Ask any working parent. Specifically a working mother. Happiness is having a wonderful day-care provider.
Unless she's too wonderful.
Then, a parent's guilt and insecurity can get in the way.
A "mother wants the best person for her child," says Toni Ungaretti, a Johns Hopkins University child development specialist. "At the same time they are terrified they will be too good and replace her in the child's affections. They're dealing with wanting the best and [being] afraid of the best at the same time."
Unfortunately for working parents, their children's care givers and the children, there's no societal blueprint for the complex relationships that must develop among them. Complicated issues of control, guilt and respect must be hashed out in bits and pieces between harried two-career families and care givers. Sometimes those issues are worked out, and long, rewarding relationships ensue. Other times, for a host of painful reasons, the parties involved can't work things out to anyone's satisfaction.
Building successful relationships is difficult at best. The care givers and families begin, of course, as strangers. But as they become entwined in the lives of the children, do day-care providers, sitters and nannies become friends, teammates, extended family, substitute mothers -- or do they remain strictly employees, hired to carry out parents' demands in their absence?
"If they respect each other and see each other as partners working for the common good of the child, and they understand the limitations of each other and can work with that," then a positive relationship can fall into place, Dr. Ungaretti says.
Often, however, "Parents don't value the provider and look down on the provider," Dr. Ungaretti says. They place the profession "on a lower level. I've had providers say to me that parents resented having to pay them, because they were 'just baby-sitting.' "
As an advocate for home day-care providers, Dr. Ungaretti has worked to professionalize their field, a prerequisite for respect from clients, she says.
Respect equals a fair wage, she stresses. "Our economy has been built on their labor. We're not paying them a fair wage for what they do," Dr. Ungaretti says.
Resolving the day-care dilemma is primarily a women's issue, she says. "Traditionally, occupations primarily staffed with women are underpaid and this fits in that category."
A professional relationship, bound by a contractual agreement, is not necessarily an impersonal relationship, especially when children are at stake.
"Hey, I need a teammate," says Iris Krasnow Anthony, a Washington mother of two young sons who is now expecting twin boys. She's just hired a new nanny and says she was looking for "someone I can talk shorthand to, who can pack a bag without my telling them, who knows when to diaper. . . . You don't want them to be your best friend. Respect is the word."
Lines of communication
Communication is key, says Ms. Anthony, a journalist who works at home. "If you let things brew, it's just like a marriage -- it erupts later."
For Cecilia D. Johnson, a Baltimore day-care provider and former president of the Family Childcare Providers Association of Baltimore City, a relationship with parents "develops because parents feel comfortable because their children are comfortable. is a collaboration. It has to be. The children must understand that at all times they have a mother and a father. During their time here with me, there are certain rules they have to obey [because] they are now part of a family here.
"If I don't get along with a client, I get rid of the child," Mrs. Johnson says. Ultimately, it is the children who bear the stress of problematic relationships, she says.
Over four years, Washington attorney Sarah Kagan's relationship with home day-care provider Martha Mechelis has evolved fortuitously into one of exchanged wisdom and dependence.
"When my daughter was 2 months old -- she was my first child -- I looked to her [ Ms. Mechelis] as a source of information," Ms. Kagan says. "A lot of times I take my cues from her more than she does from me. She knows everything about raising children. It's a partnership. I feel like we share the responsibilities of raising the children."
Her daughters benefit from her confidence in Mrs. Mechelis, Ms. Kagan says. "If you're comfortable with the person, then your kid will be. It's pretty simple criteria."
For Mrs. Mechelis, Ms. Kagan and her husband represent the best kind of clients. They are not "wishy-washy" and insecure about their decision to work and have children, she says, and they trust her implicitly. And though she must ensure that Zoe and Dory eat only kosher, vegetarian food, it is a labor of love for Mrs. Mechelis, who has four of her own children as well as other day-care charges.
"When the parents are nice, then nothing is hard for me," Mrs. Mechelis says.