that is otherwise their day to day reality. Even before they make it to the dream land they are already plotting escape routes. It does not matter to them at what or whose expense they get their way.
In the best of cases the hosts have to be prepared to take up all kinds of additional family responsibilities here and back at home. Plan on paying any hospital bills for your baby sitter’s immediate family; plan on paying school fees for their kid(s); plan on hearing your friends and total strangers tell you what is happening in your home; plan on being told how to run your home…and plan on stepping out every now and then for a smoke or a drink to calm down your nerves!
Without some form or other of government assistance the cost of day care is pretty high and unaffordable to many parents in America. On the lower end of the scale, it ranges between $150 to $350 a week per child. This is potentially $600 to $1400 in savings if grandma or some other family relation from “home” beats the odds of obtaining a US VISA and is willing to travel the thousands of miles across the seas.
Day Care provides an outlet where your child socializes with peers who could become lifelong friends. But more than just a place for socialization, good Day Care centers actually have acceptable curriculums tailored for every age group. I can hardly think of parents who teach their toddlers sign language, except in homes where it is needed. Most parents are simply not equipped with the resources and or knowledge for such education.
Best of all, I have figured out that the culture here is pro-Day Care for another reason: Americans love to hold someone responsible / accountable. With a nanny at home who is a family relation or friend, it is so much more difficult to drag them to court.
All of this may not matter at the end of the day. Most parents are primarily concerned about the welfare of their children, hence there are those who would never take their kids to a Day Care Center for fear that they would get infections from other kids. And what sucks about this is that these Day Care centers call you to pick up your sick kid the moment they come down with anything that may have been contracted at the Center and they are only allowed to come back 24 to 48 hours after the symptoms are completely gone. Is it fair that the Day Care is paid to take care only of your healthy kid?
While another pro for Day Care might be the peace of mind for a wife in that hubby is safe from feasting his eyes on Nannies and housekeepers, the fact still remains that Grandma would be there in sickness and in health … she just has a touch that nobody else has. It is fair then to consult with her about her needs and feelings when making these important decisions.
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